By Alberte Aji And Bassem Mroue, The Associated Press on January 20, 2024.
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – An Israeli strike on the Syrian capital on Saturday destroyed a building used by the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, killing a commander and one of his deputies, Syrian state media and an Iranian media outlet reported.
Iran’s Student News Network, a hard-line outlet close to the Guard’s all-volunteer Basij branch, said the men were members of the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force.
An opposition war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least five people were killed in the missile attack that struck while officials from Iran-backed groups were holding a meeting.
Syrian state TV reported that the “Israeli aggression” targeted a residential building in the tightly guarded western Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh, home to several diplomatic missions. Saturday’s strike was close to the embassies of Venezuela and South Africa.
An official with knowledge of the situation said that the building was used by Revolutionary Guard officials, adding that the “Israeli missiles” destroyed the whole building and that 10 people were either killed or wounded in the attack. The official is from an Iran-backed group, but asked that his name and affiliation not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly about security affairs.
Security forces deployed around the destroyed four-story building as ambulances and fire engines were seen in the area. A search for people trapped under the rubble was underway. Windows were also shattered in nearby buildings.
A grocer near the scene of the strike said he heard five consecutive explosions at about 10:15 a.m., adding that he later witnessed the bodies of a man and a woman being taken away as well as three wounded people.
“The shop shook. I stayed inside for few seconds then went out and saw the smoke billowing from behind the mosque,” the man, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, told The Associated Press.
The strike came amid widening tensions in the region as Israel pushes ahead with its offensive in Gaza. Israel’s assault there, one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history, has killed nearly 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities, caused widespread destruction and uprooted over 80% of the territory’s 2.3 million people from their homes.
Israel launched the offensive after an unprecedented cross-border attack into Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people and took some 250 others hostage. Roughly 130 hostages are believed by Israel to remain in Hamas captivity. The war has stoked tensions across the region, threatening to ignite other conflicts.
Last month, an Israeli airstrike on a suburb of Damascus killed Iranian general Seyed Razi Mousavi, a longtime adviser of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in Syria. Israel has also targeted Palestinian and Lebanese operatives in Syria over the past years.
Iranian and Syrian officials have long acknowledged Iran has advisers and military experts in Syria, but denied there were any ground troops. Thousands of fighters from Iran-backed groups took part in Syria’s conflict that started in March 2011, helping tip the balance of power in favor of President Bashar Assad.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled parts of war-torn Syria in recent years.
Israel rarely acknowledges its actions in Syria, but it has said that it targets bases of Iran-allied militant groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Earlier this month, a strike said to be carried out by Israel killed top Hamas commander Saleh Arouri in Beirut.
Over the past weeks, rockets have been fired from Syria into northern Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, adding to tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border and attacks on ships in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed.