What We Know About the Iranian Commanders Killed by Israel in Syria

Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday pledged to avenge the deaths of three commanders and four officers in Iran’s armed forces, one day after they were killed in a precision Israeli airstrike on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus.

The leaders, Iranian officials said, were some of the highest ranking leaders in the Quds Force, overseeing Iran’s covert intelligence and military operations in Syria and Lebanon. The strike was the deadliest against Iranian officials in recent memory and has shaken the country’s armed forces establishment.

The strike, both the latest in a yearslong shadow war between Iran and Israel and a seeming escalation in that conflict, has again brought attention to Israel and Iran’s conflicting ambitions in the region and the network of proxies Iran employs to fight its battles.

“We will make them regret this crime and similar crimes, with the help of God,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said of the Israelis.

Here’s what we know about the commanders who were killed.

Among the officers killed on Monday was Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a veteran of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its external branch the Quds Forces. General Zahedi, three Iranian officials and a Guard member said, was the corps’ top commander in the region, in charge of Iran’s network of proxy militias, particularly those in Lebanon and Syria.

The general, the senior most commander to be killed since the U.S. assassination of Qassim Suleimani in 2020, coordinated the Iranian-backed armed groups and selected targets in their attacks on U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.

His death, analysts said, was a significant blow to Iran’s military operations in the Middle East.

A member of the Guards who knew General Zahedi, but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the Iranian leadership was “in shock” over his assassination and viewed avenging his death as their moral duty. Iranian state media published multiple photos of General Zahedi over the years with senior Iranian military and political officials.

Among those prominent personages are Mr. Khamenei himself, with whom the general served as a young revolutionary in the 1970s and as a comrade in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Owing to multiple tours in Lebanon, the general also had a relationship with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia in that country.

As commander of the Quds Forces in Lebanon and Syria from 2008 to 2014, he controlled the Iranian forces deployed to help President Bashar Assad of Syria remain in power at the height of that country’s civil war, according to the general’s official biography.

General Zahedi was killed with two other Quds Force generals. Gen. Hossein Aminollahi and Gen. Mohammad Hadi Haj Rahimi, General Zahedi’s deputy. Both men were also veterans of wars in the Middle East, according to Iranian media reports. Four other officers of the Quds Forces were also killed.

In the past, Iran has mostly managed to navigate the killing of its senior commanders by Israel and the United States without much impact to its operations.

But the scope and timing of Monday’s deadly strike present a new challenge for the Islamic Republic.

The killings come at a time of war in Gaza, which Iran has tried to spread and intensify across several fronts through the involvement of its proxy militias, known as the axis of resistance. Those proxies have opened fronts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and the Red Sea from which to attack Israel and Israeli interests. Iran also provides financial, tactical and military support to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the two main Palestinian armed groups fighting Israel in Gaza.

Losing General Zahedi, Iran’s top field commander, and his deputy, instantly wipes out years of military expertise and personal connections that are often key to successful operations in the Middle East, analysts said.

At the very least, Iran will suffer a short term tactical blow until it can regroup. Depending on how quickly Iran can deploy a comparable replacement for General Zahedi, analysts said, its forces and proxies could be vulnerable.

“This is the Israeli version of the U.S. strike on Qassim Suleimani,” said Dana Stroul, formerly the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Not only did the strike impose costs directly on I.R.G.C. leadership, but by taking out individuals responsible for covert operations abroad, it will deal a significant blow to Iran’s proxy network.”

But over the longer term, the effect of losing these commanders is likely to be more manageable.

“From a tactical and short-term standpoint, their absence will be felt,” said Sina Azodi, an expert on Iran’s military and a lecturer at George Washington University. “But from a strategic standpoint, it will not impact Iran’s operations in the region or significantly reduce its influence.”

Analysts said that Iran is keen to respond in a way that deters Israel from future assassinations. It has several options for retaliating, but the stakes in each case are high.

Iran could launch long-range ballistic missiles into Israel directly from its own soil, as it did on an American military base in Iraq in retaliation for General Suleimani’s death in 2020. That approach, however, risks starting an all-out war with Israel and potentially dragging in the United States, a scenario Iran has largely avoided since the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7.

Iran could also respond through its proxies, particularly Hezbollah, which could escalate attacks along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Iran could also order attacks from proxies in Syria and Iraq on American military bases as a way to pressure the Biden administration to rein in Israel.

There are divisions within Iran’s decision making circles, including at the Supreme National Security Council and within the Guards, on how Iran should respond, according to three Iranians familiar with the deliberations.

The council said it had convened an emergency meeting on Monday night attended by Iran’s president to discuss the attack and had reached “an appropriate decision,” without elaborating on the details.

At the meeting, some hard-line members argued that Iran should strike targets inside Israel with missiles. Anything short of a direct reply, they argued, would show weakness. But other more moderate members pushed back, saying that Israel was goading Iran into war and Iran should continue its policy of “strategic patience” and retaliation through its proxy militias, according to the three Iranians, two of them members of the Guards.

Ultimately, Mr. Khamenei has the last word about how to respond and, they said, his position will become more clear in the coming days and weeks.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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