Syrian outlet: ‘Iranian’ base is actually for Assad’s special forces

Zaman Al Wasl report is latest to question Fox News story about facility allegedly set up by Tehran in Syria

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A picture of the alleged Iranian base in Syria. The white hangars can be seen at the bottom center. (Google Maps)
A picture of the alleged Iranian base in Syria. The white hangars can be seen at the bottom center. (Google Maps)

The base reportedly set up by Iran in Syria is actually a training facility for dictator Bashar Assad’s special forces, according to a well-regarded Syrian news outlet.

The Syrian news site Zaman Al Wasl, which is generally seen as pro-opposition, quoted an unnamed “well-informed source” who disputed a recent Fox News report that claimed Iran established a new base in an area known as Jabal al-Sharqi, some eight kilometers (5 miles) northwest of the Syrian capital.

The Fox report cited information from Israel-based geospatial analysis outfit ImageSat, which included satellite photographs of the site that showed two identical buildings it said might be used to store short- and medium-range missiles that could be fired at Israel. Yet, in the past, ImageSat claimed that type of building was “probably a mosque or dining hall.”

According to the Syrian outlet, the facility itself is a “training camp of the regime’s Special Forces” and the buildings in question are not a missile warehouse, mosque, or dining hall but rather a garage for army vehicles.

A satellite image showing buildings that are now being identified as possible missile hangars but were once said to be a probably mosque or dining hall from two reported Iranian bases reportedly being built outside Damascus. (ImageSat International ISI)

The Zaman Al Wasl report comes a day after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also seemed to question the accuracy of the Fox News story.

“Don’t take every report in the media, even from a respected outlet like Fox, as an absolute thing,” the defense minister said in an interview with Israel Radio on Wednesday morning.

“We have the full picture of what’s going on,” he added.

A satellite image showing an alleged Iranian base on the outskirts of a Syrian army base outside Damascus. (ImageSat International ISI)

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the alleged Iranian base, some defense analysts suspected that it would only be a matter of time until reports came out saying the site had been destroyed in a strike attributed to Israel.

“The clock is ticking. Twenty days passed between satellite pictures being published of the last Iranian site and the attack on the site,” wrote Amos Yadlin, a former head of IDF Military Intelligence and the current executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv.

The Zaman Al Wasl news site, which publishes in both Arabic and English, bills itself as independent, though many analysts see it as having a pro-opposition bias. The outlet, which appears to have well-placed sources in both the opposition and Syrian regime, has reported extensively on Iranian involvement in the country’s civil war.

Israel has been warning for years that Iran is seeking to entrench itself militarily in Syria, including establishing missile bases. According to Israeli political and military assessments, Tehran, which has shored up Assad in the Syrian civil war, has been working to create air and naval bases in Syria, from which it can arm the Lebanon-based terror organization Hezbollah and other Shiite groups, as well as carry out attacks of its own against the Jewish state.

On February 10, Israel clashed with Syria and Iran after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. An Israeli helicopter shot down the aircraft and fighter jets struck a number of sites inside Syria, including the Iranian mobile command center from which the drone was operated. During the attack, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile hit one of the Israeli F-16 jets taking part in the mission; the crew bailed out and it crashed. Israel then conducted a second round of strikes, destroying a significant portion of Syria’s air defenses.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas KIENZLE)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on February 18 that Israel could strike the Islamic Republic directly and cautioned Tehran not to “test Israel’s resolve.”

“Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”

A report earlier this month alleged that Iran was operating 10 military bases in Syria and was training militias loyal to Assad’s regime for a possible battle with Israel, with two key facilities located near the Golan Heights border.

On Tuesday, the head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel, warned that Iran has been increasing the quality and quantity of missiles it is supplying to groups in Syria and Lebanon.

“Iran is generating instability across the region, and the Iranian threat network continues to increase in strength, enhancing its capacity to threaten US and partner nation interests,” he said.

US Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27, 2018. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Returning from a trip to Israel Tuesday, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that Iran was “testing” US President Donald Trump in Syria and in Lebanon, where Israeli officials fear Iran is helping the terror group Hezbollah build precision-guided rockets for use against the Jewish State.

“They are testing Trump,” Graham said, according to Bloomberg News. “They are testing the international community.”

Graham also predicted there would soon be war in southern Lebanon over the missiles.

“They’ve told us in no uncertain terms that if this threat continues — they keep making rockets that can hit the airport and do a lot of damage to the State of Israel — they are going to have to go in,” Graham said of Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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