Against evidence, Israel defense minister claims Iran withdrawing from Syria: Experts

The Israeli defense minister’s claim that Iran is withdrawing its presence from Syria is being undercut by experts and satellite imagery from the ground.

Outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday that Iran “is significantly reducing the scope of its forces in Syria,” but didn’t provide details or evidence to back up the claim.

An Israeli defense official under Bennett repeated the same claim two weeks earlier, saying Tehran “has been evacuating military bases” in Syria “since the start of the coronavirus outbreak,” Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported.

‘No change in the Iranian presence’

Bennett’s statement may have neglected to convey the full reality of the situation on the ground, for possible policy reasons, according to expert Walid Phares, who some Iranian forces may have left Syria – but others have taken their place.

“What was not said in public is the fact that other Iran-led units have entered Syria from Iraq. Some Iranian assets have left the Assad controlled territory, but other pro-Iranian militias have entered that territory to replace them,” Phares said in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

“I believe such a scenario is very possible in light of Iranian regime’s current priorities,” he added.

Shia volunteer fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade, an armed faction with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, train at their camp, in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq on July 18, 2017. (File photo: AP)

Shia volunteer fighters from the Imam Ali Brigade, an armed faction with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, train at their camp, in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq on July 18, 2017. (File photo: AP)

Local Syrian sources contradict Bennett and suggest there has been “no change in the Iranian presence” in the country, according to former Israeli Defense Forces Colonel Miri Eisin.

The timing of Bennett’s statement, made on the day he was leaving his position as defense minister, and after he failed to reach an agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should be taken into consideration, said Eisin.

“I separate political rhetoric on the day a minister is going to be in the opposition, from reality on the ground,” said Eisin, who served in the Israeli intelligence community and was a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, attend a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2020. (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, attend a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2020. (AFP)

Israel views Iran's presence in Syria as a threat as Tehran has historically used its resources in Syria to launch rocket attacks against Israel.

Imagery shows Iran building on Syrian military base

Another blow against Bennett’s claim is a recent US media report that signals Iran is starting new military projects in Syria.

Fox News reported on May 13 that Iran is building a new tunnel at the Imam Ali military base in the eastern Syrian city of Albu Kamal. The report provided satellite images captured a day earlier showing bulldozers at the front of the structure.

The imagery was captured by civilian satellite company Image Sat International (ISI), whose intelligence analysis concluded the tunnel is to be used “for the storage of vehicles carrying advanced weapons systems,” according to the Fox News report.

Similar tunnels on the base, located near the border with Iraq, have been dug during the past nine months, according to ISI.

The construction comes just two months after the US struck the base, killing at least 18 fighters from the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Possibility of attack

US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General Kenneth McKenzie told Al Arabiya English in November that Iran has the ability to strike Israel and would probably use long-range ballistic missiles if it were to carry out an attack.

Eisin said Iran has had the capability to attack Israel for many years, but that having the capability and having the intention are two distinct issues.

“The issue with Iran is the interpretation of their intentions,” said Eisin, adding that she does not think Iran would directly attack Israel, but indirectly.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), meet in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on April 20, 2020.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), meet in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on April 20, 2020.

“Iran prefers to use its proxies, disputes, and disquiet to achieve their aims,” said Eisin. “They arm Hezbollah and let them fight. They help Assad and let him fight."

Israel has conducted many raids inside Syria, seeing the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah and its ally Iran in the country as a strategic threat.

Less than a month ago Israeli warplanes fired missiles toward areas near Damascus on April 27, the Syrian regime army said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the strikes hit targets belonging to Iran and its regional proxies.

Israel did not comment on the report.

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