According to recently-disclosed satellite images and associated intelligence, Iran is presently working on construction of a new tunnel at a military base in eastern Syria, with the likely intention of using it to store advanced weapons.
Iran’s hardline paramilitary, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), routinely engages in smuggling those weapons to various regional proxies, as well as playing a lead role in construction projects related to the same militant groups. The latest revelations about construction at Imam Ali base underscore ongoing commitments by the IRGC and the Iranian regime to maintaining a foothold in Syria despite a growing list of challenges.
Prominent among those challenges are operations by the Israeli military to mitigate and discourage the Iranian presence wherever it is recognized near the borders of the Jewish state. It was presumably one such operation that destroyed another tunnel, also being constructed at the Imam Ali complex, in March. The same can be said of airstrikes just last week that killed 14 Iran-backed fighters.
However, Israel rarely confirms its responsibility for such strikes, which are nonetheless believed to number in the hundreds, dating back to the start of Iranian involvement in the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
In the wake of last week’s strikes, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett stated publicly that operations in Syria would continue until Iranian forces departed. The prospects of that departure are uncertain, but have arguably grown in the presence of multilateral support for Israel’s position. This was no doubt reaffirmed on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Tel Aviv to hold talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials.
Since President Donald Trump took over the White House in 2017, the following year when Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal the agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, technically remains in place, but Iran has halted compliance with its key provisions after complaining that the remaining signatories were not doing enough to compensate for the economic effects of the American withdrawal. The deal’s future now hangs by a thread, with its three European participants having initiated a dispute resolution process before signaling their willingness to stretch that process out indefinitely.
The US, meanwhile, is putting pressure on its allies to follow through by snapping sanctions back into place as a consequence of Iranian non-compliance. And in anticipation of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany all failing to do so, Washington has also taken the position that it can fill that role itself, because the US is still named as a participant in the agreement despite having pulled out. Russia – also a JCPOA signatory and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – rejected this position as “ridiculous” on Tuesday, though it remains unclear by what means another nation might stop the US from initiating “snapback.”
But even as international discord looms over this issue, there is growing speculation that it will not continue to reflect on the parallel issue of Iran’s presence in Syria. In the wake of negotiations that led to the JCPOA, it was generally understood that relations between Iran and Russia were growing stronger in various respects. This cooperation was certainly evident in their mutual support for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. However, many experts on Middle Eastern affairs concluded that Russia’s position in the civil war was more malleable, being based on temporary strategic concerns and not on ideology or long-term power-maintenance schemes, as with Iran.
Notions of splitting up the Russia-Iran alliance eventually faded from view after it became clear that both parties were continuing to benefit. But similar speculation has emerged in recent days, with one article at Arab News stating that the Russian government was noticeably turning against the Assad regime, and by extension against Iran. The article even went so far as to suggest that Moscow “discreetly condones unceasing Israeli air raids against Iran-affiliated targets.” If true, this would not be especially surprising, given that Russia’s traditionally cooperative relationship with Israel was one of the reasons why experts concluded that the Moscow-Tehran alliance was fragile to begin with.
It is not clear whether this supposed fragility factored into expert editorials in April and early May that suggested Iran’s project in Syria was beginning to erode. A number of other factors may have been adequate on their own, including the economic and logistical impact of Iran’s severe coronavirus outbreak, and the apparent success of Israeli strikes and other countermeasures taken by Iran’s adversaries in Syria. These actions have reportedly led to a reduction in foreign-oriented activity by militant proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, whose latest public statements have focused on the Lebanese budget and the group’s blacklisting by German authorities, rather than on traditional anti-Israeli messaging.
Meanwhile, the Israeli strikes still appear to be accelerating, and the International Business Times noted last week that this could be either a response to increased hostile activity from Iran or an effort to take advantage of the opportunities created by Iran’s coronavirus outbreak and associated domestic crises. Of course, both of these motives could be at play simultaneously, and both would no doubt be amplified if Israel enjoyed even tacit support from both the US and Russia.
This in turn would help to gratify earlier speculation that Iran is in danger of losing its foothold in Syria. But this is not to say that any of the Iranian regime’s adversaries or victims can be sit back and maintain confidence in that outcome, without fear of further repercussions.
This point is underscored by the news of construction on a new weapons storage facility, coming so soon after the destruction of another, similar tunnel. If the threat of further Israeli airstrikes is not enough to compel Iran to leave, then other pressures may be necessary. And in the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Tel Aviv, the White House can be expected to seize upon this fact as further justification for its strategy of “maximum pressure” and its insistence upon the final dissolution of the 2015 nuclear deal.