Analysis

In the Glass House Called Syria, Iran Has Thrown One Too Many Stones

As Haaretz reported, Iran seems to be moving its activity away from Damascus Airport. But its weapons will still be in Israel's striking range

File photo: Syrian air defense batteries responding Israeli missiles targeting Damascus, January 21, 2019.
STR/AFP

The Iranians have apparently thrown too many stones at the glass house. As reported in Haaretz on Wednesday, there seems to be a decision taking shape in Tehran to evacuate the Quds Force from its main command center in Syria in the heart of the Damascus international airport.

The seven stories of the building with the big glass windows, some of which shattered in one of the frequent Israeli attacks last month, will be abandoned. The weapons depot where the Iranians are running their extensive operation to reinforce Hezbollah and the deployment of forces and materiel in Syria will also have a change of address.

Iran is not withdrawing from Syria, far from it – and it is doubtful that Israel could bring that about even if it persists in its attacks. But apparently the heart of the Iranian operation will move far from the border with Israel in the Golan Heights to the T4 Syrian air force base located between Homs and Palmyra (Tadmor). The Iranians’ move from Damascus, if it indeed happens, will spare embarrassment to Bashar Assad’s regime and the Russians. However, it will not remove the Iranian weapons systems from the range of harm by Israel.

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Israel has already twice taken upon itself responsibility for attacks on T4, once on February 10 of last year after downing an Iranian drone that entered its territory from Syria; its launch truck was destroyed in a round of blows during which an Israeli F-16 was also downed in its own airspace. The second time, on May 10, after a failed Iranian attempt at revenge by means of rockets, Israel responded with another attack on an Quds Force compound at T4. Since then, Iran has lowered its profile there. Now it looks as though there will be another change.

At the beginning of last week, the sharp-eyed editors of the Israeli intelligence blog IntelliTimes noticed unusual movement of a Syrian Ilyushin-76 cargo plane. The flight followed a routine course between Tehran and Damascus, but then went off the radar and apparently headed north to a Syrian air force base, which might be T-4. More than two hours later, reported the blog, the plane returned to its original route.

The apparent Iranian decision has to do with the latest Israeli wave of attacks around Damascus airport, which is causing tension between Iran and the Assad regime on the one hand, and with Moscow on the other because it has undermined the attempt by Syria and Russia to create the impression of fostering renewed stability in the country, after the regime’s victory in the civil war.

File photo: Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri meets with Syria's President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, January 29, 2019.
SANA/Handout via Reuters

The Iranian presence at the Damascus airport expanded during the nearly eight years of civil war in Syria. In that period the international airport became a center for the reception, sorting, storage and provision of materiel sent from Iran. The Quds Force under the command of General Qassem Soleimani operates a independent compound of its own inside the airport, only a few dozen meters from the international terminal through which thousands of Syrian civilians and tourists pass daily. Israel says the Iranian activity at the airport endangers the passengers there and also endangers the regime’s security.

The airport in Damascus is the main civilian airport in Syria, although traffic there decreased during the war, in part because ties between the regime and many countries were severed. The glass house in the heart of the Iranian area operated as a closed compound with a number of arms storage areas nearby, including two underground hangars.

The materiel – from bullets to surface-to-air missiles, to “precision systems” for improving the accuracy of the rockets Hezbollah holds in Lebanon – are smuggled to Damascus airport on civilian flights from Iran, in military transport planes and sometimes even on planes that the Revolutionary Guard leases from private Iranian companies. The weapons shipments are held in the compound for a few hours to a few weeks. From there, they are taken on trucks by Hezbollah in Lebanon to military bases that belong to Iran and Syria, and into the hands of the Syrian army.

Israel has recently admitted to two attacks on the airport. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took responsibility for the first attack, on January 11. The second attack, on January 29 before dawn, came in response to the launch of an Iranian rocket that was intercepted by an Iron Dome battery in the area of Mount Hermon the day before. (The Iranians responded that same way to an attack which Israel did not admit to officially, on that same day).

The Arab media reported a number of other Israeli air attacks in recent months, which according to the reports were aimed at thwarting specific weapons shipments. The airport area is defended by batteries of Syrian ground-to-air missiles, including SA-22s. The Syrian defense is operational, extensively, during most of the Israeli attacks in the area. In the last round of attacks, at the end of January, the Israeli air force attacked and destroyed a large number of missile launchers in the Syrian batteries, after the firing on its planes.

The Israeli leadership has announced that it will act to thwart the arms smuggling and the Iranian efforts to dig in militarily on Syrian territory. Israel says the Iranian activity at the Damascus airport, which includes massive arms smuggling, endangers civil aviation and passengers at the airport as well as Assad’s regime. It says that the Iranian presence there also violates the Russian commitment to distance the Iranians to 80 kilometers away from the border with Israel. (Moscow has claimed in retrospect that the commitment does not include Damascus).

Apparently the recent series of attacks on the Damascus airport, some of which were carried out in broad daylight and documented in the international media, caused a certain amount of embarrassment to the Assad regime, in front of Russia as well. In recent days there have been signs of Iranian preparations to move its activity out of Damascus.