Iran said Monday that a general in its elite Revolutionary Guards who had been sent to Syria to help that country battle rebels died in an Israeli airstrike on Sunday, raising tensions and heightening expectations of possible retaliation.
A statement on the website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards said that Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed when Israeli planes bombed a convoy in southern Syria, where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have been fighting rebels that include al-Qaida’s Nusra Front.
The statement said Allahdadi had been helping the Syrian government “confront the takfiri Salafist terrorists,” using religious terms to refer to the Sunni Muslim rebels who’ve been trying to topple Assad for nearly four years.
Also killed were five Iranians, according to the AFP news agency, and six members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, including a prominent Hezbollah operative, Jihad Mughniyah, whose father, Imad Mughniyah, was the group’s military chief until he was assassinated in 2008.
As Israeli forces went on alert for a possible reprisal, Iranian and Hezbollah officials warned that a response would come “at the right time and place.”
Hezbollah and Iran, which both adhere to the Shiite branch of Islam, have sent fighters to help Assad’s forces counter the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels. Iran has been Assad’s main regional ally in the conflict.
Al Manar, the Hezbollah television station, said that the group’s fighters were killed while inspecting positions at Mazraat Amal, a village near the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Hezbollah has been assisting Syrian government forces in the area.
Analysts said that the Israeli strike, the first attack on Hezbollah operatives in Syria since the start of the civil war, was meant to signal that Israel would not tolerate Hezbollah activities along the Golan Heights frontier.
“There was an understanding that this is a game-changer, and Israel has had a consistent policy of setting red lines,” said Uzi Rabi, head of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Although the Israeli strike against Hezbollah in the Golan could work to the advantage of rebel forces, Israel did not want to take sides in the Syrian conflict and was acting to protect its own interests, Rabi said.
“Hezbollah is an avowed enemy of Israel, and when it enters the seam line between Syria and Israel, this can develop,” Rabi said. “Israel doesn’t have the luxury of letting that happen, and has to maintain deterrence.”
Intelligence officials cited in Israel media alleged that Mughniyah was planning attacks across the boundary fence between the Syrian and Israeli-held Golan, similar to the recent detonation of an explosive device at an Israeli army patrol and an attempt to plant another charge last year.
In Beirut, where thousands gathered for Mughniyah’s funeral, Mahmoud Qmatti, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau, said that “the resistance will decide on the appropriate response at the right time and place.”
Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a senior security aide to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, echoed that warning. “Past experience shows that resistance forces will respond to terrorist acts by the Zionist regime with revolutionary resolve and ferocity in the right time and right place,” he said.
Israeli commentators said that with Hezbollah embroiled in the fighting in Syria, the group was unlikely to open a second front with Israel, which could wreak serious damage in Lebanon. Instead, the analysts said, both Iran and Hezbollah might prefer attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, or smaller scale assaults on Israeli troops across the Lebanese and Golan frontiers.