Everything you NEED to know about Iran’s Imam Ali base at Albukamal, Syria

Iran is building a base near Albukamal in Syria near the Iraqi border. The base was built next to a site occupied by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shi’ite militia with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Image Sat International identified the KH site in July 2018. “On 18 June 2018 a structure in a village southeast of the city of Al-Bukamal was bombed, leaving casualties, state news agency SANA reported. That was the second ‘unknown’ attack in this area at the same month.”

At the time the border was still closed, it had only been liberated from ISIS control in the fall of 2017. ISI noted “Another important sign of activity in the area is seen in the following satellite imagery. ISI detected an active road which crosses the border between Iraq and Syria. ISI assesses that this access is utilized inter alia by the Iraqi Shiite militias, since November 2017, when as mentioned ahead the Syrian army and its allies took control over the area. In addition, it seems that this path is replacing the official border crossing, which is currently not operational.”

In May 2019 FoxNews reported: “New satellite images indicate Iran is building a border crossing at the Syrian-Iraqi border, which would open up a coveted land route from Iran to Lebanon, according to Western intelligence sources.” ISI analysts and the report asserted that “the Iranians have put a lot of effort and resources into building the new [border crossing].”

Iran already had several IRGC bases in Syria, some estimated as many as 19. It also had facilities at the T-4 (Tiyas) airbase. It had launched drones from there in February 2019.  Inn addition one of its bases in southern Syria had been hit with an airstrike in December 2017. That base had been exposed by satellite images provided to the BBC in November 2017. “The Iranian military is said to have established a compound at a site used by the Syrian army outside El-Kiswah, 14 km (8 miles) south of Damascus.” In February 2018 FoxNews and ISI also revealed another base. It compared the Kisweh base with this new Jabal Ash Sharqi base. “Iran has built another permanent military base outside Syria’s capital city complete with hangers used to store missiles capable of hitting all of Israel, according to Western intelligence sources.” In addition, t”he photos show two new white hangars, each roughly 30 yards by 20 yards, used to store short- and medium-range missiles.”

The Albukamal Imam Ali base

On September 3 the Imam Ali base was first mentioned, although it had been in construction for months. “Iran has established a new military base in Syria and has plans to house thousands of troops at the location, according to multiple Western intelligence sources. The classified Iranian project, called the Imam Ali compound, was approved by top leadership in Tehran and is being completed by the Iranian al-Quds Forces,” FoxNews reported based on ISI images. “According to ISI’s intelligence report, while the construction has been intensive at the Imam Ali base, the nearby border crossing remained closed and had yet to be operational.”

The warehouses revealed onSeptember 3 were hit by an airstrike on September 9. ISI tweeted “he attacked storehouses are located in a military base (#Iranian, according #FoxNews), 5 km West of the Syria-Iraq border of #Albumamal#AlQaim. The mentioned border is still closed, but it seems to be ready to be #operational soon.” 

Construction continued after the airstrike. OnNovember 18 FoxNews reported “Iran is continuing construction on an army base along the Iraq-Syria border, according to satellite images taken Sunday and obtained by Fox News.” There were now eight areas of construction. “Each zone had hangers big enough to conceal trucks and large quantities of equipment. There also was a checkpoint on both sides of the compound with fortified walls around the complex.” FoxNews noted, “According to security experts, this was the first time the Iranian military was building a base of this scale from scratch in Syria. There’s been an American army position less than 200 miles from the new Iranian compound. In recent months, Israel has targeted Iranian military facilities in Syria and destroyed structures that were used to house weapons and troops.”

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The internal roads of the Imam Ali base (Seth J. Frantzma)

Then on December 10 ISI showed new images that revealed the entrance to an alleged underground tunnel. Fox news spoke to Western intelligence sources and ran a piece about it as they had in the past.

The tunnel complex is in the northern part of the base.

It also appears that some of the warehouses are being dug in and could be covered or cemented over to protect them. While 8 warehouses were destroyed on September 9, the overall picture is that the site continues to grow over an area of around 20 square kilometers.

Others have published satellite photos of the area, including Aurora Intel. Russia’s foreign ministry also said Israel carried out a November 18 airstrike at the site.

The known and alleged strikes near or at the site therefore occurred in June 2018, against a Kataib Hezbollah house, then on September 9 and November 18. Others include alleged strikes reported in Arabic media onSeptember 17, December 8 (when several pro-Iranian militia members were killed). Reports indicated that “pro-Iranian fighters” were also killed in the September 9 airstrike.

The base that Iran is constructing is not a traditional military base. It doesn’t yet have most of the infrastructure that a base would. Instead it looks more like a way-point or storage facility along the “road to the sea” or “land bridge” that Iran is using to move weapons to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It’s a kind of cog, or even a center of a network of cogs.

