Iran would like to move its weapons supply center for Syria from the Damascus international airport to a Syrian air base located very far from the capital city. Specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which runs this operation, apparently will relocate the center to the Syrian air base known as T4, located between Homs and Palmyra.
The decision is related to the latest wave of Israeli attacks on the Damascene airport. That wave caused tensions between Iran on the one side and the Assad regime and Moscow on the other because it undermined the attempt by Syria and Russia to create the impression that the regime had restored stability to the country after scoring a series of victories in the civil war.
Iran has progressively stepped up the presence it established years ago at the Damascus airport, with the consent of the Assad regime, during nearly-eight years of the civil war. During the war years, the international airport turned into a hub where arms hailing from Iran have been received, sorted, stored and supplied.
The Quds Brigade of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, commanded by General Qasem Soleimani, has its own independent compound within the airport, just tens of meters from the international terminal through which passengers and tourists enter and leave Syria. Israel claims that the Iranian operations at the airport, which Russia is ignoring, endangers passengers and imperils the regime’s safety as well.
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The Damascus facility is Syria’s main civilian airport. Traffic through it diminished during the war, in part because the regime severed diplomatic ties with several countries. Next to the civilian terminal is the seven-story Glasshouse, which was originally built as a hotel. In recent years, the Glasshouse has served as the headquarters from which Iran runs its Syrian operations. Access to the Glasshouse is restricted. Arms storage depots, including two underground bunkers (which were originally intended to protect jet planes from aerial attack), lie nearby.
War matériel, from ammunition through surface-to-air missiles to kits to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah’s guided missiles are smuggled to the Damascus airport on board planes leased from private Iranian companies by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Arms shipments are stored for hours to weeks, before their transport by truck to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or to Iranian army bases in Syria, or to the Syrian army itself.
Israel recently admitted to two attacks on the airport. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the first one, which took place on January 11. The second, in the wee hours of January 29, came in response to an Iranian missile being fired and intercepted by the Iron Dome system in the vicinity of Mount Hermon the day before – which itself was an Iranian response to an attack, which Israel had not confirmed, that same day. The Arab media have reported on other Israeli air raids in recent months, which according to the reports were designed to foil specific weapon shipments.
The area of the airport is protected by Syrian SAM missile batteries, which also have SA-22 missiles. The Syrian aerial defense was extensively activated during most of the Israeli attacks in the area. During the last round of attacks in late January, the Israeli air force destroyed a large number of Syrian missile launchers that had been firing at its planes.
The Israeli leadership has said on numerous occasions that it will take action to frustrate the arms smuggling and Iran’s attempts to establish a military presence in Syria.
Israel argues that the Iranian activity at the Damascene air hub involves massive weapons smuggling, which endangers civilian passengers and air traffic as well as the stability of the Assad regime. Iran’s presence also violates the Russian promise to keep the Iranians at least 80 kilometers from Israel’s border (an obligation the Russians later qualified, saying it didn’t include Damascus). The airport is about 50 kilometers from the border.
The latest series of attacks at the Damascus airport, some done in broad daylight and documented by the international press, caused some embarrassment in Assad’s circles, vis-à-vis Russia as well. In recent days Iran has been preparing for the apparent move to T-4. The Israel Air Force has attacked Iranian military installations at T-4 before, at least twice, last February and May, during two rounds of escalation in operations against Iran in Syria.