Israel, US concerned by recent Iranian cargo flights to Syria — report

Officials said to fear the planes are transporting weapons which could be used to attack Israel

Technicians prepare Ilyushin Il-76TD long-haul cargo aircrafts for the upcoming MAKS-2015, the International Aviation and Space Show, in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, on August 21, 2015. (AFP/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV)
Technicians prepare Ilyushin Il-76TD long-haul cargo aircrafts for the upcoming MAKS-2015, the International Aviation and Space Show, in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, on August 21, 2015. (AFP/KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV)

US and Israeli intelligence officials are concerned over a number of cargo flights that have flown from Iran to Syria in recent weeks, CNN reported on Wednesday.

A US administration official confirmed to the network that the US and Israel fear the planes are being used to transport weapons for troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad or Iranian forces operating in the country, which could then be used to attack Israel.

Although there have been shipments from Iran to Syria in the past, these recent flights were said to have been noted as they arrived in the wake of the April 13 US-led strikes on Syrian military targets in response to an alleged chemical gas attack on the town of Douma that killed dozens.

A Twitter account tracking air traffic around the world recently published details of at least two Syrian Air Force IL-76 cargo flights between Iran and Syria, and the US official told CNN that other flights including at least one Iranian cargo plane have also been monitored by intelligence services.

The news network also reported concerns that the transports were replenishing anti-aircraft missiles depleted when Syria targeted Israeli jets carrying out a raid in February.

Israel carried out strikes on targets in Syria after an explosives-laden drone was flown into Israeli airspace on February 10. The Israeli military said at the time that between one-third and one-half of Syria’s air defenses were destroyed during the strikes.

During a Syrian counterattack against the Israeli jets, one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in a field in northern Israel after the pilot and navigator ejected from it.

The mobile command center from which Israel says an Iranian operator flew a drone from Syria into Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Western officials have accused Iran of using seemingly civilian airlines as fronts for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to conduct military transport missions to Syria from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.

Pouya Airlines, for instance, was subjected to US sanctions in 2014 for “transporting illicit cargo, including weapons, to Iran’s clients in the Levant,” according to the US Treasury Department.

Over time, the IRGC began setting up its own facilities on Syrian military bases and air fields.

Reported Iranian attempts to bring advanced weaponry into Syria come at a time of unprecedented tension between Jerusalem and Tehran, including mutual threats of attack. Most recently, Iran has vowed revenge over an airstrike on the T-4 airbase in Syria in April that was said to have killed several Iranian military figures and has widely been blamed on Israel, which has not confirmed it was behind it.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage April 16, 2018. (Iranian media)

The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said Tuesday that Tehran “will choose the time and place” to mete out its “inevitable” response for the strike on the T-4 base.

“The entity that gives itself the right to attack the sovereignty of another country and to target forces fighting terrorism must certainly have thought about the results and consequences of that attack and the corresponding reaction,” Ali Shamkhani told reporters.

Shamkhani’s words came days after the IDF released a map showing five Iranian-controlled bases in Syria that would apparently constitute potential targets for an Israeli response should Iran carry out any kind of attack.

Iran has access to a variety of surface-to-surface missiles, from short-range Fajr-5 rockets to medium-range Fateh 110 missiles, which have a range of approximately 300 kilometers (190 miles) to long-range Shehab ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets over 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away.

To counter those threats, Israel has a multi-tiered missile defense system consisting of the Iron Dome for short-range rockets and mortar shells, the David’s Sling for medium-range missiles and the Arrow for long-range ballistic missiles.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report

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