Latest Israeli Airstrike on Iranian base in Syria raises questions

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Israel Defense

ISI Reveals Aftermath of Alleged Israeli Strike on Iranian Base in Syria

Images taken by the EROS-B satellite of the Israeli company ImageSat International (ISI) show the destruction of several buildings at an Iranian military base that was under construction in Syria.

The base, located near the city of al-Kiswah just 31 miles from Israel’s northern border, was allegedly hit by an Israeli airstrike last Saturday.

The satellite photos apparently show damage of seven buildings that appear to be barracks, vehicle and weapon storage facilities.

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Debka File

Pro-Shiite Militia Chiefs conferring on anti-Israel operations were targets of Israeli air strike in Syria

An Israeli air raid early Saturday, Dec. 2 struck a group of pro-Iranian Shiite militia chiefs holding a secret conference at the Syrian Army’s 91st Brigade base near Kiswah. Iranian and Hizballah officers are reported among the casualties. This is reported by DEBKAfile’s exclusive sources.

The base itself lies 14km southwest of Damascus and around 50km from the Golan. Gathered there were all the militia commanders operating in southern Syria to receive their orders in advance of a major offensive to capture rebel pockets in the Quneitra region opposite Israel’s Golan positions.

They were taking briefings from their Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders and Hizballah officers, when the Israeli Air Force dropped missiles on the Syrian 91st Brigade building, where the conference was taking place. The time choses for the conference was Saturday morning for maximum security.

No information is available on the number of casualties, but they are estimated to include numbers of dead and wounded.

DEBKAfile’s military sources note that this was the first direct Israeli attack on the pro-Iranian militias enlisted by Tehran from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight for the Assad regime under the command of Revolutionary Guards Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian general has recently set up a war room in Iraq near the Syrian border. For more than a week, Hizballah and the foreign militias have been massing troops in southern Syria ready for an assault on Al-Harra, which is 8km from the Israeli Golan. This tiny town’s strategic importance is disproportionate to its size. Al Harra is meant to be the jumping-off point for the offensive to drive from the east against rebel pockets around Quenitra and along the Israeli border.  Any force holding this town controls the Syrian-Israeli-Jordanian border triangle.

Earlier depictions of the Israeli attacks by Arab sources are unfounded. They included the false claims that Israeli surface missiles blasted al Kiswah, that Syrian air defense rockets intercepted two Israeli ground-to-ground missiles,  and that empty buildings purportedly ready to accommodate Iranian forces were targeted.

Prime Minister in a special message reiterated Saturday night: “May I repeat that we will not let any regime bent on destroying Israel procure nuclear arms. Neither will we allow the Iranian regime to establish itself militarily in Syria, as it is planning, because its sole objective is to destroy our country.”

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[Earlier we’ve posted the following preliminary analysis by JPost:]

Why did it take so long to target the facility and in whose interest was it to reveal the facility to the public?

In the early hours of December 2 reports claimed that a base or ammunition warehouse south of Damascus had been hit by missiles from an airstrike. Foreign media has alleged that Israel was behind that strike.

However, unlike previous airstrikes on Syria, some of which Israel has taken credit for, this one was conducted against a site that was well known. It raises questions as to the timing of the attack and what it was meant to achieve. Why did it take so long to target the facility and in whose interest was it to reveal the facility to the public? First, let’s look at the timeline of events in November that led to the attack.

For more than a year there have been warnings that Iran was intent on constructing permanent bases in Syria, laying the groundwork for the era after ISIS was defeated. On November 10 the BBC released a report that Iran was “building permanent military base in Syria.” The report had three satellite images with it, from January, May and October, showing a site near El-Kiswah south of Damascus. It was about 50km from Israeli forces on the Golan. The changes at the site showed new buildings and the BBC ascribed the information to a “western intelligence source.”

The report came out the day that Russian President Vladimir Putin met US President Donald Trump in Danang, Vietnam. It also came out two days after a Memorandum of Principles had been concluded in Amman between the US, Russia and Jordan regarding a ceasefire in southern Syria. This ceasefire had originally been inked in July, despite Israeli objections to the presence of Iranian-backed forces in southern Syria. Fred Hof, a former State Department special advisor for transition in Syria, told Foreign Policy that the agreement was supposed to remove foreign fighters from the area. “This could be designed mainly to reassure the Israelis that these elements would not be operating in proximity to the Golan Heights.”

According to reports Israel wanted assurances that Iranian forces would be kept 60km from the Golan. Two days after the revelations of the Iranian base at El-Kiswah, a US State Department official indicated to Israeli media that the ceasefire memorandum would include the removal of Iranian forces from areas near the Golan. Three days later, on November 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the agreement did not promise to withdraw Iranian-backed forces.

The next day Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman responded that “with regards to Iran, we will simply not allow for Shi’ite consolidation and Iranian entrenchment in Syria, nor will we allow Syria to become a forward operating base against the State of Israel.” On the weekend of November 20th the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Antalya in the lead up to a major summit in Sochi on November 22 hosted by Putin which included Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

On November 26th the Kuwaiti newspaper reported that Israel had demanded Iranian facilities be kept 40 km away from the Golan. It also claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sent a warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad. In an interview with Ynet Liberman sought to downplay the Iranian presence in Syria, saying Iran was not on Israel’s border.

This was followed by the airstrike on December 2. According to al-Masdar News, which is generally seen as pro-Syrian regime “Israel fired several missiles into western Syria tonight, targeting several sites near the Iranian base in the El-Kiswah area.” Russia Today also reported the airstrike and quotes Syrian media as saying they struck “military positions.” According to Press TV, which represents the Iranian government view, a source said that “an Israeli fighter jet was flying at a low altitude over Lebanon’s Baalbek region near Syria’s border when Syrian missiles were launched.” The report went on, claiming that “Israeli missiles were fired toward the 1st Division ammo depot in the western countryside of Damascus.”

The attack raises several questions. Why wait so long to strike the Iranian base? What did “western intelligence sources” hope to accomplish by publishing information on the Iranian base? Why were the Iranians at the site given time to leave by their base becoming so public? The month’s activity appear to be part of a complex game being waged by Iran to entrench itself in Syria and Israel’s attempts to warn the Iranians off. Whatever was taking place at El-Kiswah had plenty of time to be wrapped up and moved if the Iranians were concerned about it being struck. If the reports about Israel’s threats to target sites between 40-60km from the Golan are accurate then it would indicate that the warnings have been manifested.