Iran and Hizbullah vow to retaliate over Damascus consulate attack

President Ebrahim Raisi says strike in Syrian capital will ‘not go unpunished’

Iran and Hizbullah on Tuesday vowed to retaliate after a suspected Israeli air strike on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus killed seven Revolutionary Guard officers, including two ranking commanders.

Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi said the strike in the Syrian capital late on Monday would “not go unpunished”, as the country’s national security council met over the attack and hit out at what it called “Israel’s latest war crime against a foreign mission with diplomatic immunity”.

Hizbullah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia that has traded near-daily missile strikes with Israel, blamed Israel for the “assassination” of the Guard officers and promised “punishment and revenge”.

The strike, which was also condemned by UN secretary general António Guterres, marked a significant escalation in the hostilities that have engulfed the region since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7th. Iranian officials have made clear they do not want a direct conflict with Israel and its ally the US but analysts said the attack on the diplomatic mission could force Tehran’s hand, heightening fears of a broader conflagration.

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Israel, which rarely confirms or denies strikes against targets linked to Iran, has not commented on the attack, which came the same day as an Israeli strike on an aid convoy in Gaza killed seven international humanitarian workers with World Central Kitchen.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran would make Israel “regret having committed this crime and others”.

Foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said the strike showed Israel had become desperate after “defeats versus the Axis of Resistance”, referring to the network of militant groups across the region that includes Hamas, Hizbullah and Yemen’s Houthis.

“[Israeli prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu has totally lost his mental balance due to consecutive defeats in Gaza and an inability to fulfil Zionist ambitions,” he said.

The war between Israel and Hamas has triggered intensifying hostilities across the region. As well as Hizbullah’s clashes with Israel, Houthi rebels in Yemen have attacked merchant ships in the Red Sea and Iran-supported militants have fired missiles and drones against US forces in Iraq and Syria.

Yet Tehran has also sought to ease tensions with Washington, following a drone attack on a US military base on the Jordanian-Syrian border in January that killed three soldiers. Attacks against US installations in Iraq and Syria have largely stopped since.

Senior US and Iranian officials have held indirect talks and both sides have attempted to de-escalate the hostilities.

The US has also led diplomatic talks between Israel and Lebanon in an attempt to prevent the clashes on their shared border from spiralling into a full-blown war. But there are fears that Monday’s strike could undermine those efforts.

Ali Shamkhani, a senior adviser to the supreme leader, posted on X that Israel had acted “as the US proxy army in the region, committed stupidity with its attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and will have to pay the price”.

“Whether or not Washington was informed of Israel’s plans will not change the fact that the US holds direct responsibility for this crime and its consequences,” Shamkhani wrote.

Brig Gen Mohammad-Reza Zahedi, the Guard commander killed in Monday’s strike, has played an increasingly important role in the organisation since its commander Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by the US in 2020, according to two people with knowledge of Tehran’s network of proxies in the region.

Brig Gen Zahedi helped “develop and advance” the work of the resistance in Lebanon for many years, a statement by Hizbullah said. “He shared our concerns and responsibilities for a long time.”

Several leading members of the Guard have been killed in suspected Israeli air strikes in Syria since the start of the war against Hamas in October.

Israel has struck hundreds of targets linked to Tehran and its proxies across Syria in recent years, ever since Iran deployed troops to bolster Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during the country’s civil war.

Israel has long worried that the presence of Iranian forces and fighters from Hizbullah in Syria could enable its foes to establish a new front against the Jewish state. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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