The Iranian-backed Fatemiyoun Brigade and Hezbollah al-Nujaba have started digging tunnels linking their headquarters and posts in the city of Palmyra in the center of the Syrian Desert. Excavations began from ammunition depots and military points on the eastern outskirts of the city last week.
Al-Mohrar Media Network quoted agencies as saying the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) covered the undisclosed costs and expenses of the drilling operations, and secured manual and automated drilling equipment. The operation aims to move to the strategic town of al-Sukhna and its neighboring villages in the second phase, after the completion of the tunnel network in the city of Palmyra. The operation also aims to increase protection of headquarters and warehouses and to avoid US airstrikes. Underground tunnels would help protect fighters and leaders in these movements.
An Iranian military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Iranian forces have been digging military tunnels in the areas under their control for more than three years. The objective is to link military headquarters together.”
He noted, “Tunnels are dug to a depth of more than 3 meters [10 feet]. Reinforced concrete chambers are designed inside these tunnels with small dimensions every kilometer [0.6 miles]."
The excavations are concentrated in Palmyra, with the aim of strengthening the presence of Iranian forces in this area rich in antiquities, preventing Russia from expelling them and protecting their headquarters from Israeli attacks.
Iron and construction materials are secured through Iranian logistical support coming from Iraqi territories through the Harakat al-Nujaba militia in convoys of supplies.
The source added, “The tunnels digging map includes vital areas of the city of Palmyra. These tunnels are expected to extend to all areas under Iranian control. Despite the agreements with Russia that continue to define Iran’s areas of presence, past experiences taught us that trusting Russian promises is the first step in accepting military defeat. We are currently striving to complete the tunnels project in the city of Palmyra, for fear of any upcoming clash with Islamic State [IS] cells.”
The headquarters of the Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias in the region are subject to continuous and repeated attacks by IS cells in the region, which Iran considers an existential threat that it is trying to overcome through tunnels, which allow it to move easily without revealing its movements
It seems that because of Iran's desire to preserve its long-term presence in Syria, it is establishing secret points in the tunnels and changing their locations between residential neighborhoods periodically. It also resorts to camouflage techniques by integrating its fighters into the ranks of the Syrian regime forces.
Col. Fayez al-Asmar, a strategic expert based in Turkey who provides military analyses to a number of local and Arab newspapers, told Al-Monitor, “Iran is using tunnel networks, transportation trenches and underground shelters to hide from air surveillance its missile bases and the movements of its fighters and leaders."
He explained that there are several types of tunnels, namely defensive and offensive tunnels, supply tunnels and operating rooms. He said, “Supply tunnels are short-distanced and used to connect close areas. They aim to provide support and facilitate movement during battles. Offensive tunnels stretch over a longer distance and are used to reach areas controlled by adversaries.”
Asmar told Al-Monitor, quoting his own sources, that the Iranians are digging tunnels that reach the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, east of the Euphrates. They are intended to pave the way for a surprise ground attack and a threat to the US presence following the airstrikes on the Iranian forces' headquarters.
President Bashar al-Assad is reportedly facing pressure from Russia, Israel and the United States to remove Iranian forces from Syria. Thus, it seems Iran is trying to strengthen itself militarily through engineering and fortification works in digging shelters and minefields, to ensure survival in the region.
Asmar argued, however, that tunnels will not be very effective and will make no difference in the course of the military operation. “These drilling operations are only part of arbitrary security measures Iranian forces are implementing in their areas of control. Iran is carrying out cross-border operations by digging tunnels on the borders of Iraq and Lebanon to smuggle weapons [into Syria]. But in light of physical and geographical difficulties, these operations will not be easy to implement,” he said.
Radio Watan FM website said the Iranian militias are exploiting civilians from Palmyra and its neighboring villages in the eastern countryside of Homs under the control of the regime forces, to implement their projects in digging tunnels, in return for small wages estimated at 5,000 Syrian pounds ($1.75) per meter (3.3 feet) and work 10 hours per day over two shifts. Each shift is covered by 30 excavation workers. Workers are prohibited from bringing their cellphones and wearing watches to avoid planting GPS and audio listening devices inside the tunnels.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told Al-Monitor that "Iranian forces are exploiting the residents’ needs and their poor financial conditions. Around 80% of the residents live below the poverty line. Residents are being forced to work in trenches and those who refuse to cooperate could face arrest. In addition, manpower in Syria is cheap, which reduces the cost of the illegal operations carried out by these militias. Add to this, tunnel-digging workers have no insurance or compensation in case of death or injury during excavation works. The rights of these workers are not protected by the regime’s Ministry of Labor or any other official body.”