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later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the agreement did not indicate that Iranian- backed forces would be withdrawn.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.