BEIRUT -- A high-ranking member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps was assassinated this week while traveling from Syria to neighboring Lebanon, Iranian media reported Thursday, in the strongest indication to date that senior Iranian military commanders have been dispatched to Syria.
Gen. Hassan Shateri was killed Tuesday by "unknown gunmen," described as "suspected Israeli agents," as he was on the road between the Syrian capital of Damascus and Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, various Iranian news agencies reported.
Iran is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is facing an almost two-year-long rebellion against his rule.
Rebel forces and their foreign allies, including the United States, have accused Iran of propping up Assad’s government with extensive military, logistics and financial aid. Iran has downplayed its military role in Syria.
The Iranian media accounts did not specify exactly where the general was killed, but they labeled the death an "assassination," indicating that he was targeted. If his death occurred in Syria, Shateri would be the first senior Iranian commander publicly known to have been killed in the Syrian conflict.
Iranian opposition websites identified Shateri as a member of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guard.
The chief of the Quds Force, Gen. Qasim Sulaimani, accompanied by high-ranking clergymen, personally notified the general’s family of his death, Iranian media reported, a fact that seemed to confirm the slain general’s link to the shadowy force.
Nonetheless, official accounts from Iran described the slain general solely as a chief of reconstruction efforts in Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The general "led the Iranian-financed reconstruction projects in the south of Lebanon," reported Iran’s ABNA news agency. Southern Lebanon suffered considerable damage during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally.
Iran’s embassy in Beirut also confirmed the assassination, but identified the slain official as Hussam Khoshnevis, Iran’s reconstruction chief in south Lebanon. The two names suggested that the general may have concealed his military identity, which is not unusual among Quds Force operatives.
Reuters reported that Syrian rebels took credit for the attack. The Iranian general was killed near the Syrian town of Zabadani, close to the Lebanese border, a rebel commander told Reuters.
The Syrian war has become a proxy conflict pitting Assad’s government and his chief allies, Iran and Russia, against an armed and political opposition backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other nations. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict, according to a United Nations estimate.
The body of Shateri was brought Thursday to his hometown, Semnan, southeast of Tehran, the capital, for burial, Iranian media reported.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent in Tehran. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.