Airstrike On Iranian Base In Syria Raises Questions
Jerusalem Post/December 03/17
In the early hours of December 2, reports claimed that a base or ammunition warehouse south of Damascus had been hit by missiles from an airstrike. Foreign media has alleged that Israel was behind that strike.
However, unlike previous airstrikes on Syria, some of which Israel has taken credit for, this one was conducted against a site that was well known. It raises questions as to the timing of the attack and what it was meant to achieve.
Why did it take so long to target the facility and in whose interest was it to reveal the facility’s existence to the public? First, let’s look at the timeline of events in November that led to the attack.
For more than a year, there have been warnings that Iran was intent on constructing permanent bases in Syria, laying the groundwork for the era after ISIS would be defeated.
On November 10 the BBC released a report that Iran was “building permanent military base in Syria.” The report had three satellite images with it – from January, May and October – showing a site near El-Kiswah, south of Damascus. It was about 50 km. from Israeli forces on the Golan Heights. The changes at the site showed new buildings and the BBC ascribed the information to a “western intelligence source.”
The report came out the day Russian President Vladimir Putin met US President Donald Trump in Danang, Vietnam. It also was two days after a Memorandum of Principles had been concluded in Amman between the US, Russia and Jordan regarding a cease-fire in southern Syria.
The cease-fire originally had been inked in July, despite Israeli objections to the presence of Iranian-backed forces in southern Syria.
Fred Hof, a former State Department special adviser for transition in Syria, told Foreign Policy the agreement was supposed to remove foreign fighters from the area.
“This could be designed mainly to reassure the Israelis that these elements would not be operating in proximity to the Golan Heights,” he said.
According to reports between July and October, Israel wanted assurances that Iranian forces would be kept 60 km. from the Golan.
On November 12, two days after the revelations of the Iranian base at El-Kiswah, a US State Department official indicated to Israeli media that the cease-fire memorandum would include the removal of Iranian forces from areas near the Golan. Three days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the agreement did not indicate that Iranian- backed forces would be withdrawn.
This left Israel in a very public conundrum. Israeli leaders had sworn to prevent Iran from establishing permanent bases, but the international community and local ceasefires were not enshrining Iran’s withdrawal.
On November 15, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman responded: “With regards to Iran, we will simply not allow for Shi’ite consolidation and Iranian entrenchment in Syria, nor will we allow Syria to become a forward operating base against the State of Israel.”
On the weekend of November 20, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Antalya in the lead up to a major summit in Sochi on November 22 hosted by Putin that included Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Once again, Iran very publicly was inserting itself in plans for post-war Syrian agreements.
On November 26, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported that Israel had demanded Iranian facilities be kept 40 km. away from the Golan, or they would be attacked. It also claimed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sent a warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad via Putin.
However, in an interview with Ynet the same day, Liberman sought to downplay the Iranian presence in Syria, saying Iran was not on Israel’s border and its force consisted of advisers and experts. Nevertheless, he issued a quiet warning that Israel doesn’t only “talk.”
This was followed by the airstrike on December 2. According to the online al-Masdar News, which is generally seen as pro the Syrian regime, “Israel fired several missiles into western Syria tonight, targeting several sites near the Iranian base in the El-Kiswah area.”
Russia Today TV news also reported the airstrike and quoted Syrian media as saying the missiles struck “military positions.”
According to Press TV, which represents the Iranian government view, a source said that “an Israeli fighter jet was flying at a low altitude over Lebanon’s Baalbek region near Syria’s border when Syrian missiles were launched.”
The report went on, claiming that “Israeli missiles were fired toward the 1st-Division ammo depot in the western countryside of Damascus.”
Leith Abou Fadel, editorin- chief of Al-Masdar News, has suggested on Twitter that the attack might be “retaliation for the attack by Iranbacked Palestinian groups.”
He asserts that “the ammo storage they targeted is actually important because it also provides weapons to Palestinian groups like PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad].”
He argues that the attack on El-Kiswah was retaliation for Islamic Jihad’s mortar fire from Gaza on November 30.
