Two sources familiar with US intelligence and an Israeli defense official told CNN that Iran has smuggled weapons and military equipment into Syria using humanitarian aid shipments as cover in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake there in February.
The source said that the intelligence indicates that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, specifically the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which specializes in unconventional wars, used convoys from Iraq to secretly transport weapons and ammunition to Syria.
Intelligence officials believe the weapons were destined for Iran’s proxy groups in Syria, which have repeatedly attacked US military personnel stationed there as part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
“Iran’s humanitarian aid to Syria has been used as an umbrella to transfer weapons capabilities to the region,” the Israeli defense official said.
The Washington Post reported Sunday on the arms shipments, citing a leaked US intelligence document — part of a trove allegedly leaked onto the Internet over the past year by Massachusetts Air National Guard Jack Teixeira. Reuters reported earlier that regional and Western officials believe that Iran is smuggling weapons under the guise of earthquake relief.
President Joe Biden has ordered several airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria, including in March, when an American contractor was killed and five American service members were wounded after an Iranian drone targeted a coalition military base.
Foreign aid poured into Syria and Turkey after the February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people. The 7.8-magnitude quake was one of the strongest to hit the region in more than a century, with Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) calling for international help.
The Pentagon said in March that the United States had reinforced its military forces in the Middle East, following a series of attacks on American forces in Syria that were attributed to armed factions affiliated with Iran. The United States responded with precision air strikes on facilities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A squadron of A-10 attack aircraft was deployed to the region ahead of the scheduled deployment, several weeks earlier than planned in the aftermath of the attacks in Syria. In addition, the United States has ordered a carrier strike group to remain in the region to support US forces at Central Command, which are covering the Middle East, and a squadron of A-10 attack aircraft to the region.
The United States has nearly 900 troops in Syria as part of the ongoing mission to defeat ISIS. But these forces, which are spread across several bases in northeastern Syria, have become a frequent target for Iran and its proxies in the region, who can launch drone or missile attacks on American positions.
“Iran threatens to drive the Middle East into regional instability by supporting terrorism and proxy forces,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers in March.
In recent weeks, airstrikes said to be from Israel targeting Iran-linked groups in Syria have intensified. An attack in late March attributed to Israel killed two military advisers to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Israeli officials rarely directly confirm Israel’s role in such strikes, but last month, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Israeli reporters that in the first quarter of 2023, “we doubled the rate of attacks in Syria.” Gallant’s spokesperson confirmed the remarks to CNN.
Speaking in Greece last week, Gallant also said that “For the past six months, Iran has sent planes to Syria on a weekly basis, delivering weapons to be used in terrorism. The Syrian regime must realize that the Israeli army will respond forcefully to any attacks launched from its territory.”
He added, “We will not allow Iran to establish a military force in Syria or build a highway to deliver advanced weapons to Lebanon.”
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