Who was the Iranian military commander killed in the Damascus strike?

Analysis Who was the Iranian military commander killed in the Damascus strike?
Gen. Mohammed Zahedi. (X)
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Updated 03 April 2024
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Who was the Iranian military commander killed in the Damascus strike?

Who was the Iranian military commander killed in the Damascus strike?
  • Mohammad Reza Zahedi is the highest-ranking Iranian military commander to be killed since Qassem Soleimani’s elimination in 2020
  • Fears grow of an open Israel-Iran confrontation, with Syria and Lebanon as the possible main battlegrounds

LONDON: Born on Nov. 2, 1960, in Isfahan, central Iran, Mohammad Reza Zahedi was a contemporary and close friend of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the 62-year-old commander of the Quds Force, who was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 3, 2020.

Soleimani had enrolled in what was then the newly formed Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, better known as the IRGC, in 1979, at the age of 22. Zahedi joined the IRGC the following year, when he was 20, at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War.

Both men rose to prominence in the ranks of the special-operations Quds Force over the ensuing eight years of the conflict.




Emergency and security personnel inspect the rubble at the site of strikes which hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus. (AFP)

It was Soleimani who appointed Zahedi commander of the Quds Force Lebanon Corps in 1998, a position he held until 2002, and to which he was reappointed in 2008. He was responsible for organizing support for the regime of President Bashar Assad during the Syrian civil war, and overseeing shipments of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah via Syria.

Like Soleimani before him, on Monday night Zahedi met his end in a sudden and devastating missile attack, with no warning of his imminent demise. He was 63.

According to the IRGC, seven of its personnel, including Zahedi and three other senior officers, died alongside six Syrians in the attack on Monday, which targeted a military building next to the Iranian embassy in Damascus.

The three officers were named as Saeed Izadi, head of the Palestinian Division of the Quds Force in Beirut, Abdolreza Shahlai, commander of IRGC operations in Yemen, and Abdolreza Mosjedzadeh, who oversaw Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Israel has refused to comment on the strike, even to confirm it was involved. The Iranian Embassy said that F-35 planes fired six missiles at the building. Later, The New York Times, citing unnamed Israeli officials who confirmed Israel carried out the attack, described the incident as “a major escalation of what has long been a simmering, undeclared war between Israel and Iran.”

In photographs distributed by the Reuters news agency shortly after the attack, the Iranian embassy — on the fence of which a large poster of Soleimani could be seen hanging — appears relatively undamaged. The building next door had been reduced to a smoking pile of rubble.

Reaction to the attack was rapid. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, who visited the site soon after, said: “We strongly condemn this atrocious terrorist attack that … killed a number of innocents.”

Iran’s mission to the UN condemned it as a “flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter, international law, and the foundational principle of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises,” and said Tehran reserved the right “to take a decisive response.”

Hossein Akbari, Iran’s ambassador to Syria, was unharmed in the attack. He told Iranian state TV that about seven people, including diplomats, had been killed and that Tehran’s response would be “harsh.”

Irani’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, also vowed to retaliate, saying “this crime will not pass without the enemy receiving punishment and revenge.”

There is a long history of embassies being attacked by enemies, but usually such assaults involve mobs of people or terrorist groups. In 1983, for example, 64 people lost their lives in a suicide-bomb attack on the US Embassy in Beirut carried out by a pro-Iranian group, and in 1998, 223 people died in simultaneous Al-Qaeda truck-bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

It is highly unusual, however, for one state to attack the diplomatic premises or personnel of another and so the strike, not surprisingly, was condemned by nations including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar and Russia.

America did not condemn the attack outright but a State Department spokesperson said Washington was “concerned about anything that would be escalatory or cause an increase in conflict in the region.”




Iranians attend an anti-Israel protest at Palestine square in Tehran. (AFP)

It was also quick to issue a statement claiming that “the United States had no involvement in the strike and we did not know about it ahead of time,” while also stressing that the US “communicated this directly to Iran.”

The regime in Tehran appeared to be unconvinced by this, however. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said a Swiss diplomat representing US interests had been summoned by Tehran.

“An important message was sent to the American government, as a supporter of the Zionist regime,” Amir-Abdollahian said in a message posted on social media platform X. “America must give answers.”

The day after the attack, Israeli news media quoted Hezi Simantov, a well-connected Israeli correspondent and commentator on Arab affairs, who predicted that Iran was now “laying the groundwork to strike at Israeli diplomatic representations worldwide, in the Arab world, Europe or the United States or South America.”

