Iran’s Imam Ali base is key to its nexus of influence over Iraq and Syria

The base covers around 20 square kilometers of land area. This area of the border, a key crossing between Iraq and Syria near the Euphrates river, was once held by ISIS from 2014 to 2017

General layout of the area where Iran is excavating new tunnels near the Imam Ali military base in Syria (photo credit: IMAGESAT INTERNATIONAL (ISI))
General layout of the area where Iran is excavating new tunnels near the Imam Ali military base in Syria
(photo credit: IMAGESAT INTERNATIONAL (ISI))
Iran has been constructing a new base near Albukamal in Syria, near the Iraqi border, according to satellite images published by Image Sat International over the last several months, which also has shown the bases’ continued expansion.
The base is now clearly part of a much larger nexus of Iranian influence across Iraq and Syria that is in the spotlight as Iran moves ballistic missiles to Iraq, and as Iranian-backed militias fire rockets at bases housing US forces. An examination of the area shows that the new base has 30km of internal roads and is linked to the strategic T-4 base 290 km to the West via desert roads.
The Imam Ali base rose like a mirage from the desert over the last few months. Not so long ago this land area, which covers around 20 square kilometers, was just dunes and dry landscape.
This area of the border, a key crossing between Iraq and Syria near the Euphrates river, was once held by ISIS from 2014 to 2017. Iraqi forces coming from the east and Syrian regime forces from the west took back this area in 2017. In 2018 a group of Shi’ite militias spearheaded by Kataib Hezbollah crossed from Iraq into Syria to bolster the Syrian regime units. The regime was weak and didn’t have enough forces to control the areas around Albukamal. Iraqi militias would help.
These KH militias, led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, set up shop in a large villa near the border and around five kilometers from Albukamal itself. Muhandis is an old ally of the IRGC in Iraq, a key link in Iran’s network of influence in Iraq. He is close to Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force leader. As such his militia could play a triple role on the border: it would help Iraq secure the area because the KH is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces and thus part of an official paramilitary of Iraq; he would also extend Shi’ite militia influence north toward Deir Ezzor; and he could help Iran achieve control over the key border area.
THE KH COMPOUND was hit with an airstrike in 2018. At that time, the area graduated from being home to militias to become a cog in a larger Iranian wheel of influence. Soon warehouses were rising from the desert. By the summer of 2019 these warehouses were grouped in eight areas, as revealed by the ISI images and Fox News reports. At the same time, Iran was moving ballistic missiles to Iraq since August 2018, according to reports. Those missiles would continue to flow until some of the warehouses they were housed in got hit with airstrikes in July and August. At the same time therefore that Iran’s weapons transfers to pro-Iranian militias in Iraq were being hit by airstrikes, which Iraq blamed on Israel, Iran began to increase its role at Albukamal.
The way the Imam Ali base was constructed was not like a normal base. It does not have barracks or even paved roads. It was instead constructed as a bunch of warehouses, to blend in with the landscape and accessed by dirt roads that go to rail depots near the border. The roads for a rail line here was inactive and was in the process of being upgraded. That line stretches north to Deir Ezzor. A different road runs toward a lonely airfield called T-2 around 60 km. to the West. Then continuing the drive for 126 km. takes one to another small Syrian regime base called T-3. After that, the last leg of the trip from Imam Ali toward a key Iranian installation is a 93 km. drive to T-4, the Tiyas military airport.
It is here at T-4 where Iran has hangers and bunkers and a drone facility. Iranian planes, including a weekly flight by an Ilyushin-76 cargo plan, lands at Tiyas and unloads cargo for Iran and its Syrian regime ally. Sometimes this air route includes the mammoth Qeshm Fars Air Boeing 747. These flights are part of Iran’s air bridge to Syria. In February 2018 a drone launched from Tiyas invaded Israeli airspace and was shot down.
Drones are only part of the Tiyas facility. The Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report in July that shows the scope and proximity of Iran’s work at the site as well as the Russian role.
“It highlights what we assess to be the Iranian movement of weapons, other material and personnel to Syria with the awareness and support of Moscow,” the report says. “Russia has a delicate role because it is aware of Israeli opposition to what Iran is doing in Syria.”
THE TIYAS airbase is linked to the Imam Ali base via the desert road. It is also part of the same cog of Iranian key centers of operation across Syria and Iraq. It is how weapons flow to pro-Iranian groups, whether Hezbollah or other militias or the Syrian regime. Iranians and pro-Iranian militias are present. We know this because some of them have been killed. Reuters noted that four Iranians were killed in an April airstrike at Tiyas. Ynet claimed the attack hit the 3rd Khordad air defense system Iran had unloaded. Rumors in Russian media clam Russian Su-35s have sought to prevent airstrikes at the T-4 base and that Bavar-373 air defense from Iran may have been moved there. December 8 satellite imagery showed a cargo plane on the tarmac at Tiyas with alleged air defense cargo.
Iran openly says it wants to destroy Israel, and Hossein Salami, head of the IRGC, has said that destruction of Israel is no longer just a dream but a realizable goal. He made those comments in September, a key date because eight warehouses at the Imam Ali base were destroyed on September 9 in an airstrike. In addition, Iraq and Syria officially reopened the Albukama-Al-Qaim crossing on September 30. Russia claims that Israel carried out an airstrike at Albukamal on November 18.
Now the latest news from Imam Ali is that new tunnels are under construction, according to Fox News, which spoke to Western intelligence sources and ISI satellite images. Iran is busy digging in. It wants to hide its warehouses under berms and dirt and tunnels. It has more than 30 km. of roads now connecting them. This once quiet desert area of dunes and dry wadis is booming. It is also a key to Iran’s plans as it seeks to pressure the US in Iraq and continue its weapons deliveries to allies in Syria.
Imam Ali is both a weigh station on the route and a way to have influence over an Iranian border crossing near the official civilian border crossing. Iran hopes to come out of 2019 with a physical presence on the border. It uses both the land and air route and it knows that it is being watched on both. But it thinks that the volume of activity cannot and will not all be interdicted. That is why it expands the number of nodes and axles that make up its nexus of power across the region.



Tags Iraq Syria