Who killed Iran’s IRGC operative Sayyed Reza Mousavi in Syria, and why?

Analysis Who killed Iran’s IRGC operative Sayyed Reza Mousavi in Syria, and why?
Sayyed Reza Mousavi died in an Israeli missile strike in Sayyida Zeinab, a town in southern Damascus. (Tasnim News/AFP file)
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Updated 27 December 2023
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Who killed Iran’s IRGC operative Sayyed Reza Mousavi in Syria, and why?

Who killed Iran’s IRGC operative Sayyed Reza Mousavi in Syria, and why?
  • Slain Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander oversaw Iran’s extensive network of militias in Syria and the wider Levant
  • Israel has refused to confirm or deny its role, as is common in the case of strikes against Iran-related targets attributed to it

IRBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan/JEDDAH: A senior member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps paramilitary died in Syria on Monday in possibly the most consequential targeted killing the region has seen since the “shadow commander” Qassem Soleimani was eliminated by an American drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020.

Iran’s state-run media described Sayyed Reza Mousavi as “one of the oldest advisers of the IRGC in Syria” and close with Soleimani, who headed the IRGC’s Quds Force, which plots Tehran’s extraterritorial operations throughout the Middle East, arming and funding numerous proxy militias that do Iran’s bidding against its enemies.

“I would call Mousavi the second Qassem Soleimani. He knew everybody, had good contacts with people on the ground, militias and heads of groups,” Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami, founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah) in Riyadh, told Arab News.

He said Mousavi had “more knowledge of the realities on the ground” in Syria than anyone else, including his boss and current Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani, who Al-Sulami said is more knowledgeable about other countries and regions such as Afghanistan and Central Asia than about Syria and the Middle East.




Sayyed Reza Mousavi, left, with Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in Baghdad in January 2020 by the US. (Tasnim News/AFP file)

“When it came to Middle East, it was Qassem Soleimani and Reza Mousavi, the second Qassem Soleimani,” he said. “Therefore, it is a very big loss for Iran and a big success for those who are trying to minimize the presence of militias in Syria.”

Iran’s ambassador to Syria said that Mousavi had been working in the Iranian embassy in an official capacity as a diplomat and died in an Israeli missile strike in Sayyida Zeinab, a town in southern Damascus.

IRGC media in Iran said Mousavi had the rank of brigadier general. He had reportedly lived in Syria for 30 years and had an office at the Syrian Ministry of Defense.

Israel has refused to either confirm or deny its role in the killing, as is common in the case of strikes against Iran-related targets in Syria attributed to it.

Al-Sulami is not surprised that a country or spy agency was able to get its hands on the intelligence it needed for the high-profile elimination.

“I think intelligence agencies in countries like the UK, the US and, more importantly, Israel know very well the significance of such people in Syria, even though these individuals try to be very quiet and keep a low profile,” he said.

“Most of the world’s intelligence services have their own sources on the ground. There is no secrecy in Syria, and Mousavi has been there for at least 30 years. He had been active there in coordination with the IRGC and militias like Fatemiyoun and Zainebiyoun, from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and groups coming from other countries.”




Israel has launched thousands of intermittent airstrikes against targets throughout Syria since 2013. (AFP/File)

Mousavi would undoubtedly have been a tempting target for Israel since he reportedly began organizing the transfer of arms and funds to Iran’s militia proxies in Syria along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has amassed a large missile arsenal in the years since Israel fought its last large-scale war with it in 2006.

“It has been evident for some time that Israel has seriously compromised the IRGC’s international spy-terrorist apparatus — and, indeed, has very good access within Iran itself,” independent Middle East analyst Kyle Orton told Arab News.

“The error in the Israeli policy has been in racking up these tactical victories.”

While Israel focused on thwarting IRGC plots regionally and worldwide, the IRGC continued “its strategic advance, knitting together its regional empire, stretching contiguously across the northern Middle East.”

Israel has launched thousands of intermittent airstrikes against targets throughout Syria since 2013 as part of its “war between the wars” campaign with Iran, itself part of a larger shadow war between those two enemies.

WHO WAS SAYYED REZA MOUSAVI?

• Was a commander, senior adviser of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

• Coordinated military relations between Syria and Iran.

• Lived in Syria for 30 years, kept office in Syrian Defense Ministry.

• Responsible for transferring funds from Iran to Syria and for Hezbollah salaries.

• Killed on Dec. 25 in neighborhood frequented by pro-Iranian militias in Damascus.

That air campaign aimed to prevent Iran and its militias from transferring sophisticated air defenses and surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah via Syria, an effort in which Mousavi is widely reported to have played a key role.

“The elimination of Reza Mousavi, if carried out by Israel, would be an important departure for a country that has generally targeted the IRGC’s physical infrastructure in Syria and avoided targeting personnel,” Orton said.

He said the “flaw” in the previous Israeli strategy was the speed at which IRGC bases could be rebuilt after these strikes, leading to the need for repeated strikes against the very same targets.




