A mighty explosion struck the Iranian embassy in Damascus Wednesday night, May 20, DEBKAfile’s exclusive intelligence and counter-terrorism sources reveal. First reports are of “heavy casualties” and serious damage to the embassy compound. The Iranian and Syrian governments have clamped a curtain of secrecy down over the disaster, although the thunder of the explosion and rush of special forces and relief teams to the scene in the Syrian capital could not be concealed.
DEBKAfile’s sources add: The explosion has initially been attributed to the Syrian arm of al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra. A day earlier, Tuesday, Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was known to be present at the embassy building in Damascus. It is not known whether he was still there when the explosion occurred or had meanwhile departed for Tehran.
The Iranian embassy is a pivotal point for the Syrian conflict. As the Revolutionary Guards general staff center, it is the venue for the joint Iranian-Syrian military and logistic decisions taken in the conduct of the war. It also served as the Iranian command center for its operations in Lebanon, including military liaison with the Lebanese Hizballah, whose forces are fighting with Bashar Assad’s army in Syria. From there, Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani issued his war directives when he was present in the Syrian capital.
The embassy building was therefore one of the most heavily fortified and guarded premises in the Syrian capital. Its destruction by a bomb explosion came on the heels Wednesday of the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra to the Islamic State – the second devastating blow for the Assad regime and its backers in a single day. The fate of its rare heritage sites is not the only concern. With Palmyra ((Tadmor – est. pop. 120,000), the Islamic State also gained access to important military sites, including the biggest Syrian air force base.
The disaster may be compared to the ISIS conquest in January of the northern Syrian town of Raqqa, today the Islamists’ headquarters in the country. Palmyra is the second major Arab city to fall to the group this week after the Iraqi town of Ramadi on Sunday.
For Iran, the loss of Palmyra is a major setback in the sense that it removes from Syrian military control the main air base where Iranian flights delivered war materiel for the Syrian army and Hizballah day by day.