What does the assassination of Razi Mousavi mean?

Razi Mousavi, a high-ranking general of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps’ elite Quds force, which Israel killed on Monday, played a crucial role in Iran’s political and military expansion in the Middle East.

What does the assassination of Razi Mousavi mean?

Undated photo showing Razi Moussavi (left), senior advisor to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), next to IRGC Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in 2020. (Credit: Tasnim News/AFP)

Iran’s al-Quds force lost one of its most prominent figures less than a week before the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Qassim Soleimani. On Monday, Iran’s state television announced the death of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, describing him as one of the most senior advisers to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria.

The main coordinator of relations between Damascus and Tehran was killed after three missiles targeted his residence in the Sayida Zeinab neighborhood, south of Damascus.

Iran attributed the attack to Israel, while the war rages in Gaza and the Iran-aligned armed militias opened low to medium intensity fronts in Lebanon, Iraq and from Yemen on the Red Sea, in retaliation to Tel Aviv’s offensive which, according to Gaza’s health ministry, killed more than 20,900 people in the Palestinian enclave.

Mousavi, a commander in the shadow that was particularly active in Syria and Lebanon, was responsible for the transfer and transport of weapons from Iran to these two countries, as well as to Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories, reported Al Jazeera.

He played a crucial role in the delivery of Iranian Fateh-class surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to Hezbollah, according to sources quoted by Amwaj media.

Described by Tehran as being in charge of providing “logistical support to the axis of resistance” in Syria, Mousavi was also in charge of coordination between the IRGC’s elite Quds Force and the Syrian government, facilitating the entry of Iran-led forces into Syria and Lebanon, Amwaj added.

Present in these countries since the 1980s, he is one of the pillars of Iranian and IRGC influence in the Middle East. This companion of slain IRGC commander Soleimani, the former head of the Quds Force, who was killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad in 2020, had very good relations with Hezbollah, the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has found in Tehran a major regional sponsor since the start of the civil war, the Iraqi government and some Palestinian factions.

The strike that killed him instantly and also killed three other pro-Iran fighters took place a few minutes after the end of a meeting with Iran’s ambassador to Syria, according to sources quoted by Al Jazeera.

It came as the Iran-led “resistance axis” maintains pressure on Israel and its US ally in the midst of the war in Gaza. In Lebanon, strikes near the southern border have been taking place almost on a daily basis since Oct.8.

In Iraq, the US carried out a strike overnight that left one pro-Iran fighter dead and another wounded. Off the coast of Yemen, an international coalition was set up last week to deter Houthis from Yemen from attacking shipping in the Red Sea which are key to international trade.

On Dec.18, Jordan announced that it foiled the biggest arms and drugs smuggling operation in years, as dozens of people linked to pro-Iran militias tried to cross the border from Syria, carrying rocket launchers, anti-personnel mines and explosives.

To deter attacks on its territory, disrupt arms deliveries and prevent Hezbollah from deeply-establishing itself on the long run in neighboring Syria, Israel has for several years carried out attacks against what it describes as Iran-linked targets in Syria, and rarely claimed responsibility for them.

Israel has struck Syria’s Damascus and Aleppo international airports several times since the onset of the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, putting them out of service for weeks.

In early December, Iran said that two IRGC members acting as “military advisers” in Syria were killed in Israeli strikes. Mousavi had survived two assassination attempts in recent years.

Israeli messages

What message is Israel — which has refused to comment on its involvement — trying to send through assassinating Mousavi?

“In the same way that Israel is trying to take out senior Hamas leaders, it is likely employing a similar strategy against key IRGC figures to send a longer message of its intent to push back against Iran’s influence around its borders, so as to create a buffer zone and deter further Iranian attacks,” said Sanam Vakil, director of Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. “The killing of Mousavi is really critical in showing Israel’s striking power,” she added.

Although Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack, Israeli officials stated that their army is preparing for reprisals from Syria and Lebanon following the general’s assassination. Iran vowed revenge for Mousavi’s killing. President Ebrahim Raissi warned that Israel “will definitely pay the price,” and Hezbollah said, “We consider this assassination a flagrant attack that crosses the limits.”

“The usurper and savage Zionist regime will pay for this crime,” the IRGC said in a statement read on state TV.

What will be Tehran’s response? “Iran has no choice but to threaten to respond, but this response cannot be seen as an eye for an eye, so it will look for other opportunities to respond to Israel,” said Vakil.

“Iran’s response will be tactical. It could be the cyber realm. It could be on the open seas, but ultimately, the attack or any response will be calibrated, because they are still aiming to avoid a regional conflagration,” she added.

On Dec. 18, the Israeli authorities claimed that a cyberattack hit an Israeli hospital network a few weeks earlier, and attributed it to a group close to Iran and Hezbollah. This is while a group suspected of being affiliated with Israel claimed responsibility for a cyberattack that paralyzed 70 percent of Iran's oil distribution system.

“No one can predict with certainty how the IRGC will respond to the Mousavi strike,” wrote Kasra Aarabi, a researcher with anti-regime views in Iran, on X (formerly Twitter). “But based on the IRGC’s doctrine, capabilities and responses to past strikes (Soleimani, Mughniyeh, Fakhrizadeh): expect a lot of propaganda noise against Israel with minimal action,” he added.

For its part, the US continues to put pressure on Israel to abide by the rules of engagement in order to prevent the conflict from spreading. The Biden administration is also leading discussions to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions on Lebanon’s southern border.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour.

Iran’s al-Quds force lost one of its most prominent figures less than a week before the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Qassim Soleimani. On Monday, Iran’s state television announced the death of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, describing him as one of the most senior advisers to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria.The main coordinator of relations between Damascus and...