Alleged Iranian base near Syria border caught on camera

Images taken by Israeli satellite appear to show renovations at al-Kiswah site, 50 kilometers south of Damascus

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

ImageSat International images of what is thought to be an Iranian military base in Syria, close to the Syrian-Israeli border, November 16, 2017. (Hadashot news screenshot)
ImageSat International images of what is thought to be an Iranian military base in Syria, close to the Syrian-Israeli border, November 16, 2017. (Hadashot news screenshot)

Israeli satellite photos published Thursday appear to strengthen a BBC report a week ago that Iran is building a permanent military base in Syria, just 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Israel’s northern border.

The ImageSat International pictures, published by Hadashot (formerly Channel 2) news, show that renovations and alterations were recently undertaken at the site at al-Kiswah, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) south of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

They also suggest that one of the new buildings is a mosque. If it is, according to ISI’s intelligence unit, it likely points to the presence of Iranians or other foreign Muslims.

ISI stressed that the assumption the site was being used by Iranians was taken from foreign media reports, and that the images alone did not prove any Iranian presence.

ImageSat International images suggesting changes that have been carried out at what is thought to be an Iranian military base in Syria, November 16, 2017. (Hadashot news screenshot)

On Friday, the BBC cited a Western intelligence official for its assessment that a series of satellite pictures it commissioned confirmed that Iran is building a permanent military base at El-Kiswah.

The images broadcast by the BBC showed “a series of two dozen large low-rise buildings, likely for housing soldiers and vehicles.”

Taken over several months, the pictures featured additional buildings being constructed. However, the report said that “it is impossible to independently verify the purpose of the site and the presence of the Iranian military.

“The images of the base do not reveal any signs of large or unconventional weaponry which means if it was a base it would most likely be to house soldiers and vehicles,” the BBC said, quoting a source who said it was possible that senior Iranian military officials may have visited the compound in recent weeks.

Also, the report said independent analysis of the images commissioned by the BBC concluded that the facility is military in nature. The analysis also suggested there are a series of garages that can hold six to eight vehicles each.

ImageSat International image of the suspected Iranian base located 50km from the Syrian-Israeli border. (Hadashot news screenshot)

Israel has long viewed Iran as its enemy number one. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been consistent in his opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying it does not go far enough to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Israel, along with Sunni Muslim states in the region, has viewed with mounting concern Iranian expansionism in the Middle East in Iraq, in Syria — with the backing of Russia — and through proxy groups such as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the Houthis in Yemen.

Two days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that a recently announced agreement on the terms of a ceasefire in Syria did not include a Russian commitment to ensure Iran-linked militias would be pulled out of the country.

He said that Iran maintained a “legitimate” presence in Syria, according to the Interfax news agency.

The statement came as officials from the US National Security Council flew into Israel for talks with security heads, primarily over the US-Russia agreement. They were expected to discuss Iran’s alleged construction of the military base at al-Kiswah.

On Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will not be bound by the deal, which would somewhat distance Iranian proxies from the border with Israel. The agreement, announced in a joint US-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria.

According to reports, the deal applies to Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Assad’s regime, which would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria.

But according to an unnamed Israeli official, under the deal, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as close as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) to the border in some areas, Reuters reported.

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