The death of Zahedi, he added, “is a severe and painful blow to the Iranian regime, a matter in which the Iranians are more inclined to take revenge against Israel. We have already eliminated several of their senior officials since Oct. 7 on Syrian soil. This is the period when Iran wants to show that it is leading the Axis of Resistance.”




A Russian forces commander visits the governor of Damascus on Monday. Two expressive pictures. (X)

On Tuesday, Iranian state TV reported that the country’s Supreme National Security Council, chaired by the president, Ebrahim Raisi, had decided on a “required” response to the Israeli strike. No further details were given.

Zahedi was the third senior IRGC leader killed since the outbreak of the war in Gaza. His death is the most significant loss suffered by the Quds Force since the assassination of Soleimani four years ago and, before that, the death of Hossein Hamedani in October 2015.

At the time of his death, in an attack by Daesh in Aleppo, Hamedani was the most senior Iranian officer killed overseas since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In December, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, the IRGC logistics chief in Syria, who was responsible for coordinating the military alliance between Syria and Iran, died in a presumed Israeli missile strike on the outskirts of Damascus.

In January, Hujatollah Amidvar, an intelligence operative for the IRGC in Syria, was killed by an airstrike on a compound west of Damascus.

According to the Iranian Mehr News Agency, Zahedi held a series of significant roles within the IRGC. During the Iran-Iraq War, from 1983 to 1988 he commanded the 44th Qamar Bani Hashim Brigade, before going on to lead the 14th Imam Hussein Division between 1988 and 1991.

By 2005, he had become the IRGC’s head of ground forces, a post he held until 2008, and from 2007 until 2015 he was commander of the Syrian and Lebanese branch of the Quds Force, operating in Lebanon under aliases including Hassan Mahdavi and Reza Mahdavi.




Hezbollah fighters carry the coffin of commander Ahmed Shehimi, who was killed in an Israeli raid in Syria early on March 29, during his funeral procession in southern Beirut. (AFP)

Zahedi became the target of US sanctions in 2010, when the Department of the Treasury included him on a list of four senior members of the IRGC and Quds Force sanctioned “for their roles in the IRGC-QF’s support of terrorism.”

Described in a Treasury statement on Aug. 3, 2010, as “the commander of the IRGC-QF in Lebanon,” Zahedi was accused of playing “a key role in Iran’s support to Hezbollah.” He “also acted as a liaison to Hezbollah and Syrian intelligence services and is reportedly charged with guaranteeing weapons shipments to Hezbollah.”

The Quds Force has been active in Syria since 2011, when officers were deployed in an advisory role to support the regime of Assad, an ally of Iran, in the wake of the Arab Spring protests and uprisings in the region.

But, as the Council on Foreign Relations later reported, “as the discontent turned to civil war, the Quds Force served not just as military advisers but also on the front lines, fighting alongside Syrian regime forces, Lebanese Hezbollah militants, and Afghan refugees serving in IRGC proxy militias.”




Emergency and security personnel clear damaged cars and rubble at the site of strikes which hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus. (AFP)

It remains to be established beyond doubt whether or not Iran or its Quds Force was involved in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel led by Hamas last year. IRGC officials “may have directly authorized Hamas’s assault and assisted in planning it, though Hamas and the IRGC have insisted that the Palestinian group acted independently,” the Council on Foreign Relations said.

It added that at the very least, Tehran “was likely aware of an impending attack that it had facilitated through decades of support for the Palestinian fighters.”

Either way, it added, “in the ensuing Israel-Hamas conflict, the IRGC has provided arms and other assistance to help its partners in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to attack Israeli targets in solidarity with Hamas.”

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UN warns of new flashpoint in Sudan’s Darfur region

UN warns of new flashpoint in Sudan’s Darfur region
Updated 53 min 50 sec ago
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UN warns of new flashpoint in Sudan’s Darfur region

