Iran has pursued the establishment of a comprehensive aerial defense network in Syria by sending equipment and personnel to the war-ravaged Arab nation in a project Israel has sought to thwart through repeated airstrikes, an intelligence source from a nation allied with the United States told Newsweek.

The source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the intelligence shared with Newsweek, recalled how Israeli airstrikes in Syria began in late 2017 as Iranian forces began to entrench themselves in the allied country. Such strikes have targeted “Iranian military assets and interests in the Syrian territory that threaten Israel,” according to the source.

While Israel routinely neither confirms nor denies responsibility for the air campaign informally referred to in the country as “the war between wars,” Syria has regularly blamed Israel for them and a multitude of international media reports, including from Newsweek, have cited Israel’s involvement in this effort. Israeli leadership, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, has also occasionally praised such operations and the Israel Defense Forces has acknowledged certain operations in the past.

However, the source told Newsweek that over the course of “the last two years” Iran has shifted its strategy, “promoting the deployment of aerial defense capabilities on its behalf in Syria at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in order to deal with the Israeli airstrikes.”

“The promotion of these capabilities is carried out as a project shared with the Syrian army and possibly even with the aim of enabling independent Iranian operation of the aerial defense systems from within parts of Syria,” the source said. “In addition, the Iranians assisted the Syrians in upgrading their radar array, designed to aid in detection and prevention of Israeli attacks—mainly against the Iranian establishment in Syria.”

The source said weapons involved in the effort include the Iran’s Sayyad (Hunter) 4B solid-propellant missile, unveiled in November at a ceremony attended by senior members of Iranian military leadership. The projectile was paired with the Bavar-373 surface-to-air missile system and said to have a range of more than 186 miles with a radar range of more than 280 miles.

Officials touted greater capabilities for the domestically produced system than the U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile system and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system as well as the Russia-built S-300 surface-to-air missile system.

Given that the Iranian batteries were being established on Syrian soil and often near sites held by the Syrian military, the source said that Syrian personnel were also being put “at risk” as result of the Iranian project and the Israeli strikes against it.

The source identified seven strikes against the burgeoning Iranian network conducted over the past two years by Israeli forces, including in Palmyra and Tartus in October 2021, Latakia in December 2021, Damascus in March 2022, an additional strike in Tartus in July 2022, and two strikes in Homs in November and December of 2022.

The Syrian government has openly blamed Israel for the strikes, and the country’s state-run media has reported the death and wounding of both Syrian soldiers and civilians in these attacks and others, including recent raids such as that which hit Damascus just last week.

The source with whom Newsweek spoke said that over the course of the past few years 10 Iranians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes in Syria, and identified two Iranians killed in the March 2022 airstrike as Morteza Saeednejad and Ahsan Karbala’i-pour, both of whom were said to be air defense engineers. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) acknowledged their deaths at the time, vowing revenge.

One high-profile Iranian to have recently died in Syria is IRGC Aerospace Force Colonel Davoud Jafari, also known as “Malek,” whom the source identified as commander of Iran’s air defense efforts in Syria. Jafari’s death was acknowledged by Iran has been attributed by the Islamic Republic to a roadside bombing orchestrated by Israel.

Before his death, Jafari was said by the source to be operating out of the town of Maloula in the rural outskirts of Damascus, where Iranian officers were said to still be active. The source also said that IRGC Aerospace Force deputy commander Brigadier General Fereydoun Mohammadi Saghaei serves as commander of the air defense project.

Under Jafari, the source identified an alleged network of Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese operatives whose names and involvement Newsweek could not independently verify.

The source said that Jafari worked also with others in Iran, including IRGC General Javad Ghafari, described as “the former commander of the Iranian forces in Syria,” and IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, described as “the commander of the Syria and Lebanon corps,” among others.

The Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York declined Newsweek’s request for comment. Newsweek has also reached out to the Syrian Permanent Mission to the U.N. and a spokesperson for Hezbollah for comment.

