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.
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.
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.