In this respect it is interesting to look at how it compares to other known Iranian infrastructure. In other areas of Syria Iran constructed warehouses next to existing Syrian infrastructure. It didn’t start from scratch. However the Imam Ali compound was started from scratch. There was alarge warehouse in Latakia that was hit by an airstrike in September  2018. It was in an industrial area. Other areas were hit as well, including a  May 2018 airstrike on near Hama at the 47th Brigade, and near Masyaf in September 2017 and September 2018, and the 4th Division camp near Damascus in December 2018.

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A new base emerges east of Baniyas

None of these sites looked  like a new base, but there isa facility 12km east of Baniyas near route 35 that is an entirely new base.  The buildings here may be more similar to those at Imam Ali.

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The pace of  construction at  Albukamal’s  Imam Ali base (imagery courtesy of  Aurora Intel )

Elements of the Imam Ali base consist primarily of warehouses. They are laid  down in clusters of four to  eight in various places without a clear logic to the development of the site. There are few strait lines, with the exception of one long dirt road that appears to be new and well used.

The whole site is next to a railway vehicle depot. Syria was apparently planning to upgrade this line at some point, with one report noting that it was part of “a new line between Deirezor – Albokamal (Iraqi borders) /operation planned for 2011 – line is under construction  at a cost of $200 million.” The potential railway line doesn’t follow the route that Iran allegedly uses to get to T4. 

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The internal roads of the new base (Seth J. Frantzman)

Wikimapia has an interesting updated map showing the road network  in the Iranian base. Relying on a news article they note “Out of a total of 16 storehouse buildings, 8 buildings were destroyed by 8 missiles from Israeli IDF fighter jets before dawn on 9 September 2019, killing 21 Iranian-backed Syrian militiamen from Kata’ib Hezbollah. Some buildings belonged to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force:”

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The road  network connecting Imam Ali to Tiyas and Homs (Seth J.  Frantzman)

The overall picture is that the Imam Ali base is situated next to an incomplete rail line and a  road network that gives it access  to the airfield  at  T-2 and then to T-3 and  T-4, the major Iranian base that has seen large numbers of transport planes (Such as Qeshm Fars Air) land and where Iran has sought to base UAVs  and its  3rd Khordad air defense system. Israel has in the past released an image of a drone at Tiyas. “Photos published by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit onSaturday show the Syrian Tiyas Military Airbase from which the UAV that infiltrated Israel.”

“Iran and the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards have been operating there for a long time, backed by Syrian army forces and with the approval of the Syrian regime,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said. Ynet argued that an April 2018 attack hit Iran’s 3rd Khordad system at Tiyas. Other air defense, such as the Bavar system, has been reportedly delivered to Tiyas. Could the bunkers and underground arms depot that were built at Tiyas be comparable to those at Imam Ali?

Overall the Imam Ali base represents a significant investment but it lacks some things that would make it a base, such as internal paved roads and barracks. At present it is a  group of  buildings festooning the landscape designed apparently to hold weapons. It doesn’t look like a complete base, like Camp Falcon in Iraq, but more like a hodgepodge  of construction, without even the vehicles and equipment needed for construction usually present.

Nevertheless as part of the ecosystem of Iranian bases in Syria and Shi’ite militia bases in Iraq, it is a key part of the Iranian system across the region. It is a symbol of Iran’s  future intentions to hover over the border between Syria and Iraq and have a say in what crosses. Already the US has said that Iran is moving rockets and short range ballistic missiles to Iraq, as it has been doing since 2018. Airstrikes have hit some of the pro-Iranian PMU bases across Iraq in July and August. This has revealed the extent of Iran’s attempt to move weapons across Syria and Iraq. The Imam Ali base is a key part of the nexus.

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Part of the nexus

Iran has been constructing a new base near Albukamal in Syria near the Iraqi border. Satellite images, published Image Sat International over the last several months have revealed  the bases continued expansion. The base is now clearly part of a much larger nexus of Iranian influence across Iraq and Syria that is in the spotlight as Iran moves ballistic missiles to Iraq, and as Iranian-backed militias fire rockets at bases housing US forces.

The Imam Ali base rose like a like  a mirage from the desert over the last few months. Not so long ago this was just dunes and dry landscape. The base covers  around 20 square kilometers of land area. This area of the border, a key crossing between Iraq and Syria near the Euphrates river, was once held by ISIS from 2014 to 2017. Iraqi forces coming from the east and Syrian regime forces  from the west took back this area in 2017. In 2018 a group of Shi’ite militias spearheaded by Kataib Hezbollah crossed from Iraq into Syria to bolster the Syrian regime units. The regime was weak and didn’t have enough forces to control the areas around Albukamal. Iraqi militias would help.