Israel has conducted airstrikes in Syria as part of its “war between the wars” campaign with Iran. (AFP/File)

Meanwhile, the IRGC continued the “crucial work” of “embedding Iran’s influence” in the region through the tending and expansion of human networks with a combination of “military training and ideological indoctrination.”

Similar to the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, Al-Sulami of Rasanah believes the loss of Mousavi will result in greater fragmentation of the Iran-backed groups in Syria in the near future. However, he is doubtful there will be a major escalation between Iran and Israel anytime soon.

“I think both Iran and Israel are following the same strategy, which is indirect confrontations,” he said.

“Israel is attacking Iran in Syria and other places but they avoid conducting direct military operations inside Iran to avoid any escalations. For Iran, it’s the same. They try to attack Israelis in Cyprus, Greece, and other countries. That will continue for maybe years to come.”




Mousavi died in an Israeli missile strike in Sayyida Zeinab, a town in southern Damascus. (AFP/File)

Orton is doubtful that Mousavi’s elimination will singlehandedly “have much impact” on Iran’s control in Syria.

“The Iranians have been applying the Islamic Revolution’s model to Syria at a very high-intensity for more than a decade and, as Mousavi’s personal history attests, the program has been ongoing for much longer than that,” he said.

“If Mousavi’s killing is not a one-off, however, and Israel has switched to a policy of targeting senior IRGC personnel in Syria, over time this can have a cumulative impact in destabilizing the Iranian project in that country.”

Such a policy change could result in the IRGC deciding to fire missiles from Yemen and possibly Lebanon.

The Iran-backed Houthis have already escalated attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and fired at US warships there. The US has also directly accused Iran of responsibility for an attack on Saturday on a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean, which saw a one-way attack drone hit the vessel 200 nautical miles from the Indian coast, far from the Red Sea.




That air campaign aims to prevent the transfer of sophisticated air defenses and surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah via Syria. (AFP/File)

Orton, too, is skeptical of a major escalation that goes beyond these tit-for-tat incidents, noting that Israeli intelligence has “badly infiltrated” the IRGC networks, making it unlikely the powerful paramilitary could “manage a ‘spectacular’ response.”

He recalled how Iran had “very publicly committed itself” to avenging the 2020 killing of Soleimani in such a fashion. Iran initially responded to his death by firing ballistic missiles at an Iraqi airbase hosting American troops, leaving several American soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.

Incidentally, US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan came under attack on Monday by an explosive-laden militia drone shortly after Mousavi’s killing. The attack injured three soldiers, leaving one reportedly in critical condition.

The US launched retaliatory airstrikes against militias in Iraq in a move that inevitably increased the risk of escalation in that volatile country — and possibly beyond.


US and Turkiye target Daesh-linked smuggling network

Updated 9 sec ago
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US and Turkiye target Daesh-linked smuggling network

US and Turkiye target Daesh-linked smuggling network
The sanctions target three supporters of a human smuggling gang linked to the group
The men were based in countries including Uzbekistan and Georgia

WASHINGTON: The United States slapped sanctions Friday on four individuals with ties to the Daesh group following an investigation with Turkiye, the Treasury Department said.
The sanctions target three supporters of a human smuggling gang linked to the group, and one individual involved in establishing an Daesh militant training camp, the US Treasury said a statement.
The men were based in countries including Uzbekistan and Georgia, and least one individual supported Daesh members in Turkiye, according to the Treasury.
The coordinated action with Turkiye “demonstrates our continued commitment to the defense of the homeland against all terrorist threats, including Daesh,” US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Brin Nelson said in a statement.
Turkiye, which is a close US military partner and a NATO ally, is taking its own action against the Daesh-linked network, the Treasury Department said.

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah
Updated 26 min 58 sec ago
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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah
  • The group did not release the names of those said to have been killed
  • The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins”

CAIRO: Hamas’ armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.
The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.
The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the Al-Qassam Brigades statement said.
Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s Al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.
The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel has responded with a military assault on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israel says its campaign is intended to eliminate Hamas as a threat and free the remaining hostages.


Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel

Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel
Updated 14 June 2024
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Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel

Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel
  • Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam allowed to submit evidence in case brought by Al-Haq, Global Legal Action Network
  • UK has issued 100 new arms licenses to Israel since start of war in Gaza that has killed over 35,000 Palestinians

