Wednesday, April 03, 2024

  • Wednesday, April 03, 2024
  • Elder of Ziyon

On Monday, Israel apparently bombed an Iranian "consular building" that was part of the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus. Seven members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards were killed, chief among them General Mohamad Reza Zahedi, who was the leader of the Quds Force for Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Two other senior generals were also among the 11 who were killed. 

No civilians were killed.

Was this attack legal under international law?

The New York Times interviewed several law experts, and it appears that this did not violate international law, although it is highly unusual and violated longstanding practice.

Most of  the literature on diplomatic immunity discusses immunity from the hosting state against embassy personnel who are diplomats. If they commit even the most heinous crimes, they cannot be prosecuted by the hosting country; they can only be declared persona non grata and deported back. Even the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul could not be prosecuted by Turkish authorities. 

But does a third party have any responsibility to respect the inviolability of an embassy or consulate, especially when that third party has no relations with the either the hosting country of the consulate nation?

“Israel is a third state and is not bound by the law of diplomatic relations with regard to Iran’s Embassy in Syria,” said Aurel Sari, a professor of international law at Exeter University in the United Kingdom.

In practice, there is a strong taboo in international relations against attacking embassies, said Marko Milanovic, a professor of public international law at Reading University in the United Kingdom. But that custom is broader than what international law actually prohibits, he said.

“Symbolically, for Iran, destroying its embassy or consulate, it’s just seen as a bigger blow,” he said, than “if you killed the generals in a trench somewhere.” But, he added, “the difference is not legal. The difference is really one of symbolism, of perception.”
The closest similar situation I could find was the US bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, but the US called that an accident and Bill Clinton apologized. 

The NYT quotes legal expert Yuval Shany saying that an embassy has no greater protection than any other civilian object like a school, and if it is used for military purposes against Israel then it becomes legal to attack it. 

Was the building even a diplomatic site to begin with? Israel says it was not. 

A military spokesperson said Israel believes the target struck was a “military building of Quds forces” — a unit of the IRGC responsible for foreign operations.

“According to our intelligence, this is no consulate and this is no embassy,” Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told CNN. “I repeat, this is no consulate and this is no embassy. This is a military building of Quds forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.”

News media are referring to the site as an Iranian consular building on the Iranian embassy compound. I have never heard of a consulate in the same city as an embassy. A consulate does only a subset of what embassies do, typically in major cities outside the capital.  

The NYT article notes,
Iran has long blurred the lines between its diplomatic missions and its military operations in the Middle East. It selects its ambassadors to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — countries that make up the “axis of resistance” — from the commanders of the Quds Forces, the external branch of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, rather than its career diplomats. In 2021, Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s foreign minister, said in a leaked recording that Iran’s foreign policy in the region is determined by its field military operations and not traditional diplomacy set by the foreign ministry.
It appears likely that this building was meant for military, not diplomatic, purposes. Iran using proxies to fight a war with Israel doesn't mean that they are not military targets. The IRGC generals were meeting with leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group which receives its funding and often its orders from the IRGC. 

The only legal question is whether Israel can attack a third country when defending itself in a war. From Israel's perspective, this is no different than its many airstrikes in Syria meant to stop the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and certainly self defense. It would be difficult to argue against it when the West routinely has been attacking terrorists in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, usually without permission from those governments. 

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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

This blog may be a labor of love for me, but it takes a lot of effort, time and money. For over 19 years and 40,000 articles I have been providing accurate, original news that would have remained unnoticed. I've written hundreds of scoops and sometimes my reporting ends up making a real difference. I appreciate any donations you can give to keep this blog going.


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