UN warns of new flashpoint in Sudan’s Darfur region

United Nations, US: Senior UN officials warned the Security Council on Friday of the risks of a new front opening in Sudan, around the town of el-Fasher in Darfur, where the population is already on the brink of starvation.
After a year of war between the armed forces (SAF) of General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (FSR), under the command of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the country is experiencing “a crisis of epic proportions... wholly man-made,” denounced Rosemary DiCarlo, UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs.
“The warring parties have ignored repeated calls to cease their hostilities... Instead, they have stepped up preparations for further fighting, with both the SAF and the RSF continuing their campaigns to recruit civilians,” DiCarlo said.
In particular, she voiced concern at reports of a possible “imminent” attack by the RSF on el-Fasher, the only capital of the five Darfur states it does not control, “raising the specter of a new front in the conflict.”
El-Fasher acts as a humanitarian hub for Darfur, which is home to around a quarter of Sudan’s 48 million inhabitants.
Until recently, the town had been relatively unaffected by the fighting, hosting a large number of refugees. But since mid-April, bombardments and clashes have been reported in the surrounding villages.
“Since then, there have been continuing reports of clashes in the eastern and northern parts of the city, resulting in more than 36,000 people displaced,” said Edem Wosornu, a director at for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, noting that Doctors Without Borders has treated more than 100 casualties in el-Facher in recent days.
“The total number of civilian casualties is likely much higher.”
“The violence poses an extreme and immediate danger to the 800,000 civilians who reside in el-Fasher. And it risks triggering further violence in other parts of Darfur,” she warned.
DiCarlo added that fighting in el-Fasher “could unleash bloody intercommunal strife throughout Darfur” and further hamper the distribution of humanitarian aid in a region “already on the brink of famine.”
The region was already ravaged more than 20 years ago by the scorched-earth policy carried out by the Janjaweed — Arab militiamen who have since joined the RSF — for then-president Omar Al-Bashir.
The new conflict in Sudan, which began on April 15, 2023, has already claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 8.5 million people, according to the UN.


US says UN World Food Program has agreed to help in distribution of aid to Gaza via sea route

US says UN World Food Program has agreed to help in distribution of aid to Gaza via sea route
Updated 20 April 2024
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US says UN World Food Program has agreed to help in distribution of aid to Gaza via sea route

US says UN World Food Program has agreed to help in distribution of aid to Gaza via sea route
  • US officials say they were working with WFP on how to deliver the aid to Palestinian civilians “in an independent, neutral, and impartial manner”
  • The NGO group World Central Kitchen stopped its aid distribution work after an Israeli attack killed seven aid workers on April 1

WASHINGTON: The UN World Food Program has agreed to help deliver aid for the starving civilians of Gaza once the US military completes a pier for transporting the humanitarian assistance by sea, US officials said Friday.

The involvement of the UN agency could help resolve one of the major obstacles facing the US-planned project — the reluctance of aid groups to handle on-the-ground distribution of food and other badly needed goods in Gaza absent significant changes by Israel.
An Israeli military attack April 1 that killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen intensified international criticism of Israel for failing to provide security for humanitarian workers or allow adequate amounts of aid across its land borders.
President Joe Biden, himself facing criticism over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while supporting Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, announced March 8 that the US military would build the temporary pier and causeway, as an alternative to the land routes.
The US Agency for International Development confirmed to The Associated Press that it would partner with the WFP on delivering humanitarian assistance to Gaza via the maritime corridor.
“This is a complex operation that requires coordination between many partners, and our conversations are ongoing. Throughout Gaza, the safety and security of humanitarian actors is critical to the delivery of assistance, and we continue to advocate for measures that will give humanitarians greater assurances,” USAID said in its statement to the AP.
US and WFP officials were working on how to deliver the aid to Palestinian civilians “in an independent, neutral, and impartial manner,” the agency said.
There was no immediate comment from the WFP, and an WFP spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
Israel promised to open more border crossings into Gaza and increase the flow of aid after its drone strikes killed the seven aid workers, who were delivering food into the Palestinian territory.

The war was sparked when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking some 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive in Gaza, aimed at destroying Hamas, has caused widespread devastation and killed over 33,800 people, according to local health officials. Hundreds of UN and other humanitarian workers are among those killed by Israeli strikes.
International officials say famine is imminent in northern Gaza, where 70 percent of people are experiencing catastrophic hunger.
The US military will be constructing what’s known as a modular causeway as part of the maritime route, in hopes that handling the inspection and processing of the aid offshore will speed the distribution to Gaza’s people.
Offshore, the Army will build a large floating platform where ships can unload pallets of aid. Then the aid will be transferred by Army boats to a motorized string of steel pier or causeway sections that will be anchored to the shore.
Several Army vessels and Miliary Sealift Command ships are already in the Mediterranean Sea, and are working to prepare and build the platform and pier.
That pier is expected to be as much as 1,800 feet (550 meters) long, with two lanes, and the Pentagon has said it could accommodate the delivery of more than 2 million meals a day for Gaza residents.
Army Col. Sam Miller, commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade, which is in charge of building the pier, said about 500 of his soldiers will participate in the mission. All together, Pentagon officials have said about 1,000 US troops will be involved.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters this week that the US in on track to have the system in place by the end of the month or early May. The actual construction of the pier had been on hold as US and international officials hammered out agreements for the collection and distribution of the aid.
He said the US has been making progress, and that Israel has agreed to provide security on the shore. The White House has made clear that there will be no US troops on the ground in Gaza, so while they will be constructing elements of the pier they will not transport aid onto the shore.
US Navy ships and the Army vessels will provide security for US forces building the pier.


