Iran has transported weapons and military equipment into Syria on flights bringing in humanitarian aid after February’s devastating earthquake, it was reported Wednesday.
Nine Syrian, Iranian, Israeli and Western sources told the Reuters news agency that the weaponry was to “buttress Iran’s defenses against Israel in Syria,” as well as to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad, a key ally of Tehran.
The report said the equipment included advanced communications equipment and radar batteries, as well as spare parts required for an upgrade of Syria’s air defense system that was provided by Tehran.
Reuters said that its sources for the report included Western intelligence officials, sources close to the Iranian and Israeli leadership, a Syrian military defector and a serving Syrian officer.
The sources told Reuters that Israeli defense officials became aware soon after the earthquake that Tehran was exploiting the situation to transfer weapons.
“Under the guise of shipments of earthquake aid to Syria, Israel has seen significant movements of military equipment from Iran, mainly transported in parts,” an anonymous Israeli defense official told Reuters.
The official said that most of the military equipment was sent to Aleppo Airport, adding that it was organized by the Unit 18000 Syrian division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, under the leadership of Hassan Mehdoui.
The official said ground transportation of the weapons was then undertaken by the Quds Force’s Transport Unit 190, led by Bahanem Shahariri.
Cargo planes quickly began to arrive at Aleppo from Iran, where they were supervised by Esmail Ghaani, who heads the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force.
Within days of the earthquake, the Saudi-owned Elaph news site cited an Israeli military official as saying if Iran ships weapons to its regional proxies under the guise of humanitarian aid to Syria following the major earthquake there, the IDF would not hesitate to strike.
Last month, Aleppo International Airport was shuttered for nearly three days after its runway was damaged in an airstrike attributed to Israel.
Sources confirmed to Reuters that the runway was hit shortly after two cargo planes arrived from Iran carrying arms shipments.
At the time, Syria’s Foreign Ministry decried a “double crime,” saying the strike targeted both “a civilian airport… and one of the key channels for the arrival of humanitarian aid” for victims of the deadly earthquake.
More than 6,000 people are believed to have been killed by the temblor in Syria, with over 50,000 killed in Turkey.
“Israel’s strikes also targeted a meeting of commanders of Iranian militias and shipments of electronic chips to upgrade weapons systems,” Syrian military defector Col. Abduljabbar Akaidi told Reuters, without giving further details on the meeting.
A Syrian army officer who remained anonymous said that Israel was increasing its strikes in Syria “because they have information that something is being developed quickly.”
“They must stop it and hit it to slow it. The quake created the right conditions. The chaos that ensued allowed Iranian jets to land with ease,” the Syrian source said.
Other sources confirmed to Reuters that since the start of the month Israel has targeted weapons warehouses in the Jabal Manea Kiswa mountain range south of Damascus.
The report said the site was probably the most fortified military site in Syria built by Iranian troops and Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group.
The report said a radar station used for drones had also been hit in a strike.
“We believe that Iranian militias have transferred huge quantities of ammunition — they have restocked quantities lost in previous Israeli drone strikes,” a Western intelligence source said, referring to the Iranian flights in the wake of the earthquake.
A regional source close to Iran’s clerical leadership told the outlet that while the earthquake was a disaster, it provided a God-sent opportunity to transfer weaponry.
“The quake was a sad disaster, but at the same time, it was God’s help to us to help our brothers in Syria in their fight against their enemies. Loads of weapons were sent to Syria immediately,” the source said.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied to Reuters that it had used humanitarian flights to transfer weaponry to Syria. Damascus did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on the matter.
Several airstrikes against alleged Iranian weapon shipments disguised as seemingly harmless products have been attributed to Israel in the recent past.
Israel is believed to have carried out hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, including attacks on the Damascus and Aleppo airports, but it rarely acknowledges or discusses the operations.
Israel has acknowledged, however, that it targets bases of Iran-allied groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Israel views Iran’s expansion throughout Syria as a continued threat to its national security and has conducted strikes across a broad range of targets in an effort to curb Iran’s forces in the region.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, citing the country’s hostile rhetoric, support for terror groups like Hezbollah, and its suspected nuclear program. Iran denies Western allegations that it is pursuing a nuclear bomb.
Israel is alleged to have carried out a number of strikes in Syria this month, including one which killed two members of the IRGC.
Six rockets were launched from southern Syria at the Golan Heights on Saturday night and early Sunday in two separate barrages hours apart, with three landing in Israeli territory, the military said.
The attack came as tensions soared across the region, with a barrage of rockets from Lebanon; tit-for-tat rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli strikes; clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount; deadly terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank; as well as a suspected Iranian drone launched from Syria earlier in the week.
Israel appears to have stepped up its activities in Syria recently, and earlier this month, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned Iran and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah that Israel would not tolerate any efforts to harm the country or its citizens after a man was seriously wounded in a Megiddo bomb attack blamed on the Iran-backed organization.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.