IDF general warns foreign officials Iran setting up bases in Syria

Kan broadcaster airs leaked footage of Military Intelligence chief telling visiting security ministers that Tehran’s looking not to support Assad, but to attack Israel

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

This file photo provided on October 20, 2017 by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media shows Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking at a map with senior officers from the Iranian military as they visit a front line position in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)
This file photo provided on October 20, 2017 by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media shows Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking at a map with senior officers from the Iranian military as they visit a front line position in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The head of Military Intelligence revealed a map of suspected Iranian bases in Syria to a group of foreign security officials on Wednesday, noting they were not located near the sites of battles between the Syrian regime and rebel groups, according to a video of the speech leaked to Israeli TV news.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman told the visiting homeland security ministers that the purpose of these Iranian bases was to establish a foothold in Syria in order to threaten the State of Israel, not to assist Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

“You probably think it’s because they are trying to help the Assad regime fight extremists, fight terror. Well, get ready for a surprise: In all these places on the map there has been no fighting going on for half a month,” Hyman said, according to the recording broadcast on Wednesday night by Israel’s Kan news.

The general made his remarks at a homeland security conference held in Jerusalem this week, hosted by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

The footage, apparently filmed surreptitiously by a participant, was not of high enough quality to make out the exact locations of the Iranian bases, but showed them spread throughout the country.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman, the head of the IDF’s Northern Corps, who was named as the army’s incoming Military Intelligence chief, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Hyman, who took over as Military Intelligence chief in March, noted that at this stage, Assad’s victory in the devastating Syrian civil war is all but guaranteed, yet his allies, the Iranians, do not appear to be preparing to leave the area.

“There is no real threat to Assad, so why do they stay there?” the general said, speaking in English.

“If they had wanted to assist the regime,” Hyman added, Assad could now tell them “thanks and goodbye.”

Instead, the Syrian dictator has said that Iran’s presence in the country is nonnegotiable, as Russia and the United States attempt to broker a settlement or ceasefire for the Syrian civil war, in which approximately half a million people have been killed and nearly a million displaced.

The relationship between Syria and Iran “will not be part of any settlement” and is “not in the international bazaar,” Assad told Iran’s Al Alam TV on Wednesday night.

In this file photo from October 2, 2010, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Supreme Leader, via AP, File)

The dictator repeated a claim oft-heard from Syrian and Iranian officials that Tehran does not maintain military bases in Syria. This is routinely dismissed as nonsense by Israeli, Arab and Western defense officials.

According to Hyman, Iran’s focus is establishing a military network with which it can threaten to attack Israel.

“[The Iranians] are trying to increase their effort of creating the ability and capability to launch rockets and to establish cells of terror that can enter Israel and harm the villages on the Golan Heights,” the general said.

“Nobody noticed the regional expansion that Iran did [in the Middle East]. Iran exploited that situation while everyone else in the world was focused on something else and expanded its network of terror,” he said.

Anti-aircraft fire rises into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, after what the Israeli military said was an Iranian barrage of rockets against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

Hyman also referred to Israel’s clash with Iran in Syria on May 10, in which Israel says that Iranian forces launched 32 rockets at Israel’s forward defensive line along the border with Syria on the Golan Heights.

According to Israel, four of the incoming rockets were shot down; the rest fell short of Israeli territory. In response, over the next two hours Israeli jets fired dozens of missiles at Iranian targets in Syria and destroyed a number of Syrian air defense systems.

It was the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date.

Hyman called Iran’s attack “a total failure, operationally,” but said that Tehran nevertheless saw it as a “huge success” as it was able to launch the rockets and force Israel to open bomb shelters in the north.

Last month, Hyman accompanied Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on a working visit to Russia in order to meet with their Russian counterparts as part of Israel’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure an Iranian withdrawal from Syria.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks with his military secretary Brig. Gen. Yair Kohls, left, and the head of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman, right, during a flight to Moscow on May 30, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

According to reports, Moscow is prepared to force Iran to pull its forces from the area closest to the border. Israel has rebuffed the offer, calling for Iran to pull out of Syria entirely.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 40 kilometers or 80 kilometers. If they’re setting up missile systems in Homs, Hama or in Deir Ezzor, they will have enough range to hit Israeli territory,” Liberman said at a conference last week.

Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian-backed forces stationed on the Golan border, including from the Hezbollah terror group, had also begun posing as Syrian military units, in a ploy to try to stave off pressure from Israel.

Earlier this week, the Reuters news agency reported that the Syrian military had recently deployed additional air defenses near the border with Israel, apparently as a result of the ongoing tensions over Iran’s presence in Syria.

Israeli soldiers seen beside tanks near the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018 (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The deployment was announced days after the Israel Defense Forces launched a surprise exercise on the Israeli Golan Heights.

The IDF said the exercise was not tied to current events but was “planned in advance as part of the 2018 training schedule.”

According to the Reuters report, the air defense reinforcement included the deployment of a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 system, also known as a SA-22, which the commander said was meant to “renew the air defense system against Israel in the first degree.”

The Israeli Air Force destroyed a SA-22 air defense system during its air raids on May 10, the army said at the time.

Israel’s long-running, but relatively quiet, campaign against Iran and its proxies, notably the Lebanon-base Hezbollah terrorist group, came to light and stepped up considerably in February, after an Iranian drone carrying explosives briefly entered Israeli airspace before it was shot down and, simultaneously, Israel launched a counterattack on the T-4 air base in central Syria from which the drone had been piloted.

In April, Israel attacked the T-4 air base again after Iran brought in an advanced anti-aircraft system. The Israeli strike killed at least seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Since the April attack, Iranian officials have regularly threatened Israel with promises of eventual retribution.

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