Syria’s Baniyas on the Mediterranean sea between Latakia and Tartus is the site of a large oil refinery.
Before the civil war broke out in 2011 travel guides suggested tourists visit the Crusader fortress of Qalaat Marqab nearby. Today visitors can add to that list a mysterious military construction project stretching several kilometers along Wadi Jahannam, which is 8 km. from Baniyas.
A report on Channel 2 on August 15 provided images of the site from an Israeli satellite. The report said this is likely a factory to build long-range missiles. The area the factory is constructed in near the border of the Tartus and Latakia governorates is one that is closely linked to other military facilities of the Syrian regime and its allies. These include a Russian naval base at Tartus and Khmeimim air force base to the north, which is also allegedly used by Russia and the Iranians.
According to an August 14 report in Die Welt, “in June, aircraft from Iran were flown directly to Khmeimim airport… in order to bring military goods to Russia. The military goods were taken by truck to the Mediterranean port in Tartus.”
The report of the Iranian missile factory in Syria comes in the context of Israel’s recent warnings in June and July that Iran was attempting to establish bases in Lebanon and Syria.
Iran’s parliament also approved a bill on August 13 to increase spending on ballistic missiles by $260 million. In May, US lawmakers Peter Roskam and Ted Deutch expressed concern about “a permanent Iranian military base in Syria” in a May 25 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
“The Islamic Republic seeks to solidify its access to the Mediterranean Sea by building a permanent seaport and constructing numerous military installations throughout the country.”
Knowledge and rumors of the existence of the new missile base has existed for months. On June 28, the Syrian opposition website zamanalwsl.net provided aerial photos and a report on the base. In a piece translated by MEMRI, the website noted that President Bashar Assad had made a visit for Id al-Fitr to Hama as cover for a “secret visit to one of the most sensitive military facilities of the regime and its ally Iran.”
This was a “new secret research facility whose construction began last year in a fortified area east of Baniyas in a rugged valley called Wadi Jahannam.” Assad met Iranians at the site and viewed the progress of construction of a facility for “developing and manufacturing weapons.”
Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria and Lebanon at Tel Aviv University says the new reports are interesting and represent “a significant phenomenon and development.”
Because it has been Israel’s policy to interdict the flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, a factory would provide another route for Iran to aid its allies. “This is uneasy for Israel and a dilemma. We need to confirm it is true and wait and see.”
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also sees this as a significant development. “It increasingly appears as if Iran is gearing up for a significant battle against Israel.”
The building of missile production factories and underground facilities in Lebanon and Syria is part of a larger Iranian goal of extending its “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria, he said.
“So we are seeing the execution of a long term strategy and this is one that puts Israel in a bind because Israel is fearful of provoking a war in Lebanon or entering the fray in Syria and is reticent to engage Iran directly.” That means Israel must weigh its next moves carefully, Schanzer said.
“Iran has found a strategy that puts Israel in check for the moment.”