Iranian military adviser killed in Syria, reports say, two months after Iran and Israel came close to war

Israeli airstrikes near the Syrian city of Aleppo early Monday killed an Iranian military adviser, Iranian media reported, two months after the Middle East came to the brink of a major war as Israel and Iran engaged in unprecedented direct attacks on each other’s soil.

Saeed Abiyar, an adviser to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Syria, died in the attack, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the incident occurred around 12.20 a.m. local time on Monday after Israel launched an aerial attack with missiles, targeting “a number of points” in the vicinity of Aleppo, without providing information on fatalities.

CNN has requested comment from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which does not usually acknowledge such strikes.

Abiyar is the first member of the IRGC to be reported killed by Israel since April, when Israel is suspected to have bombed the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, killing several commanders, including the top IRGC commander in charge of relations with Syria and Lebanon.

The Islamic Republic retaliated to that attack by launching a barrage of drones and missiles toward Israel, most of which were intercepted. Israel fired back, a US official told CNN, targeting a major Iranian military airbase near the city of Isfahan.

Iran has deployed military advisers to Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since civil war broke out there in 2011. Israel is believed to have launched several strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years, particularly since the start of its war with Hamas in Gaza. It has warned that Iran is turning it into “a base for aggression against Israel.”

What happens next?

After the tit-for-tat exchange in April, Iran said it had created “a new equation” with Israel, pledging to retaliate every time Israel attacks its interests in the future. “The era of strategic patience is over,” said Mohammad Jamshidi, deputy chief of staff to the Iranian president.

Monday’s attack suggests that Iran’s “new equation,” indicating that it has restored deterrence, may not have been achieved, said Trita Parsi, a Washington DC-based Iran analyst and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute think tank, adding that this is the first attack of its kind since April’s exchange of fire.

It took place at a time of domestic turbulence for Iran. Former President Ebrahim Raisi was killed last month in a helicopter crash along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other Iranian officials. Iran is now in the process of electing a new leader.

“The Israelis may very well have calculated that this is an opportune time to strike,” Parsi told CNN, adding that the attack may leave Iranian officials in a quandary on how to respond.

The killing also occurred as Israel faces growing isolation on the world stage for its devastating war in Gaza, as pressure mounts from multiple fronts for it to end hostilities. Last week, US President Joe Biden joined the chorus of world leaders to call for an end to the war.

Abiyar’s killing raises the stakes of a repeat of April’s unprecedented tit-for-tat direct strikes between Iran and Israel. But escalation is not a given.

What triggered Iran’s ire in April was likely a combination of escalatory factors, that the strike took place on its consulate in Damascus, which is technically Iranian soil. Israel contested this, claiming the target was an Iranian military headquarters.

Monday’s strike doesn’t reach the same threshold. Neither country, in April or now, appears to want escalation.

Tehran will have a choice to make, Parsi said. “On the one hand, they’re going to have pressure to respond in order to claim that their deterrence has been restored. On the other hand, do they want to have an escalation in the midst of this very sensitive election?”

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