Iran is act­ing to ad­vance its long-term goals in Syria

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By ORIT PERLOV and UDI DEKEL

Iran is the dom­i­nant ac­tor in Syria. It dic­tates the fight­ing on the ground by the pro-As­sad coali­tion, con­trols the Syria-Iraq and Syria-Le­banon bor­der cross­ings, and tai­lors the re-or­ga­ni­za­tion of ar­eas and com­mu­ni­ties based on an eth­nic ele­ment. Iran wields much – and of­ten de­ci­sive – in­flu­ence on the pace of fight­ing, in con­sul­ta­tion with Rus­sia and Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

A multi-tiered ap­proach – in­clud­ing con­trol of the Syr­ian cen­tral axis, ter­ri­to­rial con­ti­gu­ity and lo­gis­ti­cal and com­mer­cial axes – is used by dif­fer­ent mil­i­tary groups and mili­tias com­pris­ing an Ira­nian fight­ing force Is­rael, which en­joys in­tel­li­gence supremacy in Syria and is cur­rently ig­nor­ing the pres­ence of Iran’s prox­ies and the other forces un­der Ira­nian com­mand in south­ern Syria.

The Ira­nian mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Syria, which be­gan in 2012, was de­signed to save the As­sad regime and con­sol­i­date Iran’s long-term in­flu­ence in the coun­try. Dis­course on the so­cial me­dia is an im­por­tant tool in un­der­stand­ing Iran’s method of op­er­a­tion in Syria, its forces and prox­ies sta­tioned in the coun­try, and the growth of its in­flu­ence there. This ar­ti­cle is based on the dis­course and as­sess­ments of Syr­ian ac­tivists and lead­ers of pub­lic opin­ion (mainly Sunni) on the so­cial me­dia, ver­i­fied by doc­u­ments, pic­tures, ev­i­dence from the field, and in­ter­pre­ta­tions by ex­perts. All of this sheds light on the “Ira­nian model” in Syria, which re­lies on the buildup of a range of forces that are sub­ject to Ira­nian au­thor­ity and serve its in­ter­ests in the re­gion. In co­op­er­a­tion with the As­sad regime, Iran’s in­ter­ven­tion is kept on a low pro­file, as it de­ploys sol­diers obe­di­ent to Ira­nian au­thor­ity within the Syr­ian army, de­fense units and mili­tias pre­sum­ably fight­ing for the regime.

It is com­monly be­lieved that since Iran and Hezbol­lah joined Syria’s civil war and un­til the present time, i.e., the lib­er­a­tion of south­ern Syria from the rebels in July 2018, Iran, not Rus­sia, has been the lead­ing ac­tor in Syria. The op­er­a­tional out­line of the pro-As­sad coali­tion, which com­prises Rus­sia, Iran and its prox­ies, is as fol­lows: first Ira­nian ad­vis­ers ob­serve the site and as­sess the op­er­a­tional fea­si­bil­ity and prospects for suc­cess­ful con­quest. Then they meet with the Rus­sian li­ai­son of­fi­cers in or­der to co­or­di­nate the land and air op­er­a­tion; mil­i­tary com­bat forces are then sent into the cam­paign – Syr­ian army forces and the Shi’ite mili­tias un­der Ira­nian com­mand. The area des­ig­nated for lib­er­a­tion from the rebels is sur­rounded and be­sieged. The op­er­a­tion be­gins with a crush­ing aerial bom­bard­ment by Rus­sian air units and the Syr­ian air force, com­bined with heavy ar­tillery fire. Once the rebels’ stronghold­s have been weak­ened, the land forces pen­e­trate and lib­er­ate the area. Ne­go­ti­a­tions with the rebels for a sur­ren­der set­tle­ment are con­ducted by Rus­sian of­fi­cers.

The axes ap­proach

Ac­cord­ing to the Ira­nian ap­proach, a num­ber of axes are needed to pre­serve the As­sad regime, which to­gether with geo­graphic con­trol and com­mand con­trol in Syria is a key in­stru­ment of Ira­nian in­flu­ence and an im­por­tant phase to­ward con­trol of the Shi’ite cres­cent and cre­ation of a land cor­ri­dor con­nect­ing Iran with the Mediter­ranean Sea.

• The Syr­ian “spine”: This axis is the ma­jor cities in the cen­ter and north of the coun­try, home to most of the pop­u­la­tion and the gov­ern­men­tal and eco­nomic cen­ters. An es­sen­tial con­di­tion for vic­tory in the war is main­tain­ing con­trol along the “spine” from Daraa in the south through the cap­i­tal city of Da­m­as­cus and con­tin­u­ing on the cen­tral axis lead­ing north to Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, and west to Latakia.

