Defense minister casts doubt on ‘new’ Iranian base in Syria

With no explanation for the change, satellite imaging firm now says building it once called a dining hall is a missile depot

A satellite image showing an alleged Iranian base on the outskirts of a Syrian army base outside Damascus. (ImageSat International ISI)
A satellite image showing an alleged Iranian base on the outskirts of a Syrian army base outside Damascus. (ImageSat International ISI)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday seemed to dispute the accuracy of a new report on an Iranian military facility outside Damascus, as questions arose regarding analysis of the satellite images of the alleged base.

Early Wednesday morning, Fox News reported that Iran had built a new base in an area known as Jabal al-Sharqi, some eight kilometers (5 miles) northwest of the Syrian capital, including two recently constructed buildings that are similar to those seen at another base in Syria thought to have been used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps troops. The report cited information from Israel-based geospatial analysis outfit ImageSat.

A picture of the alleged Iranian base in Syria. The white hangars can be seen at the bottom center. (Google Maps)

The satellite images show that the alleged Iranian base is situated just outside an existing Syrian army base. An earthen berm is also visible around the Jabal al-Sharqi site, indicating a likely military use.

But shortly after the report was published, Liberman cast doubt on its veracity.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to the press in a field just outside the Gaza Strip on February 20, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Don’t take every report in the media, even from a respected outlet like Fox, as an absolute thing,” the defense minister said in an interview with Israel Radio.

“We have the full picture of what’s going on,” he added.

The claim that the two buildings identified by ImageSat as possible hangars for short- and medium-range missiles is also somewhat suspect. The company said the shape and size — 30 meters by 20 meters — were identical to those of a building on an alleged Iranian base in al-Kiswah, south of Damascus, that was photographed by ImageSat in November and reportedly targeted by Israel in December.

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)

In the satellite imagery distributed by ImageSat on Wednesday, the two buildings from the new base in Jabal al-Sharqi and the one building from the base destroyed in December were said to be hangars. However, in November, ImageSat had identified the building as “probably [a] mosque or [a] dining hall.”

A BBC report on the same base also indicated analysts did not believe it was designed for storing missiles or other large arms, but rather for housing soldiers and vehicles.

No reason was provided for the altered assessment.

A representative of ImageSat downplayed the discrepancy, saying the company hadn’t actually determined that the building was a missile hangar, despite the fact that many news outlets had relied on that identification.

“We haven’t reached any conclusions. These are just the pictures that we’re sending out,” he said.

A satellite image showing buildings that are now being identified as possible missile hangars but were once said to be a probably mosque or dining hall from two reported Iranian bases reportedly being built outside Damascus. (ImageSat International ISI)

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the alleged Iranian base, some defense analysts suspected that it would only be a matter of time until reports came saying that the site had been destroyed in a strike attributed to Israel.

“The clock is ticking. Twenty days passed between satellite pictures being published of the last Iranian site and the attack on the site,” wrote Amos Yadlin, a former head of IDF Military Intelligence and the current executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv.

Israel has been warning for years that Iran is seeking to entrench itself militarily in Syria, including establishing missile bases. According to Israeli political and military assessments, Tehran, which has shored up Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, has been working to create air and naval bases in Syria, from which it can arm the Lebanon-based terror organization Hezbollah and other Shiite groups, as well as carry out attacks of its own against the Jewish state.

On February 10, Israel clashed with Syria and Iran after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. An Israeli helicopter shot down the aircraft and fighter jets struck a number of sites inside Syria, including the Iranian mobile command center from which the drone was operated. During the attack, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile hit one of the Israeli F-16 jets taking part in the mission; the crew bailed out and it crashed. Israel then conducted a second round of strikes, destroying a significant portion of Syria’s air defenses.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas KIENZLE)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on February 18 that Israel could strike the Islamic Republic directly and cautioned Tehran not to “test Israel’s resolve.”

“Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”

A report earlier this month alleged that Iran was operating 10 military bases in Syria and was training militias loyal to Assad’s regime for a possible battle with Israel, with two key facilities located near the Golan Heights border.

On Tuesday, the head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel, warned that Iran has been increasing the quality and quantity of missiles it is supplying to groups in Syria and Lebanon.

“Iran is generating instability across the region, and the Iranian threat network continues to increase in strength, enhancing its capacity to threaten US and partner nation interests,” he said.

US Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27, 2018. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Returning from a trip to Israel Tuesday, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that Iran was “testing” US President Donald Trump in Syria and in Lebanon, where Israeli officials fear Iran is helping the terror group Hezbollah build precision-guided rockets for us against the Jewish State.

“They are testing Trump,” Graham said, according to Bloomberg News. “They are testing the international community.”

Graham also predicted there would soon be war in southern Lebanon, over the missiles.

“They’ve told us in no uncertain terms that if this threat continues — they keep making rockets that can hit the airport and do a lot of damage to the State of Israel — they are going to have to go in,” Graham said.

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