Anna Aronheim – Jerusalem Post April 8, 2019
Iran is inching one step closer to establishing a foothold on Israel’s doorstep, reportedly planning to lease Syria’s main commercial port in Latakia.
According to The Sunday Times, Tehran began talks with Damascus last month to lease the container port beginning on October 1st. The state-owned port is currently managed by a joint venture between Souria Holding, a Syrian investment company and CMA CGM, a French shipping firm.
While its revenues have taken a major hit since the outbreak of the civil war nine years ago and has been under US sanctions since 2015, it has 23 warehouses and can handle three million tons of cargo a year.
Iran has been working to upgrade its navy, with new vessels and submarines introduced to bolster the country’s aging fleet and recently announced that it had commissioned its first indigenously developed submarine capable of firing cruise missiles.
Iran’s presence in Syria is not only in the form of its militias but is deeply rooted in Syria’s government and army. While tactical and operational decisions can be taken by Hezbollah in Beirut, all strategic decisions are made in Tehran.
According to the Asia Times, Iran gave the Syrian government a line of credit of some $6.6 billion since 2011, plus an additional $1b. in 2017. More recently Tehran and Damascus agreed to establish a power station in Latakia which would help with Syria’s fuel shortage, with Tehran sending shipments of heating fuel, cooking fuel and gasoline starting next autumn.
Iranian developers have also been given the green light to build a 200,000 apartment development near the Syrian capital and talks to establish an Iranian GSM cellular network in Syria continues to be on the table.
Dr. Yossi Mansharof, Iran and Shi’ite militia expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Ezri Center at Haifa University, says Tehran put heavy pressure on Damascus to let them rent the port despite repeated rejections by the Assad regime following Russian objections.
“Khamenei invited Assad to Tehran and together with [Qasem] Soleimani they directly talked with Assad in order to bypass the Russian objection,” Mansharof told The Jerusalem Post. “Russia is keen to prevent a war between Iran and Israel and I think that the current situation, whereas Israel conducts systematic attacks on Iranian infrastructure across Syria serves the Russian interest. This is because currently – for various political, military and financial reasons – Iran and Hezbollah are not in a position to engage in military activities against the United States or Israel.”
According to Mansharof, the rivalry between Tehran and Moscow is becoming “more visible” in post-war Syria.
“Iran’s deputy FM [Hossein] Ansari recently declared that ‘Russia has never stood by Iran regarding Israel, Tehran and Moscow for now have shared interests in Syria but if the issue of Israel comes between them, they will part ways.’ This is an important declaration,” Mansharof said.
Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are red-lines for the Jewish State.
In February, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Iran was operating a precision missile factory built on the outskirts of Latakia near the Russian Khmeimim Air Force Base with the help of the Syrian government and Hezbollah.
In an effort to prevent sophisticated weaponry from reaching Hezbollah, Israel frequently carries out airstrikes against Iran and its allies in Syria. In January Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel has a set policy of preventing Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, and that it would be enforced whether he is in Israel or abroad.
“We have a permanent policy to harm Iran’s establishment in Syria and to harm anyone who tries to harm us… This policy is permanent,” he said.
Due to the airstrikes, many of which repeatedly struck Iranian shipments shortly after they were flown into Syria via Damascus airport and other bases, Iran has repeatedly requested access to Syrian ports but were denied by Russia whose Khmeimim airbase is a short 30 minute drive south.
But, according to reports, Iranian companies linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij force, a paramilitary arm of the IRGC, have already started shipping goods through the port.
The move by Iranian companies linked to the IRGC suggest that Tehran may use the port to not only bring in civilian goods to rebuild Syria, but as an alternative route to smuggle in weapons.
With a foothold in Latakia, Iran would have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, where it can not only bring in arms and influence, but it would give Israel’s arch enemy yet another front to strike the State should a war break out.
And that could lead to new Israeli airstrikes.