Iran accused Israel of launching an airstrike on the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Saturday that killed senior Iranian military figures, the latest in a series of Israeli attacks on officials from Iran and two of its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran vowed to retaliate, raising fears of even deeper regional turmoil rippling out from the war in Gaza.
Separately, several U.S. troops in Iraq were being evaluated for traumatic brain injuries on Saturday evening after their air base in the western part of the country came under heavy rocket and missile fire from what American officials said were Iran-backed militants. It was the latest of roughly 140 such rocket and missile strikes against U.S. troops based in Iraq and Syria over the past several months.
The two incidents underlined the volatility that has been growing in the Middle East since Oct. 7, when Hamas, an ally of Iran, charged into Israel and carried out its terror attacks. Israel has responded with a ferocious war in Gaza. Across the region, a dizzying array of strikes and counterstrikes risk spinning the conflict into a wider war.
In the last week alone, the list of attacks and reprisals has been long and daunting: Iran fired missiles toward Iraq, Syria and Pakistan; Pakistan responded by striking Iranian territory. Turkey hit Kurdish targets in northern Iraq and Syria; Hamas fired rockets toward Israel; Israel continued to pound southern Gaza and struck southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah militants have fired rockets toward Israel in recent months. Houthi militants in Yemen took aim at commercial ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and the United States retaliated with seven rounds of strikes against Houthi targets.
Some of those attacks had no apparent connection to the war in Gaza. But taken together, they highlighted the danger that a particularly deadly strike — an accident or a deliberate provocation — could lead to irreversible escalation and a broader conflict.
Among those killed in the strikes in Damascus on Saturday were Hojatallah Omidvar, the head of intelligence in Syria for the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and his deputy, according to the Iranian news media and an Israeli defense official.
The Iranian state news media reported that President Ebrahim Raisi condemned the strikes on Syria, saying, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not leave the crimes of the Zionist regime unanswered.”
The Israeli defense official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues, would not say who was behind the attack, but did not deny that it was Israel.
The Revolutionary Guards said in a statement published online that five of its members who were in Syria as military advisers were killed, along with several Syrians. Syria is a close ally of Iran and a conduit for Iranian weapons shipments to its proxies, especially Hezbollah.
For years, Israel has been locked in a shadow war with Iran, conducting covert strikes and targeted killings aimed at crippling Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities and its supply lines to proxy forces around the region.
The Quds Force has played a major role in supporting those proxies, including the Houthis in Yemen as well as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. General Omidvar, the senior Iranian officer killed in the strike in Damascus on Saturday, oversaw intelligence sharing and gathering with the proxy militias and coordinated weapons distribution throughout the region, according to Israeli defense officials and an Iranian affiliated with the Guards. The officials asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the general.
After the Oct. 7 attacks and the outbreak of the Gaza war, Iran kept a low profile, content to operate through its proxies and sometimes disavowing any involvement in their attacks. But after a string of Israeli assassinations of Iranian security officials and others, Tehran changed course recently, launching attacks with its own forces and publicly framing them as acts of vengeance.
Tensions began to escalate in December, when Iran accused Israel of killing a high-level military figure, Brig. Gen. Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser to the Revolutionary Guards, with a missile strike in Syria. Israel declined to comment directly on the accusation.
General Mousavi was said to have helped oversee the shipment of missiles and other arms to Hezbollah, which has been trading rocket and artillery fire with Israel since war broke out in Gaza.
Early this month, an Israeli strike killed the deputy political leader of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut, Lebanon. That was followed by a suicide bomb attack by the Sunni terrorist group ISIS that killed nearly 100 people in the Iranian city of Kerman. The United States also assassinated a senior commander in an Iranian-aligned militia in Baghdad.
Tehran responded first by sending its own commandos to seize an oil tanker off the coast of Oman. It launched a missile strike this week on the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, saying it was aimed at an Israeli “espionage center.” Iran said its attacks over the past week were in retaliation, among other things, for the assassination of General Mousavi.
Israel has not responded to the claim that the target in Erbil was an Israeli spy outpost. But Iraqi officials rejected the accusation, saying that only civilians had been killed, including a businessman, his infant daughter and her babysitter.
So far, Iran has appeared to stop short of a major escalation that might further inflame an intensifying regional conflict centered on the war between an Iran-backed Hamas and Iran’s regional archenemy, Israel. Analysts say Iran wanted the attacks to be measured, flexing its muscles without getting into a direct fight with Israel, the United States or their allies.
The Houthis in Yemen are at the center of escalating tensions on another regional front. The group has been attacking ships in the Red Sea, provoking retaliatory airstrikes recently by the United States and the United Kingdom.
On Saturday, the U.S. Central Command said American forces had conducted airstrikes against a Houthi anti-ship missile “that was aimed into the Gulf of Aden and was prepared to launch.” It was the seventh time in 10 days that the United States has struck Houthi targets in Yemen.
The strikes have so far failed to deter the Houthis from attacking shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden that connect with the Suez Canal. The Iran-backed group says it will keep up its attacks until Israel halts its military campaign in Gaza.
President Biden said on Thursday that U.S. airstrikes against the Houthis will continue even though they have not halted the group’s attacks on Red Sea shipping.
“Are they stopping the Houthis? No,” Mr. Biden said. “Are they going to continue? Yes.”
Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington, Alissa J. Rubin from Iraq, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Lara Jakes from Rome, David E. Sanger from Berlin and Thomas Fuller from San Francisco.