Hamas chief Haniyeh arrives in Turkiye for talks

Hamas chief Haniyeh arrives in Turkiye for talks
Updated 20 April 2024
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Hamas chief Haniyeh arrives in Turkiye for talks

Hamas chief Haniyeh arrives in Turkiye for talks
  • Fidan said he spoke with Haniyeh, who lives in Qatar, about how Hamas — designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union — “must clearly express its expectations, especially about a two-state solution”

ISTANBUL: A leader of Palestinian militant group Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, arrived in Istanbul Friday evening for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the death toll in Gaza passed 34,000.
A statement from Hamas Friday said Erdogan and Haniyeh would discuss the conflict in Gaza, adding that the head of the group’s political bureau was accompanied by a delegation.
Middle East tensions are at a high after Israel’s reported attack on Iran and Gaza bracing for a new Israeli offensive.
Erdogan insisted on Wednesday that he would continue “to defend the Palestinian struggle and to be the voice of the oppressed Palestinian people.”
But talking to journalists on Friday, he refused to be drawn on the details on the meeting.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan was in Qatar Wednesday and said he spent three hours with Haniyeh and his aides for “a wide exchange of views in particular about negotiations for a ceasefire.”
Qatar, a mediator between Israel and Hamas, acknowledged Wednesday that negotiations to end hostilities in Gaza and liberate hostages were “stalling.”
Fidan said he spoke with Haniyeh, who lives in Qatar, about how Hamas — designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union — “must clearly express its expectations, especially about a two-state solution.”
Erdogan’s last meeting with Haniyeh was in July 2023 when Erdogan hosted him and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at the presidential palace in Ankara. Haniyeh had last met Fidan in Turkiye on January 2.
The war in Gaza started after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 people, mainly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.
Militants also took about 250 hostages. Israel says around 129 are believed to be held in Gaza, including 34 presumed dead.
Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed at least 34,012 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.
 

 


Huge blast at military base used by Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, sources say

Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces advance towards the city of Tal Afar, Iraq. (AFP file photo)
Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces advance towards the city of Tal Afar, Iraq. (AFP file photo)
Updated 20 April 2024
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Huge blast at military base used by Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, sources say

Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces advance towards the city of Tal Afar, Iraq. (AFP file photo)
  • PMF sources said the strikes targeted a headquarters of the PMF at the Kalso military base near the town of Iskandariya around 50 km south of Baghdad

BAGHDAD: A huge blast rocked a military base used by Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to the south of Baghdad late on Friday, two PMF and two security sources told Reuters.
The two security sources said the blast was a result of an unknown airstrike, which happened around midnight Friday.
The two PMF sources pointed out the strikes did not lead to casualties but caused material damage.
PMF sources said the strikes targeted a headquarters of the PMF at the Kalso military base near the town of Iskandariya around 50 km south of Baghdad.
Government officials did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The PMF started out as a grouping of armed factions, many close to Iran, that was later recognized as a formal security force by Iraqi authorities.
Factions within the PMF took part in months of rocket and drone attacks on US forces in Iraq amid Israel’s Gaza campaign but ceased to do so in February.

 


Leaders of Jordan and Pakistan call UAE president to express concern about effects of severe storm

Leaders of Jordan and Pakistan call UAE president to express concern about effects of severe storm
Updated 19 April 2024
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Leaders of Jordan and Pakistan call UAE president to express concern about effects of severe storm

Leaders of Jordan and Pakistan call UAE president to express concern about effects of severe storm
  • Leaders passed on their best wishes to the country as it recovers from the storms

DUBAI: The president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, received telephone calls from King Abdullah of Jordan and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Friday, during which they expressed concern about the effects of the severe weather, including unusually heavy rainfall, that battered parts of the country this week.

They also passed on their best wishes to the country as it recovers from the storms and “conveyed their heartfelt hopes for the safety and prosperity of the UAE and its people, praying for their protection from any harm,” the Emirates News Agency reported.

Sheikh Mohammed thanked both leaders for their warm sentiments, and emphasized the strong bonds between the UAE and their nations.

The UAE and neighboring Oman were hit by unprecedented rainfall and flooding on Tuesday, with more than 250 millimeters of rain falling in parts of the Emirates, considerably more than is normally seen in a year. Dubai International Airport was forced to close temporarily when runways were flooded.