While Damascus and Tehran have a long history of partnership, Iranian intervention in Syria has its roots in the 2011 civil war that erupted in the country when crackdowns on anti-government protests devolved into armed conflict. As an insurgency backed by the United States and regional partners began to take control nationwide, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement it supports intervened to stave off rapid advances by rebels and jihadis, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

As ISIS gained large swaths of territory in 2014, the U.S. launched a multilateral campaign to defeat the group, and a year later broke ties with the Syrian opposition to back a Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Around that same time, Russia launched a campaign joining Iran and its allies in backing Assad against his foes.

Moscow’s intervention brought with it its own array of advanced air defense systems, though these are believed to be operated by Russian personnel and have not fired on Israeli aircraft, with the exception of one reported incident in May in which an S-300 surface-to-air missile system allegedly fired on an Israeli jet, resulting in no contact.

The Syrian government has regained control over most of the country in recent years, with opposition fighters sidelined to pockets in the northwest and along the northern border, and the Syrian Democratic Forces controlling a large part of the northeast. And while clashes continue to erupt among rival factions, airstrikes by Israel have been among the most persistent threats to hit territory within the control of Damascus.

Israel and Syria remain in a state of war since 1948, when a coalition of Arab countries clashed with the majority-Jewish state established on land also claimed by Palestinians. The two countries would fight two more wars, resulting in Israeli occupation of Syria’s southwestern Golan Heights region, with bitter tensions lasting to this day.

Though not formally at war, Iran and Israel have engaged in a long-running shadowy bout of clashes across the Middle East. Israel and its ally, the U.S., have accused Iran of setting up forward operating bases in Syria, while Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly charged Israel with violating Syrian sovereignty and international law through its years-long campaign of airstrikes.

The Syrian government has permitted the presence of Iranian and Russian personnel in the country, while it has viewed operations conducted by other foreign governments, including Israel, Turkey and the U.S., as illegitimate. Rocket attacks attributed to pro-Iran militias, sometimes originating from neighboring Iraq, have also occasionally hit positions held by the U.S. military and Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria.

Contacted for comment, the U.S. State Department deferred to the Department of Defense, to which Newsweek has reached out.

“Ensuring regional stability is one of CENTCOM’s priorities,” U.S. Central Command spokesperson Major John Moore told Newsweek. “We have seen a rise in attacks in Syria from Iran or Iranian-backed organizations, some of which have occurred near locations where U.S. forces are. CENTCOM has adequate resources to protect U.S. and partner-nations and minimize operational disruptions throughout the region.”

As for Iran’s air defense efforts in Syria and Israel’s airstrikes, Moore said that “we’re not going to speculate on Iranian intentions regarding changes to their offensive or defensive capabilities,” but that “it’s widely known that Iran is one of the biggest destabilizing threats to the region,” and that “Israel has a wide range of options to defend their country.”

“With regards to specifics on what’s going on in Syria,” he added. “I’d refer you to the Syrian government.”

Syria and Iran have continued to openly hail their partnership. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Monday in Tehran to discuss further shoring up their alliance, an endeavor further confirmed with a phone call between Amir-Abdollahian and his Syrian counterpart Faisal al-Mekdad that same day.

Readouts from both sides emphasized how Mekdad thanked Amir-Abdollahian for Tehran’s efforts backing Damascus’ fight against “terrorism,” and how the top Iranian diplomat renewed his country’s support for Syria on various fronts, including the ongoing political and economic crises plaguing the country. They also took the opportunity to condemn Israel and its policies toward the Palestinian people.

The comments build on an expanded military cooperation agreement reached by top defense officials from the two countries in July 2020. Following its signing, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff IRGC Major General Mohammad Bagheri vowed that “Iran will strengthen the Syrian air defense systems in the framework of strengthening military relations between the two countries.”

Source » msn