Analysis: Whoever provided Fox News with the satellite images published Tuesday night seeks to encourage US President Trump to quit the nuclear agreement and restore the sanctions against Iran, and to signal to Russian President Putin that a failure to curb the Iranian expansion and entrenchment will cost him his assets in Syria.
By Ron Ben-Yishai
The Fox News report on the new Iranian base built in Syria isn’t coincidental. It’s a strategic move aimed, first at foremost, at spurring the world powers—the United States and Russia—to take action.
The exposure of the nearly completed base in Jabal ash Sharqi, northwest of Damascus, was done for tactical reasons too, to indicate to the Iranians that they are being watched, and that they can’t build bases which could be used for the storage and launching of surface-to-surface missiles threatening Israel’s military and civil home front.
Jabal ash Sharqi is located on the road from Damascus to the Beqaa Valley border, where most Hezbollah strongholds are located, as well as the heavy, long-range missiles and rockets the Lebanese organization has received from Iran and Syria. It’s possible the new base is supposed to serve as a sort of inventory warehouse for missiles that will be transferred to Lebanon in the event of a war with Israel.
Judging from the images of the hangars published by Fox News, these are missiles and rockets with heavy warheads weighing hundreds of kilograms, with a range of hundreds of kilometers. We already know the Iranians have missiles in Syria that can cover the entire State of Israel.
According to foreign reports, Israel attacked such depots in the past. The new base may also be used to upgrade the medium-range rockets and missiles produced in Syria into precision-guided missiles. The size of the hangars points to an intention not only to store large amounts of weapons, but also to maintain and perhaps even upgrade them.
American sources told the New York Times last week that Iran was trying to store the missiles and precision-guided weapons in underground bunkers in Syria to minimize the chance of the weapons being destroyed in Israel Air Force bombings before and during a war. The establishment of hangars above ground is aimed, therefore, at working on the missiles.
The aerial images of the Iranian base in the article were taken by civilian satellite EROS. The source of these images is most likely Western intelligence sources that are active in the Middle East. The exposure on America’s Fox News is similar to the November exposure of the Iranian-backed militia base built south of Damascus, which—according to foreign sources—was later bombed by the IAF.
The November report on the Iranian base near the town of al-Kiswah was published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It’s safe to assume, therefore, that whoever gave Fox News the information on the new base was seeking to draw a red penalty card against the Iranians and Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly stated at the Munich Security Conference two weeks ago that Israel would not tolerate the establishment of Iranian bases threatening Israel in Syria and would act to remove them.
Demonstrating the Iranian threat
But the most important message in Tuesday night’s report is the one conveyed to the two world powers, primarily the US.
President Donald Trump has announced that he will decide in May whether to walk away from the nuclear agreement with Iran. A decision to quit the agreement means that the “stringent” sanctions against Iran, which were suspended (but not cancelled) when the nuclear deal was signed in June 2015, will be re-imposed.
If Trump decides to pull out of the nuclear agreement, the sanctions will be automatically restored and Iran will face a new and destructive economic situation, even if the European Union, Russia and China refuse to cooperate with the Americans and Europeans.
The exposure of what is seen as a new Iranian missile base in Syria is aimed at illustrating the extent of Iranian threats to the American public opinion, and mainly the threat posed by its missile program. Contrary to the ayatollah regime’s claims, the missile program is not for defensive purposes, but rather for offensive purposes, putting not only Israel at risk but also most countries in the Middle East and Europe.
European Union representatives are expected to meet with White House representatives in Berlin next week to discuss an addition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, in a bid to prevent the US from quitting the original agreement. The addition, which will be named “a follow-up agreement,” will focus on restricting the development and production of Iranian ballistic missiles and assessing the timeframe in which Iran will be banned from producing fissile material used for the production of atom bombs.
The Europeans believe that the Iranian will eventually have an interest in signing such an agreement, which does not change the original nuclear agreement but is seen as another agreement.
The Iranians have said they will not agree to open the original nuclear agreement or to limit the development and production program of long-range ballistic missiles, some of which could threaten Europe too. They will likely reconsider, however, if they believe Trump might act on his threat to pull out and see the Europeans cooperating with them.
Russia and China, which support Iran, will have trouble minimizing the damage that will be suffered by Iran if the US and EU stick to their demands and willingness to restore the sanctions. That is likely the main reason the report on the new Iranian base was published by an American news network. Saudi Arabia, Israel and even the Pentagon have a clear interest in such a report, which will encourage Trump to quit the agreement and prepare the American public opinion for such a move.
The message to Russia
The publication of the satellite images Tuesday night was directed at the Kremlin as well. The “Western intelligence sources” that provided the information are likely interested in showing Russian President Vladimir Putin that they are exhausting every single diplomatic and non-violent measure before possibly, according to foreign reports, attacking the Iranian base that is directly threatening Israel.
After the latest strike that was attributed to Israel, Moscow demanded that Jerusalem honor “Syria’s sovereignty.” That was an odd demand, as Turkey hasn’t been honoring Syria’s sovereignty and the Iranians have been violating Syria’s sovereignty too in their actions against Israel that are unrelated to the integrity of the regime in Damascus.
But whoever gave the information to Fox News is likely interested in proving to the Russians that he is doing everything in his power before taking military measures.
The message is also meant to indicate that “Western intelligence sources” know a lot more about what is going on in Syria than they are letting on, which is aimed at deterring the Iranians and prompting the Russians try to curb the expansion and entrenchment aspirations of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
This message also contains a hidden threat to Russia itself, which may lose its strongholds in Syria in the event of an all-out war because of the Iranians in the north, as well as a message from Israel to Hezbollah, the Syrians and the Iranians. Israel wants to Russians to know it is doing everything in its power to prevent such a war, which puts the Kremlin’s interests at risk, and that it is not trigger-happy.