Israeli attack in Syria kills 7 people, including 3 Iranian commanders

At least three senior commanders and four officers overseeing Iran's covert operations in the Middle East were killed Monday when Israeli warplanes struck a building in Damascus that is part of the Iranian embassy compound, according to Iranian and Syrian officials.

The attack on Damascus, the Syrian capital, appears to be among the deadliest attacks in a years-long shadow war between Israel and Iran that has included the assassination of Iranian military leaders and nuclear scientists.

That secret war has become public as tensions between the countries have escalated over Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip against Hamas, the Iran-backed militia that led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Four Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters, confirmed that Israel was behind the attack in Damascus but denied that the building had diplomatic status.

But the Syrian ambassador to Iran, Shafiq Dayoub, said the attack targeted a diplomatic building and represented a “clear and complete violation of all international conventions and norms.”

Video circulated on social media after the strike showed a destroyed building next to the embassy photos it featured an entrance gate with a sign identifying it as a consular section. The embassy said about X that the building housed a consular section and the ambassador's residence.

Footage broadcast by Iranian and Syrian news agencies showed a ruined building, burned cars, shattered glass and debris on the ground.

The victims included Gen. Mohamad Reza Zahedi, 65, who oversaw Iran's covert military operations in Syria and Lebanon, two other generals and four Quds Force officers, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in a statement.

Ali Vaez, Iran director of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent wars, said that targeting a diplomatic facility would be “like targeting Iran on its own soil.”

Israeli officials said the building was a Revolutionary Guards outpost, making it a legitimate military target.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian strongly condemned the attack and said he had spoken with his Syrian counterpart about “the Zionist regime's attack on the consular section of the embassy of the Islamic Republic in Damascus.”

“Netanyahu lost his mental balance because he faced consecutive defeats in Gaza and did not achieve the ambitious goals of the Zionists,” Amir Abdollahian said in a statement, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Washington, officials expressed fears that the attack could escalate hostilities in the region. After the attack, American troops based in southern Syria shot down a one-way attack drone, a U.S. Department of Defense official said Monday evening.

It was the first attack against American troops in Iraq or Syria in nearly two months. No injuries or damage were reported, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The attack in Damascus came as Israeli soldiers withdrew from Gaza's largest hospital complex, Al-Shifa, leaving it badly battered after a two-week raid in which the Israeli army said it killed around 200 Palestinian militants and of arresting hundreds of others after extensive firefights.

Dr. Taysir al-Tanna, a longtime vascular surgeon at the Gaza City hospital, said many of the main buildings – including the emergency, obstetrics and surgical departments – were badly damaged in the fighting and the main gate was been destroyed.

“Now it looks like a wasteland,” Dr al-Tanna said.

Osama al-Ashi, a Gaza resident who went to the area to check on his apartment after hearing that the Israeli army had retreated, said he was immediately struck by the stench of rotting bodies and saw mountains of rubble and burned buildings.

“The whole time we were walking,” he said, “we were stepping on body parts.”

Mr al-Ashi said many of the dead appeared to have been hit by gunfire. Others, he said, appear to have been unearthed when Israeli forces demolished temporary cemeteries on hospital grounds. Many buildings around the hospital were destroyed by bombs, missiles and tank shells, he said.

“The scenes were difficult to tolerate as a human being,” he said. “You feel like you're in a horror movie.”

The Israeli military said the Palestinians killed were militants and that those arrested were suspected militants, including some believed to be senior commanders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Two Israeli soldiers were said to have been killed and eight others injured in the raid.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel's military spokesman, blamed the militants for the hospital's destruction, saying they had fortified themselves in hospital wards, fired on soldiers and rejected calls to surrender.

“We had to shoot at the buildings to stop this and kill the terrorists,” he said.

Israeli forces evacuated displaced civilians sheltering in the compound, as well as some patients, and placed other patients in a building away from the fighting, Admiral Hagari said.

The World Health Organization said Sunday that at least 21 patients have died since the Israeli raid began in mid-March, although the causes of death are unclear. By this weekend, 107 patients – 30 of them bedridden – were left without drinking water and with only minimal medications, Gaza's Health Ministry said in a statement.

Israeli forces first raided Al-Shifa in November, claiming that Hamas militants had built a command center in the tunnels below. Hamas and the hospital director said the facility was being used exclusively as a shelter for civilians.

The Israeli army later publicized some evidence to support its thesis, including showing journalists a fortified tunnel built under the hospital area. A New York Times investigation found that evidence suggested Hamas had used the site as a cover and stored weapons there.

After just over a week, Israeli troops withdrew in accordance with a brief ceasefire. But after fighting resumed, Israeli forces closed the hospital again in March in an attempt to eradicate what they said was a renewed insurgency by armed groups in northern Gaza.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad have begun to rebuild in the north,” Admiral Hagari said. “And they have reestablished themselves within Shifa.”

Hamas called the destruction of the hospital “a horrible crime” and said Israel perpetrated it “with the full and unstinted support of US President Biden's administration.”

In a visit to Al-Shifa on Saturday, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, Israel's military chief of staff, declared the raid “extremely successful” and said it had demonstrated to militant groups that “a hospital is not a safe place.” for them. .

Israeli officials and a member of the Revolutionary Guards, which oversee the Quds Force, said the attack in Damascus on Monday targeted a meeting where Iranian intelligence officials and Palestinian militants were due to discuss the war in Gaza. Among them were leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group armed and financed by Iran.

The Syrian Defense Ministry said the Israeli attack occurred around 5pm local time, when fighter jets entered Syria from the Golan Heights.

The attack came days after airstrikes killed soldiers near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Syrian state media and an independent organization said, in what appeared to be one of the heaviest Israeli strikes in the country for years.

Friday's attacks killed 36 Syrian soldiers, seven Hezbollah fighters and one Syrian from a pro-Iranian militia, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that tracks Syria's civil war.

The Israeli military did not comment after those attacks, but its defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said: “We will pursue Hezbollah in every place where it operates, and we will increase the pressure and pace of attacks.” He promised further operations in Lebanon, Syria and “other more distant locations”.

The US Department of Defense official did not say who was behind the drone attack Monday on the Al Tanf base in southern Syria. Iran-backed militias have fired rockets, missiles and drones at U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria more than 170 times since November, but none since early February.

Three U.S. service members were killed in Jordan, and at least 34 others wounded, in a drone attack on Jan. 28 by an Iranian-backed militia, the first known American military casualties from hostile fire in the unrest that erupted from Israel's war with Hamas.

Reporting contribution was provided by Abu Bakr Bashir, Hwaida Saad, Arijeta Lajka, Riley Mellen, Cassandra Vinograd AND Eric Schmitt.

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