Satellite images appear to show Iran building new weapons storehouse in Syria
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Satellite images appear to show Iran building new weapons storehouse in Syria

Contradicting senior Israeli defense official’s claim of Iranian withdrawal, fresh photographs seem to indicate Tehran establishing underground facility to hold advanced munitions

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

This photo released by ImageSat International on May 13, 2020, shows apparent construction on an underground weapons storage facility on a military base suspected of being controlled by Iran in eastern Syria's al-Bukamal region. (ImageSat International)
This photo released by ImageSat International on May 13, 2020, shows apparent construction on an underground weapons storage facility on a military base suspected of being controlled by Iran in eastern Syria's al-Bukamal region. (ImageSat International)

Iran is constructing a new underground weapons storage facility in eastern Syria at a military base under its control near the Iraqi border, a private Israeli satellite imagery analysis firm said Wednesday.

According to satellite photographs released by ImageSat International, an excavator and bulldozers have been seen operating within the Imam Ali base in the al-Bukamal region of Syria, which is believed to be run by Iranian forces.

The intelligence firm, citing photographs of the base from April 1 and Tuesday, said that work on the underground weapons storage facility appears to have started in March.

“The tunnel is fit to be used as a shelter and storage for trucks and vehicles, including vehicles carrying advanced missile weapon systems,” ImageSat said in its assessment.

This photo released by ImageSat International on May 13, 2020, shows apparent construction on an underground weapons storage facility on a military base suspected of being controlled by Iran in eastern Syria’s al-Bukamal region. (ImageSat International)

It is the second such subterranean tunnel to be constructed at the base, which is located a few kilometers from the Iraqi border.

Construction of the first tunnel was halted when the base was attacked shortly after the underground facility was revealed by ImageSat last December. It was not the only case of suspected areas of Iranian military entrenchment being identified and publicized by ImageSat shortly before the sites were targeted in airstrikes attributed to Israel.

Wednesday’s revelation of Iran’s alleged further entrenchment in Syria appears to contradict a claim made by a senior Israeli defense official earlier this month that Tehran was pulling its troops out of the country in response to airstrikes against its forces that have been attributed to Israel.

“The construction of the new tunnel signifies Iran’s commitment to further developing its military presence in this area, despite repeated attacks,” ImageSat said in its assessment.

This photo released by ImageSat International on May 13, 2020, shows apparent construction on an underground weapons storage facility on a military base suspected of being controlled by Iran in eastern Syria’s al-Bukamal region. (ImageSat International)

Also on Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mocked the defense official’s claim that Iran was fleeing Syria, even dismissing the notion that there were Iranian troops in the country.

“In Syria there is an imaginary battle that Israel is waging, called ‘not allowing the presence of Iranian military troops in Syria,’” Nasrallah said, insisting that only “Iranian military advisers and experts,” not fighters, are there.

In December, ImageSat reported that a different tunnel — also suspected as a means to store advanced weaponry — was being built on the Imam Ali military base.

The base has been the site of several Israeli airstrikes in the past year.

Supporters of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans as he makes televised remarks at a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, January 5, 2020 following the US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, seen on a poster at left, and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

According to the image analysis company, such tunnels are likely meant to store Iranian missiles en route to Tehran’s proxies throughout the region.

The al-Bukamal region in Syria is seen as critical to Tehran’s effort to establish a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and out to the Mediterranean Sea in order to more easily move weapons and fighters throughout the Middle East.

Israel has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria.

Though it does not generally comment on specific attacks, Israel has generally acknowledged carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets over the last several years, both to prevent Tehran from turning Syria into a forward-operating base in its war against Israel and to keep the Islamic Republic from transferring advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group and other proxies in the region.

On Wednesday, Nasrallah said that Israel had been targeting sites connected to his group’s efforts to develop precision-guided missiles.

Israel is attacking “everything related to missile manufacture in Syria,” he said, asserting that Israel sees these weapons as a danger because they “strengthen Syria and the axis of resistance.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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