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. qefr 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. dfgh 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. sc 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.

With Capture of Palmyra, ISIS Now Controls Half of Syria

isisflag100 Jihadists from the Islamic State group (IS or ISIS) seized full control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday, a monitor said, putting the world heritage site at risk of destruction. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP that regime troops had pulled back from positions in and around Palmyra, including from an army intelligence outpost, a military airport and a prison which the jihadists captured overnight. slide_427224_5517748_compressed The Observatory said ISIS now controlled half of all territory in war-torn Syria. « IS fighters are in all parts of Tadmur, including near the archaeological site, » Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, using the Arabic name for the city. Mohammad Hassan al-Homsi, an activist from Palmyra said: « Regime troops collapsed and withdrew from their positions without resistance. » The capture of the ancient city, which houses colonnaded streets and ruined temples that date back thousands of years, has raised fears that its treasures could be plundered like archaeological sites overrun by the jihadists in Iraq. ve Palmyra is also strategically located at the crossroads of key highways leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq. Since ISIS launched its assault on the city on May 13, at least 462 people have been killed in fighting, the Observatory said, including 71 civilians, some of whom were executed by the jihadists. The Islamist group has embarked on a campaign of destruction aimed at purging territory under its control of any artifacts deemed « idolatrous » by its puritanical interpretations of Islamic law – include priceless ancient relics. ISIS extremists sparked international outrage earlier this year in Iraq when they blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed artifacts in the Mosul museum. ds

ISIS’s latest victory comes less than a week after it seized the provincial capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, Ramadi, from government forces.

The jihadist group’s gains – its largest since last summer’s offensive which saw it capture large swathes of territory in Iraq, including the second city of Mosul – come despite a massive aerial campaign led by the US and a ground effort led by Iranian-backed militias. dfz The gains have forced a policy rethink by US security experts, particularly after the Iraqi army once again performed poorly in Anbar despite massive American investment.

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