There are also reports in Al Qooraish, an Arabic newspaper published in London, claiming that Iranian personnel were wounded in the attack.
The conflicting reports are not necessarily mutually exclusive – an ammo depot might house weapons for multiple groups and be connected to Iran. Aerial photos of the military facilities between Sahnaya and El-Kiswah show that the alleged “Iranian base” is part of a series of military complexes with more than 100 buildings, including storage facilities and what appear to be housing or administrative buildings. The attack raises several questions.
Why wait so long to strike the Iranian base? Once the details of the base were leaked to the press, Israel was pressured to act, but the leak also allowed the Iranians time to pack up and leave and the Syrian regime to pressure them to do so.
What did “western intelligence sources” hope to accomplish by publishing information on the Iranian base? Leaking the photos also gave the international community, especially Russia, time to look into these allegations.
Why were the Iranians at the site given time to leave by their base becoming so public? An airstrike that resulted in the deaths of numerous Iranians could create a larger conflict.
The month leading up to the strike underscores the complex game being waged by Iran to entrench itself in Syria and Israel’s attempts to warn the Iranians off. Whatever was taking place at El-Kiswah, there was plenty of time for it to be moved if the Iranians or Syrian regime were concerned about it being struck.
If the reports about Israel’s threats to target sites 40-60 km. from the Golan are accurate, it would indicate that the warnings have been manifested.
Netanyahu: We Won’t Allow Iran To Entranch Itself In Syria
Jerusalem Post/December 03/17
Foreign reports say five IAF missiles damaged Iranian ammunition depot outside of Damascus
Amid reports of an alleged Israeli aircraft attack on an Iranian base outside of Damascus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that an Iranian presence in Syria will not become a reality. “Let me reiterate Israel’s policy. We will not allow a regime hell bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state,” he said. The statement is part of a larger message that was taped in Jerusalem on Thursday, and which will be aired for the first time at the annual Saban Forum in Washington DC on Sunday.According to foreign media reports, Israeli launched five air-to-surface missiles from Lebanese airspace toward an Iranian base near the town of El Kiswah, 15 km. southwest of the Syrian capital. Syria’s SANA state news agency reported that regime air defenses “confronted an Israeli attack with ground-to-ground missiles” and that the air defenses intercepted and destroyed three Israeli missiles. The Arabic-language al-Masdar news agency reported that two of the Israeli missiles fired toward the 1st Division ammunition depot hit the targets. Satellite imagery of the base showed significant damage to the site. Israel rarely comments on foreign reports of military activity in Syria, though in the past it has publicly admitted to having struck over 100 Hezbollah convoys and other targets there, with Netanyahu saying that strikes will continue when “we have information and operational feasibility.”
In September, BBC revealed satellite imagery purporting to show that Iran had established a military base with several buildings that likely house soldiers and military vehicles. According to the report, which was based on a western intelligence source, the Iranian base is some 50 km. north of Israel’s Golan Heights. While the BBC stated that it could not independently verify the purpose of the base and the presence of Iranian troops, Israel has warned of the growing entrenchment of Iran in Syria. Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon from Tehran via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state. Recently, Israeli officials have said the IDF would not allow Iran to establish a military foothold within 40 km. of the border.
According to Channel 10 a senior White House official reassured Israel that the US would not withdraw from Syria without a permanent agreement.
The official added: “The cease-fire agreement is only the first stage. Together with the Russians, we will try to expand the buffer zone and distance the Iranians 20 km. from the northern Golan Heights, and perhaps even to Damascus.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has told Israel that Moscow has agreed to expand a buffer zone along the Israeli-Syrian border where Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not be allowed to enter. The statement attributed to an Israeli diplomatic official by the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper said Russia had refused the Israeli request for a 40-km. buffer zone, but expressed willingness to extend a 10-15 km. off-limits zone. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has warned repeatedly of Iranian entrenchment in the war-torn country, saying in mid-November that Israel “will simply not allow for Shi’ite consolidation and Iranian entrenchment in Syria, nor will we allow Syria to become a forward operating base against the State of Israel.” Liberman also has warned repeatedly that while there is no interest by Israel to enter into Syria’s seven-year civil war, “I advise our neighbors not to test us.”Last month, Liberman asked for an increase of NIS 4.8 billion to the IDF’s budget, citing “significant” security challenges that have dramatically changed Israel’s security situation, including the massive Russian presence in Syria; precision weapons in the hands of groups such as Hezbollah; and the dramatic acceleration of Iran’s military industry.
