Satellite images reportedly show Iran has established a base outside of Damascus to house missiles capable of hitting Israel, crossing a “red line” for the Israeli government as it struggles to stop Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
Images from the Israeli satellite firm ImageSat International appear to show a pair of newly built missile hangars on the base, which strongly resemble hangars at another Iranian compound that Israel bombed last year.
The new base, located around eight miles north-west of Damascus, is being run by the Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has spearheaded Iran’s involvement in Syria, according to Fox News.
If the base is confirmed to hold Iranian missiles, its presence will likely increase the tensions between arch rivals Israel and Iran over Syria, which have been growing sharply in recent months.
Those tensions erupted in early February when Israel shot down an Iranian drone that entered its airspace from Syria and in turn lost one of its F-16 fighter jets to a Syrian regime anti-aircraft missiles. Iran denies owning the drone.
Iran's presence in Syria
Western diplomats and the UN have repeatedly warned such skirmishes could easily erupt into a devastating full-blown conflict, potentially pitting Israel against Iran and its allies in both Lebanon and Syria.
Israel has largely stayed out of the war that has raged in Syria for the past seven years, but it has laid down a series of what it calls “red lines” aimed mainly at limiting the presence in Syria of both Iran and its proxy group Hizbollah.
One of those red lines is to prevent Iran from using its alliance with the Assad regime to establish any permanent military bases in Syria.
"Iran continues to try to cross those red lines," said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at the Munich security conference. “Israel will not allow the Iranian regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.”
Last December Israeli jets and ground missiles struck an alleged Iranian base in the Syrian city of al-Qiswah, eight miles south of Damascus. Satellite images taken of the al-Qiswah facility before it was destroyed show a white hangar around 30 metres long and 20m wide.
ImageSat International said its satellites showed a pair of similar hangars at the newly spotted base at Jabal ash Sharqi, northwest of Damascus.
The Israeli government’s policy is usually to neither confirm nor deny its strikes in Syria and senior officials rarely talk openly about its military activities against Iran and Hizbollah.
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defence minister, played down reports of the new base on Wednesday. “We are listening and following the events. We will also act in the international arena to achieve everything possible,” he said.
Maps published by the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, show Iran has dozens of long-term military facilities across Syria, ranging from headquarters to training facilities to drone bases.
While Israel has carried out periodic strikes against the most significant facilities, it has been unable to stop the proliferation of Iranian bases.
Repeated diplomatic efforts by Mr Netanyahu to try to convince Russian leader Vladimir Putin to rein in Iran's expansion in Syria have so far failed to win over the Kremlin.
“I don’t think Israel has a grand vision of how it’s going to prevent Iran from consolidating its presence in Syria,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy.
“Israel has tactical measures that can delay the Iranian entrenchment but on a strategic level they are trying to talk to the Russians and it’s not working.”
A senior former Israeli air force commander said that in the absence of a political agreement with Russia on limiting Iran’s presence in Syria, Israel’s military would use air strikes try to “raise the cost” to Iran.
“An attack aimed at Israel from Iran would be very inefficient and Israel would have a long time to prepare. But an attack from Syria would be a different ball game because they are dramatically closer,” the commander said.
Iran’s arming of Hizbollah in Lebanon and its establishment of bases in Syria is usually presented by Israel as evidence of Iran’s determination to wipe out the Jewish state.
Iran regularly makes provocative anti-Semitic statements about Israel and at times even paints its missiles with Hebrew letters threatening Israel’s destruction.
But many analysts believe that beneath the bluster, Iran is not eager for a war with Israel’s superior military and is focused mainly on trying to discourage attacks on its own territory by either Israel or the US.
“It’s more of a mechanism of deterence, especially at a time when Iran is uncertain of the intentions of the current US administration. For them having a presence in Lebanon and Syria is both offensive and defensive,” said Holly Dagres, the curator of the Iranist newsletter.