These KH militias, led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, set up shop in a large villa near the border and around five kilometers from Albukamal itself. Muhandis is an old ally of the IRGC in Iraq, a key link in Iran’s network of influence in Iraq. He is close to Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force leader. As such his militia could play a triple role on the border. It would help Iraq secure the area because the KH is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces and thus part of an official paramilitary of Iraq. He would also extend Shi’ite militia influence north  towards Deir Ezzor. And he could help Iran achieve control over the key border area.

The KH compound was hit with an airstrike in 2018. At that time the area graduated from being home to militias to become a cog in a larger Iranian wheel of influence. Soon warehouses were rising from the desert. By the summer of 2019 these warehouses were grouped in eight areas, as revealed by the ISI images and also Fox News reports. At the same time Iran was moving ballistic missiles to Iraq, from August 2018 according to reports. Those missiles would continue to flow until some of the warehouses they were housed in got hit with airstrikes in July and August. At the same time therefore that Iran’s weapons transfers to pro-Iranian militias in Iraq were being hit by airstrikes, which Iraq blamed on Israel, Iran began to increase its role at Albukamal.

The way the Imam Ali base was constructed was not like a normal base. It does not have barracks or even paved roads. It was instead constructed as a bunch of warehouses, to blend in with the landscape and accessed by dirt roads that go to rail depot near the border. The roads for a rail line here was inactive and was in the process of being upgraded.  That line stretches north to  Deir Ezzor. At the same time another road runs toward a lonely airfield called T-2 around 60 km to the West. Then another drive for 126 km takes one to another small Syrian regime base called T-4. After that the last leg of the trip from Imam Ali towards another key Iranian installation, is a 93km drive to T-4, the Tiyas military airport. It is here at T-4  where Iran has hangers and bunkers and a drone facility. Iranian planes, including a weekly flight by an Ilyushin-76 cargo plan, lands at Tiyas and unloads cargo for Iran and its Syrian regime ally. Sometimes this air route includes the mammoth Qeshm Fars Air Boeing 747. These flights are part of Iran’s air bridge  to Syria. In February 2018 a drone launched from Tiyas invaded Israeli airspace and was shot down. Drones are only part of the Tiyas facility. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published in July 2019 shows the scope and proximity of Iran’s work at the site as well as the Russian role. “It highlights what we  assess to be the Iranian movement of weapons, other material and personnel to Syria with the awareness and support of Moscow. Russia has a delicate role because it is aware of Israeli opposition to what Iran is doing in Syria.

Moscow’s cooperation with Tehran is double-edged. Our analysis also highlights Israeli attacks against Iranian or Iranian-linked targets at T-4 Airbase in close proximity to Russian aircraft. These developments suggest that Moscow is playing a delicate game in Syria. It supports Iranian activity and aid in Syria, but also explicitly or tacitly allows Israeli military actions against Iranian targets. –  CSIS

The Tiyas airbase is linked to the Imam Ali base via the desert road. It is also part of the same cog of Iranian key centers of operation across Syria and Iraq. It is how weapons flow to pro-Iranian groups, whether Hezbollah or other militias or the Syrian regime. Iranians and pro-Iranian militias are present. We know this because some of them have been killed. Reuters noted that four Iranians were killed in an April airstrike at Tiyas. Ynet claimed the attack hit the 3rd Khordad air defense system Iran had unloaded. Rumors in Russian media clam Russian Su-35s have sought to prevent airstrikes at the T-4 base and that Bavar-373 air defense from Iran may have been moved there. December 8 satellite imagery showed a cargo plane on the tarmac at Tiyas wth alleged air defense cargo.

Iran openly says it wants to destroy Israel and Hossein Salami, head of the IRGC has said that destruction of Israel is no longer just a dream, but a realizable goal. He made those comments in  September, a key date because eight warehouses at the Imam Ali base were destroyed on September 9 in an airstrike. In addition Iraq and Syria officially reopened the Albukama-Al-Qaim crossing on September 30. Russia claims that Israel carried out an airstrike at Albukamal on November 18.

Now the latest news from Imam Ali is that new tunnels are under construction, according to Fox News which spoke to western intelligence sources and ISI satellite images. Iran is busy digging in. It wants to hide its warehouses under berms and dirt and tunnels. It has more than 30km of roads now connecting them. This once quiet desert area of dunes and dry wadis is booming. It is also a key to Iran’s plans as it seeks to pressure the US in Iraq and continue its weapons deliveries  to allies in Syria. Imam Ali is both a way station on the route and a way to have influence over an Iranian border crossing near the official civilian border crossing. Iran hopes to come out of 2019 with a physical presence on the border. It uses both the land and air route and it knows that it is being watched on both. But it thinks that the volume of activity cannot and will not all be interdicted. That is why it expands the number of nodes and axles that make up its nexus of power across the region.

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