CIA Director Pompeo: Saudis Working With Israel To Fight Terror
Jerusalem Post/December 03/17
Saudi Arabia is working directly with Israel and other Sunni Arab nations to fight terror, US CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Saturday.
“We’ve seen them work with the Israelis to push back against terrorism throughout the Middle East, to the extent we can continue to develop those relationships and work alongside them – the Gulf states and broader Middle East will likely be more secure,” said Pompeo at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California.If that statement was not enough, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta then one-upped Pompeo, calling on the moderate Sunni Arab states to form a coalition with Israel, the US and Turkey and even to run a joint military operations center. “It is incredibly important that in the Middle East, where we have failed states, where you have ISIS, where you have Iran, that we have got to develop a stronger coalition of countries that are willing to work together to confront these challenges,” he said. He continued, “the US can’t do it on our own, obviously the Saudis can’t do it on own their own, these other countries can’t do it on their own.”Saudi Arabia is working directly with Israel and other Sunni Arab nations to fight terror, US CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Saturday. “We’ve seen them work with the Israelis to push back against terrorism throughout the Middle East, to the extent we can continue to develop those relationships and work alongside them – the Gulf states and broader Middle East will likely be more secure,” said Pompeo at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California. If that statement was not enough, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta then one-upped Pompeo, calling on the moderate Sunni Arab states to form a coalition with Israel, the US and Turkey and even to run a joint military operations center. “It is incredibly important that in the Middle East, where we have failed states, where you have ISIS, where you have Iran, that we have got to develop a stronger coalition of countries that are willing to work together to confront these challenges,” he said. He continued, “the US can’t do it on our own, obviously the Saudis can’t do it on own their own, these other countries can’t do it on their own.” Trump: Saudi Arabia has a “very positive” feeling toward Israel “But together in some kind of coalition of countries, of Arab countries working with the US, working with Israel, working with Turkey, to build a strong coalition that can operate, frankly, I think with a joint military headquarters that can… target the terrorists in that region, that can basically work together to try to provide stability where is necessary in these countries,” he concluded. The Israeli government said last month that Israel had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia amid common concerns over Iran, a first disclosure by a senior official from either country of long-rumored secret dealings.
Last month, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told a Saudi newspaper that Israel is “ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran.”These warming ties with Israel are part of Riyadh’s push to build alliances in its fight against Iran. Saudi Arabia held an emergency meeting with Arab allies in Cairo last month to discuss confronting Iran and Hezbollah.
Reuters contributed to this report
Trump To Announce Jerusalem As Capital Of Israel
Jerusalem Post/December 03/17/The Trump administration plans on rolling out a detailed proposal for peace in the coming months. US President Donald Trump will announce that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, several US media organizations reported on Friday.
The reports note that Trump will not accompany the announcement with a final decision to relocate the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. They do not detail whether Trump will explain whether Jerusalem is Israel’s capital in part or in whole— one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long left to the parties to negotiate in a final status settlement. It would be an unprecedented move which Palestinian Authority officials are already warning would kill the burgeoning peace process in the womb. The Trump administration plans on rolling out a detailed proposal for peace in the coming months. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser leading the administration’s peace effort, will speak on their plans at a Brookings Institution forum over the weekend.
US media separately reported on Friday that Kushner may be embroiled in the indictment and ultimately plea agreement of Michael Flynn in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the US election. The reports claim that Flynn lied to the FBI about contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US over a UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank last December, on which he was allegedly in communication with Kushner.
The Israeli government asked Trump’s team to intervene as that resolution was making its way toward a vote, and as the Obama administration was signaling it would allow its passage. It was before Trump’s inauguration, and thus Kushner and Flynn were still private citizens