Photo: Flash90

Iranian military experts hit in Syria strikes

A 19 February rocket attack in Damascus attributed to Israel targeted an installation where Iranian officials were meeting to advance drone or missile development by Tehran’s proxies in the Arab Republic, sources told Reuters.

By Erin Viner

“The strike hit the center where they were meeting as well as an apartment in a residential building. One Syrian engineer and one Iranian official – not high-ranking – were killed,” said a source close to the Syrian government with knowledge of Sunday’s attack.

According to initial reporting by Syrian state media, Israeli warplanes carried out air strikes shortly after midnight on Sunday against several areas of the Syrian capital, causing five deaths and injuring 15 others.

The targeted building was located in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Sousa, a heavily policed area where residents say several Iranian security agencies and an Iranian cultural center are located. At the time, two Western intelligence sources identified the target was a logistics center operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Top Hezbollah Commander Imad Moughniyeh was killed in 2008 during a bombing in the same neighborhood. Israel denied the terror group’s allegations it was behind the assassination.

A second source, who spoke to Syrian security personnel briefed on the Sunday strike, said Iranians were attending the meeting of technical experts at an Iranian military installation in the basement of a residential building inside a security compound. He said one of those killed was a Syrian Armed Forces civil engineer who worked at Syria’s Military Scientific Studies and Research Center. Western identification of the SSRC as a military institution that has produced missiles and chemical weapons is denied by Damascus.

A regional intelligence official familiar with the strike said the target was part of an IRGC covert guided missile production, while another said an IRGC engineer involved in the missile program was seriously injured and transferred to a hospital in Tehran, although two other mid-ranking IRGC members at the meeting were unharmed.

Yet another informant with knowledge of the strike and its target, said officials from Iran and Hezbollah had been targeted. The Lebanese terror group, which fought a five-week war with Israel in 2006, has sent fighters to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drive back rebels who once nearly encircled Damascus during his country’s 12-year civil war.

Military experts say the latest attack of a series of others on infrastructure of the Syrian army and its allies reflect an escalation of what has been a low-intensity conflict geared at slowing down Iran’s growing entrenchment in country.

Western intelligence officials say the Islamic Republic has stepped up aerial weapons shipments to its terrorist proxies, including Hezbollah, in attempts to evade IDF strikes on overland ground convoys. Strikes on Syrian airports and air bases have intensified in recent months.

The IDF generally refuses to comment on alleged operations against suspected Iranian-sponsored weapons transfers and personnel deployments.

An Israeli military official declined to confirm or deny involvement in the most recent incident, but did say that some of the casualties were caused by errant Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

Although officials rarely acknowledge responsibility for specific operations, Israel has acknowledged mounting hundreds of attacks on Iranian-linked targets in Syria – where the Islamic Republic’s forces and proxy have become entrenched in deployments aimed at attacking the Jewish State for almost a decade. Research centers for weapons development and munitions depots operated by IRGC have particularly been in the IDF’s crosshairs.

Israeli political and defense leaders have repeatedly stated that Iran’s presence just over the northern frontier will not be tolerated.

The Ayatollah regime has been a major backer of Assad’s since civil war erupted in 2011. Its support for Syria and Hezbollah has drawn regular Israeli air strikes meant to curb Tehran’s extraterritorial military power. The Syrian leader has never publicly acknowledged that Iranian forces have operated on his behalf in the war, claiming Tehran has only military advisers on the ground.

The United States and Israel have been increasingly concerned about Iran’s manufacturing of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones), and the possibility it would pass on those capabilities to regional proxies such as the heavily armed Hezbollah.

Iran’s proxy militias, led by Hezbollah, now control large areas of eastern, southern and northern Syria and in several suburbs around the capital.

Last week US forces shot down what they said was an Iranian-made drone flying over a base hosting American personnel in northeastern Syria.