LONDON: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam will be able to provide evidence to a High Court judicial review of UK arms sales to Israel.
The decision, made by a judge on Thursday, will see the three prominent groups submit testimony to the review launched by Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq and the Global Legal Action Network.
The case is expected to be heard in October, with UK government lawyers having previously sought to block HRW and Amnesty from submitting evidence.
It comes after it was revealed that the UK government has issued over 100 new arms export licenses for Israel since Oct. 7.
UK Department for Business and Trade data also showed that no licenses have been revoked in that period, during which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza.
The UK government is legally obligated to suspend licenses if it is found that exported weapons could be used to break international law, which numerous organizations, including GLAN and Al-Haq, say has already happened.
HRW and Amnesty had requested that they be allowed to participate in the review as they are “better placed in terms of capacity and resources” than GLAN and Al-Haq to contribute evidence due to “several decades” of experience in the field.
Amnesty International UK’s CEO Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement: “This is a very welcome decision and we look forward to presenting our evidence to the court. We’ve always believed it was vital that the court has the fullest opportunity to review expert human rights evidence from ourselves and Human Rights Watch.
“Our evidence demonstrates the gap between the Israeli military and political leadership’s policies and practices and their legal obligations, and shows how this gap has resulted in Israeli forces repeatedly committing grave breaches of international humanitarian law.
“The UK’s continued sale of components for equipment such as US-made F-35 jets despite the clear risk that these could be used by Israel in the commission of serious violations of international law is making a mockery of the UK’s own arms export rules and needs to be stopped as a matter of urgency.”
HRW’s UK director, Yasmine Ahmed, said in a statement: “We welcome the court’s decision to allow Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to intervene with key evidence in this critical case.
“In the face of Israel’s ongoing crimes in Gaza, the UK government presents the nonsensical argument that it is lawful to continue sending arms to Israel on the basis that Israel is committed to complying with international law. Our evidence shows the exact opposite.
“Time and again, Israel’s official statements, policies and practice are in direct contradiction with international law and the results are clear to see: children in Gaza are dying of starvation and starvation-related illnesses.
“It is critical that the Government’s justification for arming Israel is properly scrutinized by the UK courts.
“The law is very clear: licenses should be suspended when there is a clear risk that arms and military equipment might be used to facilitate or commit serious violations of international law.
“As Israel continues to carry out widespread serious violations, including war crimes, the UK should immediately suspend arms licenses to avoid breaching its own laws and being complicit in these grave abuses.
“While this decision is of course welcome, it is a sorry state of affairs that the case even needed to be brought. We shouldn’t have to drag ministers in front of judges to have them comply with their own laws.”
Oxfam CEO Halima Begum said in a statement: “Oxfam has been systematically prevented from getting life-saving aid into the enclave, and our staff and partners face a constant threat to their lives while trying to sustain basic humanitarian operations.”
The UK government has said its licenses are kept under “careful and continual review.”


Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz

Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz
Updated 14 June 2024
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Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz

Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz
  • The polls showed Likud winning 21 seats behind the National Unity Party on 24
  • Both polls showed a majority of voters would prefer Gantz as prime minister in a head-to-head choice with Netanyahu

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party has reduced the gap behind the centrist party of former minister Benny Gantz, who quit the wartime unity government on Sunday, two polls showed on Friday.
The polls, for the left wing Ma’ariv daily and the right wing Israel Hayom newspaper, showed Likud winning 21 seats behind the National Unity Party on 24. The Ma’ariv poll last week showed Gantz’s party on 27 seats, while at the start of the year, it was regularly polling in the high 30s.
The Ma’ariv poll shows the current ruling coalition winning 52 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, against 58 for the main opposition parties, with the balance of 10 seats held by the United Arab List and the left-wing Hadash-Ta’al alliance.
The Israel Hayom poll put the coalition on 50 seats against 61 for the opposition parties and 9 for the UAL and Hadash-Ta’al.
Both polls showed a majority of voters would prefer Gantz as prime minister in a head-to-head choice with Netanyahu. However, the Israel Hayom poll showed that if former prime minister Naftali Bennett were to join forces with Avigdor Liberman and Gideon Saar, two other center right politicians from outside the Likud camp, their alliance could beat both Likud and Gantz’s National Unity Party.
Gantz, a former army general and defense minister in the last government, joined Netanyahu’s coalition last year as a gesture of national unity following the devastating attack by Hamas on Oct 7.
However, he clashed repeatedly with other ministers and quit the government after demanding Netanyahu articulate a clear strategic plan for the war in Gaza, now in its ninth month.
Netanyahu, who was widely blamed for the security failures that allowed the Oct. 7 attack to take place, has refused to call early elections and would not normally face voters until 2026 if his coalition with a clutch of religious and right wing pro-settler parties holds.


Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander

Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander
Updated 7 min 25 sec ago
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Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander

Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander
  • Gibril was a leading commander for the RSF in Al-Fashir

KHARTOUM: Sudan’s army said on Friday it had killed Ali Yagoub Gibril, a senior commander for the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who was under US sanctions, during a battle in the besieged north Darfur city of Al-Fashir.
There was no immediate comment from the RSF.
Gibril was a leading commander for the RSF in Al-Fashir, the last major city in the Darfur region of Sudan that the paramilitary force does not control.
The army said in a statement Yacoub was killed as an RSF attack was thwarted early on Friday by its troops and allied “joint forces” fighting alongside it — a reference to non-Arab former rebel groups from Darfur that are aligned with the army.
The RSF has been besieging Al-Fashir, a city of 1.8 million people, for weeks and top UN officials have warned that the worsening conflict there could trigger widespread intercommunal violence.
The UN Security Council called on Thursday for a halt to the siege.
War between the army and the RSF erupted over conditions for a transition to democracy in mid-April last year in the capital Khartoum, soon spreading to other parts of the country.
The conflict has led to the world’s largest displacement crisis, renewed ethnic violence in Darfur blamed on the RSF and its allies, and a sharp increase in extreme hunger.