Satellite images show airstrikes in Syria, rockets target Israel

Israel warns Bashar al-Assad that he will pay a high price for acts perpetrated by Shi’ite militias and that their activity is not hidden.

Satellite imaging shows attack on military base on Syria-Iraq border. (photo credit: IMAGESAT INTERNATIONAL (ISI))
Satellite imaging shows attack on military base on Syria-Iraq border.
Rockets were fired at Israel from the outskirts of Damascus by a Shi’ite militia operating under the command of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, the Israel Defense Forces said on Monday. The attack came just hours after loud explosions were heard in an around the Syrian town of Albukamal near the Iraqi border. Very quickly reports emerged that “Iranian” or “Iranian-backed militias” had been targeted in the attacks near Iraq. Satellite images from ImageSat International revealed the extent of the damage to a suspected Iranian military compound.
The airstrikes near Albukamal hit an area near where a June 2018 airstrike targeted a Kata’ib Hezbollah base. Kata’ib Hezbollah is an Iraqi-based Shi’ite militia with close ties to the IRGC.  The September 9, 2019 incidents occurred amid increased tensions between Iran and the US and between Israel and Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah. They also come after five mysterious airstrikes in Iraq that targeted Iranian-backed groups between July 19 and August 25.
On September 3 Fox News reported that satellite images, also from Image Sat International (ISI), revealed a new Iranian base allegedly being constructed in Albukamal. The base was a “classified Iranian project, called the Imam Ali compound.” The airstrike was reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A SOHR source told Al-Hurra that the Iranian positions were likely struck. SOHR says it documented casualties from the airstrikes and at least 18 Iranians and their allies were killed. Ammunition depots exploded. “Unidentified planes have so far targeted concentrations of Iranian forces and their militias in and around Albukamal.
The ISI assessment is that if the site is indeed an Iranian base, “it is probably that the strike is part of the struggle with Tehran to prevent it establishing the land corridor to its allies in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.” The target likely held ammunition and other infrastructure, the assessment released on Monday notes. Satellite images from ISI show that the border crossing itself as well as a new border terminal were not affected. Instead eight warehouses were destroyed. Several other warehouses were left intact.
Al-Arabiya and others asserted that the airstrikes hit a militia called Al-Abdal, Haidarion and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Al-Arabiya also claimed that Iran is deploying members of Lebanese Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba from Iraq and its Fatimion and Zeinabion militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the area alongside the IRGC.
Hours later the IDF says that a number of rockets were launched from Syrian territory toward Israel but failed to hit Israeli territory. “The IDF holds the Syrian regime responsible for all events taking place in Syria.” The IDF also specified that the rockets were fired by Shi’ite “militia operatives operating under the Iranian [IRGC] Quds Force.” The rocket fire comes two weeks after an Israeli airstrike hit a team of IRGC members with “killer drones” south of Damascus.
Shi’ite militias have played a key role in supporting the Assad regime over the last eight years. Some of these groups include locals but many also include volunteers from Lebanon or Iran and as far away as Afghanistan. These Shi’ite paramilitaries also include forces from Iraq who are linked to the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah. In ideology and outlook they are similar to Hezbollah and all are linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Since 2016 there have been increasing concerns that these groups are entrenching in Syria alongside Iranian IRGC positions and Hezbollah, creating a network of bases that stretch from Lebanon to Iran via Syria and Iraq. This is what is called Iran’s “land bridge” and many of the groups have openly threatened Israel. This includes Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose leader even went to southern Lebanon.
In recent years Israel has warned Iran against entrenching in Syria and Israel’s former chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot says more than 1,000 airstrikes have hit Iranian targets in Syria. On August 24 Israel struck an Iranian “killer drone” team south of Damascus, killing two members of Hezbollah. On September 1 Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at Israeli vehicles on the border and on September 9th in the morning Hezbollah said an Israeli drone crashed near Ramiya in southern Lebanon.
Shi’ite militias linked to the IRGC have a presence in Syria and the attempt by them to fire rockets at Israel is a major escalation. In May 2018 and January 2019 rockets were fired at Israel by Iran’s IRGC from Syrian territory. An Iranian drone also penetrated Israeli airspace in February 2018. Avichay Adraee, the IDF spokesperson in Arabic, wrote on Facebook that Israel was “warning the regime of Bashar Assad that he will pay a high price for allowing the Shia militias to work from within his territory.” He said that the militias are not hidden from Israel and then noted that Israel had detected a “failed launch of a number of rocket shells from Syria.” This was a warning to Syria.
Israel has also accused Iran of transferring precision missile technology to Iraq and then via Syria to Hezbollah. Last week the IDF released details of an Iranian-supported Hezbollah factory in the Bekaa valley that converts rockets to precision guided missiles. In addition reports since last August 2018 have indicated Iran transferred missiles to Iraq.
Some on social media questioned whether the explosions in Albukamal were airstrikes, pointing out a lack of air defense against them. Forces in the city were on high alert throughout the morning. Syrian state media and other major media linked to pro-Iranian networks did not report the alleged airstrikes. Could the attack have been carried out by ISIS?
Going off of social media reports, with very little evidence from the ground, many assume the attacks struck the Iranian or Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraqi militia, targets. That is what Al-Masdar and other sites said. There is only one video online that appears to show the explosions after the  strikes. Social media accounts which are impossible to verify in terms of their access to knowledge have claimed the Imam Ali complex of Iran was targeted. The satellite images confirm that airstrikes took place but cannot tell what was struck or if there were casualties. The airstrikes came just a day after reports indicated the Albukamal Iraq-Syria border crossing was supposed to open. Since earlier this year work has gone into creating a new border crossing at the site. Albukamal was occupied by ISIS from 2014 to 2017 and has  only recently been fully cleared of ISIS threats while the Syrian regime and Iraqi army seek to rehabilitate the area. It is a strategic crossroads  between Iraq and Syria and is near US forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces that control the area north of the Euphrates, north of Albukamal.