BEIRUT—A top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was killed in Syria and buried in Iran on Friday, actually died in Israel’s attack on a Syrian military compound in late January, according to a faction of Syrian rebels.
Iran reported Wednesday that Gen. Hassan Shateri—a senior commander of the Quds Force, an elite international unit of the Revolutionary Guard—was killed the previous day in Syria on his way from Damascus to Beirut.
But a military council of Syrian rebels disputed that account Friday, saying Gen. Shateri had been killed on Jan. 30, when Israel attacked a convoy and military facility in Jamaraya, Syria, near the border with Lebanon. Gen. Shateri was there supervising a transfer of heavy weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant and political group, said Fahd al-Mesri, the Paris-based spokesman for the Joint Command, a council that links some secular-minded Syrian rebels.
The group’s account couldn’t be corroborated by other Syrian rebels. The newly organized Supreme Military Council—made up of senior Syrian defectors and backed by the West—has no information on the incident, said its chief of staff, Salim Idriss.
On Thursday, the public-relations department for the Revolutionary Guards, or IRGC, said agents and supporters of Israel had assassinated Gen. Shateri as he was traveling from Damascus to Beirut. That statement didn’t say when he was killed or why he was traveling in Syria.
Israel, which has traditionally maintained silence when military strikes around the region have been attributed to it, indicated early this month that it had been behind the attack in Syria. On Friday, a representative for Israel’s military declined to comment on whether Gen. Shateri was killed or targeted in the attack.
Regardless, any regional perception of Israel’s involvement underscores how the country is increasingly seen as a player in Syria’s uprising, one willing to take unilateral action if it perceives its interests and security are compromised.
Speaking early this month at a security conference in Germany, Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Jan. 30 attack is “another proof that when we say something we mean it. We say that we don’t think it should be allowable to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon to Hezbollah from Syria when [President Bashar al-] Assad falls.”
Any Israeli role would be a double-edged sword for Syria’s opposition. While these fighters would welcome foreign military intervention that outpowers the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, such assistance also places them at risk being labeled agents of Israel or the West.
Gen. Shateri, 58 years old and an engineer by profession, had been a member of the IRGC for nearly three decades and served in the Iran-Iraq war, according to Iranian media accounts and officials’ speeches at his funeral.
As a commander of the Quds Forces—an eilte and highly secretive IRGC unit responsible for training proxy militia and safeguarding the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad—he served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon in what Iran says were civilian roles focused on war reconstruction efforts. A picture of Mr. Shateri released by Iranian media shows him in Quds Force uniform along with other high-level commanders kissing the hand of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is customary for Quds commanders who serve in civilian roles abroad to take on aliases, and in Lebanon, Mr. Shateri was known as Husam Khoshnevis.
According to Mr. al-Mesri, the Joint Command spokesman, Syrian rebels learned of Mr. Shateri’s presence in Damascus and the circumstances of his death through their intelligence network. “He stayed in Damascus around a week and held meetings with very high-level military and security officials, both Syrians and Iranians,” Mr. al-Masri said by telephone from Paris.
Further deepening the murky circumstances of Mr. Shateri’s killing is that no Syrian rebel group or leader has claimed responsibility. Unusually, few apart from Mr. al-Mesri’s group have commented.
Official funeral services on Thursday and Friday, held in Tehran and his hometownSemnan, were attended by the heads of Iran’s armed forces and of the branches of the Revolutionary Guards, including the Quds Force, and representatives of Mr. Khamenei and the foreign minister, according to pictures and video published by Iranian media.
In funeral speeches, Mr. Shakeri was compared to Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyah, who was widely implicated in a series of terrorist attacks against Americans and Israelis in the 1980s and 1990s, including the bombing of the U.S. Embassy. He was killed in a Damascus car bombing in 2008. Israel was largely believed to have carried out the assassination but never addressed it publicly.
“Mr. Shateri was our very own Imad Mughniyah—he was nothing short of him and was highly regarded as a special person. Enough said that even in his absence we can’t publicize his confidential services [to the regime],” said Alireza Panahian, Mr. Khamenei’s representative at the funeral, according to media reports.
Iran has solidly backed President Assad and publicly acknowledged assisting Syria’s regime in its battle with the insurgency.
On Thursday, Mehdi Taeb, the head of Iran’s Ammar military base, which is focused on cyber war and soft war, said Syria is so strategic to the Islamic Republic that it is considered as Iran’s 35th province, and that losing Syria would result in losing Tehran. Iran has been instrumental in helping Mr. Assad form neighborhood militias to battle the opposition, he said in comments widely reported by official Iranian media.
“This country [Syria] had an army, but it couldn’t manage the war inside the cities. Therefore Iran suggested they form neighborhood Basij militias to control the cities,” Mr. Taeb said, according to Iranian media.
Mr. Taeb added that Iran had helped train 60,000 Syrian Basij militiamen to take over the guerrilla fights from the army. Basij militia in Iran is a million-strong volunteer plain-clothes militia involved in brutal crackdowns of opposition protests.
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