Iran said to spend $31b on regional conflict in recent years

Iran said to be building military facilities in Syria near Russian positions

Tehran’s gambit is apparently based on assessment that Israel wouldn’t dare strike for fear of tangling with Moscow

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking into binoculars, and other senior officers from the Iranian military, visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, on October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP, File)
Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking into binoculars, and other senior officers from the Iranian military, visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, on October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP, File)

As it works intensively to deepen its military presence in Syria, Iran is building military facilities very close to Russian forces there, The Times of Israel has learned.

The construction of these facilities is being carried out secretively, and in some cases it has begun under the guise of residential building for civilians, and only later revealed as facilities for accommodating Shi’ite fighters deployed by Iran, well-placed sources told The Times of Israel, insisting on anonymity.

The Iranian gambit is apparently based on the assessment that Israel — which has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence across its northern border — is unlikely to risk attacking facilities that are located near Russian forces and angering Moscow.

This new building work, which the sources said is not being coordinated with Russia, potentially turns the nearby Russian forces into de facto human shields in any future conflict with Israel.

The Iranian move is one of several developments in Syria that indicate Moscow and Tehran are no longer quite as much in lockstep when it comes to Syria. While Moscow accepts that the presence of Shiite ground forces in Syria is vital to ensure President Bashar Assad’s continued control of the country, some of Iran’s broader actions and efforts to expand its footprint in the Syrian arena are causing consternation in the Kremlin.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 file photo, a Russian air defense system missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia. The Russian military said Tuesday it had deployed the S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria to protect a Russian navy facility in the Syrian port of Tartus and Russian navy ships in the area. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, file)

Moscow also allegedly played a key role in ensuring Syria rebuffed Iran’s efforts to establish a sea port at Tartus. Iran sought to lease an area for such a port — much as Russia leased the land for its port there — but was rejected.

Overall in Syria, Tehran is seeking nothing less far-reaching than to change the country’s Sunni-majority demographic balance, The Times of Israel was told. The Iranians understand that the Alawite regime rests on a small ethno-religious minority, and therefore may be too weak to guarantee the country’s stability going forward.

This Dec. 11, 2017 photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watching troops march at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

The Shiite militias sent to the country — already numbering over 10,000, including mercenaries from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — are not simply a fighting force, therefore. Iran’s goal is to increase their numbers dramatically, and in parallel bring over their families, offspring, relatives and whoever else they can from the soldiers’ social circles, so that hundreds of thousands more Shiites take residence in Syria. This, even as the exodus of millions of Sunnis from their homeland — an estimated 5-6 million Syrians have fled the country — also strengthens Bashar Assad’s position.

While working to open airports, military bases, intelligence bases and more, Iran is also continuing to seek to carve out its share in Syria’s solar and phosphates industries, among others. These steps, too, sometimes cause tension with Moscow; the Russians are finding themselves competing with the Iranians for various economic projects, an uncomfortable new reality in a Syria where everyone seems to want to profit from its potential restoration.

Iran is estimated to have spent a staggering $31 billion in recent years in its wars and conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, among other locations, The Times of Israel was told. Iranian activities in these countries show no signs of abating. Along with its ongoing battle to determine the shape of post-war Syria, its involvement in the elections in Lebanon (scheduled for May), in the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, and with the Shiite militias in Iraq, underline long-term commitments.

Underpinning its expansionist activities is an improving economy — growth figures are encouraging — with quite a few foreign companies, European, Chinese and Russian, having already signed agreements with Iran worth many billions of dollars.

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