Report says aid efforts complicate Israeli targeting of arms

Leaked US intel files: Iran smuggling weapons hidden in earthquake relief to Syria

Citing classified assessment and Israeli military official, Washington Post says Iranian proxies in Iraq are working with Quds Force to ferry arms across border, including drones

Iran-linked fighters with a portrait of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Baghdad, Iraq, during a parade marking Quds Day, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Illustrative: Iran-linked fighters with a portrait of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Baghdad, Iraq, during a parade marking Quds Day, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Iran and allied proxy groups have been smuggling weapons into Syria concealed within aid shipments sent in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake earlier this year, the Washington Post reported Sunday.

The daily cited a classified US intelligence assessment that was shared on the online messaging platform Discord, where other sensitive American government documents have recently circulated. A suspect accused of leaking the files was charged last month.

According to the report, many of the weapons — among them small arms, ammunition and drones — were brought in convoys from Iraq organized by Iran-backed militias there along with the Quds Force, the unit in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tasked with overseas operations.

The intelligence file indicated that Iran moved to swiftly exploit the February 7 earthquake, which killed tens of thousands in Syria and neighboring Turkey, as a day later an unspecified Iraqi militia group “allegedly orchestrated the transfer of rifles, ammunition and 30 [drones] hidden in aid convoys to support future attacks on US forces in Syria.”

It added that days later, a Quds Force officer told another Iraqi paramilitary to hide weapons “within legitimate earthquake aid.” Another Iranian officer was quoted saying that he had a list of “hundreds” of transport vehicles that crossed into Syria from Iraq since the earthquake.

The report said the “chief of staff” of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, seemingly referring to Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammadawi — who is under US sanctions — was complicit in the smuggling. The PMF, an umbrella organization of militias that enjoys backing from Iran, denied that either it or affiliated groups have exploited the aid deliveries to ferry arms to Syria.

People stand by a building destroyed in recent earthquake in Aleppo, Syria, February 27, 2023. (Omar Sanadiki/AP)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani’s office would not comment on record but a senior official dismissed the smuggling allegations in the US document as “fake,” arguing no pretext was necessary to ship weapons to Syria.

“In reality the borders are wide open; in fact we are still suffering from illegals sneaking through the Syrian border,” the Iraqi official said. “Which means if these documents are right, it’s possible any time. Why wait for an aid convoy as a justification?”

The newspaper said an unnamed Israeli military official confirmed the Quds Force’s involvement, without giving further details.

The report also said the aid shipments were complicating Israel’s targeting of arms deliveries for Iranian proxies. But it predicted Israeli forces were “very likely” to continue working to intercept them but will need “stricter intelligence confirmation prior to striking alleged aid shipments.”

The United States has about 900 troops in posts across northeastern Syria to keep pressure on the remnants of the Islamic State group and support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which control most of the northeast. It also maintains the al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria, which has been targeted in suspected Iranian drone attacks.

US soldiers patrol the countryside of Rumaylan (Rmeilan) in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province near the border with Turkey on April 13, 2023. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

In March, a US military contractor in Syria was killed by a drone, leading to an American retaliatory attack on Iran-linked forces in the country.

The Washington Post report comes after Reuters similarly reported last month that Iran has transported weapons and military gear into Syria on humanitarian aid flights following the recent earthquake.

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.

Several airstrikes against alleged Iranian weapon shipments disguised as seemingly harmless products have been attributed to Israel in the recent past.

Illustrative: Workers unload aid from a plane sent by Iran, at the airport in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, early on February 8, 2023, following a deadly earthquake. (AFP)

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. The Jewish state 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.

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