Iran operates 10 military bases in Syria and is training militias loyal to President Bashar Assad’s regime for a possible battle with Israel, with two key facilities located near the border with Israel, an analyst for an American think tank said in an article published Monday.
Up to 20,000 fighters from various militias throughout the war-torn country have been trained by Iranian military personnel, giving Tehran its “true muscle” in Syria, according to the Monday report in The New York Times.
Israel has been warning for years that Iran is seeking to entrench itself militarily in Syria. According to Israeli political and military assessments, Tehran, which has shored up 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.
In November, Israeli satellite photos appeared to strengthen a BBC report that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria, just 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Israel’s northern border.
The ImageSat International pictures, published by Hadashot News, showed that renovations and alterations had been recently undertaken at the site at al-Kiswah, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) south of the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Iran has repeatedly rejected the claim, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telling reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Monday that Iran has no military bases in Syria.
At least two Iraqi militia leaders have toured Lebanon’s border with Israel in recent months, The New York Times also said, quoting militia members as saying plans were made for “collaboration” in a possible conflict in the future.
Monday’s report said hundreds or thousands of Iranian military officials are in Syria and that about 6,000 of the Iran-trained combatants in the country are members of Hezbollah, with the rest coming from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries. Most of them view the battle against non-Shiite Muslims and against non-Muslims in the region in religious terms, the report added.
After neutralizing most of the threat posed by the Sunni Islamic State terror group, militias loyal to Assad are now shifting their focus to the Israeli front, Ali Alfoneh, a researcher at the US-based Atlantic Council told The New York Times.
Alfoneh said in his research that he had identified 10 Iranian military bases, seven of which are tactical bases and located near active front lines, and three “main” bases overseeing activities throughout the country. Two of those main bases are located south of Damascus, near the border with Israel.
“Iran has realized that it is actually possible to maintain a front against Israel where there is no war, but also no peace,” Alfoneh was quoted as saying.
On February 10, Israel struck what it said was a number of Iranian installations in Syria after an Iranian drone infiltrated into Israel, in what some analysts saw as the first direct confrontation between the two countries.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue to protect itself against Iranian activities in Syria, including striking Iran directly.
“Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he added. “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.”