• Ter­ri­to­rial con­ti­gu­ity: Iran is grad­u­ally tak­ing over a num­ber of key ar­eas in or­der to cre­ate a con­tigu­ous ter­ri­to­rial pres­ence be­tween Iran and the Mediter­ranean Sea, first aim­ing at the eas­ier por­tion and then pro­ceed­ing to the more dif­fi­cult parts: the Syr­ian-Le­banese bor­der, fol­lowed by Da­m­as­cus sur­round­ings, the Iraqi-Syr­ian bor­der, east-to-west strate­gic hinges, and now south­ern Syria. In the next stage, forces will be freed up to take over two more chal­leng­ing re­gions in north­east Syria. 1) The Kur­dish zone, sup­ported by the US-led Western coali­tion, is es­sen­tial for Iran, be­cause it con­trols the Syr­ian-Iraqi bor­der, and 2) the Idlib prov­ince, the last strong­hold of the Sunni rebels, which is pro­tected by Turkey. Gain­ing con­trol of these ar­eas is too dif­fi­cult at this stage, and has there­fore been post­poned to sub­se­quent stages of the civil war.

• Lo­gis­tics: An ad­di­tional axis is the main sup­ply cor­ri­dor from Iran to Syria via Iraq, and from there to Le­banon (by land and by air). This axis (which in a speech in Au­gust 2017 Has­san Nas­ral­lah called “the lib­er­a­tion road”) is es­sen­tial to the buildup of Iran’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties in Syria and its abil­ity to send forces, weapons, and lo­gis­tics sup­port to its prox­ies.

• The com­mer­cial and trade axis: This will be re­opened af­ter be­ing com­pletely closed the past few years. It will pass along the “spine” from north­ern to south­ern Syria along the M5 in­ter­na­tional high­way from Turkey to Jor­dan and the Gulf states via Syria. This axis will help in Syria’s eco­nomic re­con­struc­tion and re­lieve Iran of some of the eco­nomic bur­den.

Struc­ture of Ira­nian forces

The on­line dis­course also re­veals a multi-lay­ered struc­ture of forces in Syria marked by grow­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence.

• The Quds Force of the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps: This is an or­ganic Ira­nian force re­spon­si­ble for Syria; the other forces op­er­ate un­der it. Its or­der of bat­tle and de­ploy­ment have changed dur­ing the war ac­cord­ing to the op­er­a­tional needs, vary­ing from 2,000 to 5,000 sol­diers. The force in­cludes com­man­ders and con­sul­tants op­er­at­ing along­side other forces in the pro-As­sad coali­tion: the Syr­ian army, Syr­ian and Shi’ite mili­tias. The Quds Force was re­in­forced in the sec­ond year of the civil war when there was se­ri­ous con­cern about the sur­vival of As­sad’s regime. In the first stage, most of its mis­sion was de­fen­sive – guard­ing As­sad, his loy­al­ists, and his stronghold­s. With the progress of the fight­ing, most of its

mis­sions switched from de­fense to of­fense and as­sis­tance in the lib­er­a­tion of ar­eas taken by the rebels. The force later helped open up the strate­gic routes and ar­ter­ies. • Syr­ian Na­tional De­fense Forces: In the early years of the civil war, when the Syr­ian army (the Syr­ian Arab Army – SAA) un­der As­sad’s con­trol al­most col­lapsed (due to de­ser­tions, lack of re­cruit­ment and heavy losses), Iran de­cided to help As­sad es­tab­lish the Na­tional De­fense Forces (NDF) – Syr­ian mili­tias with Ira­nian com­mand, train­ing, fi­nanc­ing and ar­ma­ments. The NDF forces are the Syr­ian equiv­a­lent of the pop­u­lar Shi’ite Iraqi mili­tias (Hashad al-Shaabi) and Hezbol­lah in Le­banon. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the NDF has re­cruited some 90,000 Syr­ian vol­un­teers, with the goal be­ing to base most of the force on Alaw­ites and Shi’ites. They have also re­cruited peo­ple from other sec­tors.

• Lo­cal De­fense Forces: This in­cludes po­lice, se­cu­rity and civil ad­min­is­tra­tion units of lo­cal mili­tias be­lieved to num­ber up to 50,000 men. It was es­tab­lished by Iran in re­sponse to the de­mand of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties loyal to the rule of the cen­tral regime in Da­m­as­cus, in part in or­der to de­tect and elim­i­nate those co­op­er­at­ing with the rebels and op­po­si­tion groups in Syria. Ira­nian or Hezbol­lah com­man­ders are in­te­grated in these mili­tias.

• Shi’ite mili­tias: Shi’ite mili­tias from Afghanista­n (Fatemiy­oun Liwa) and Pak­istan (Zein­abiy­oun Bri­gade) are re­cruited and op­er­ated by Iran. These mili­tias, be­lieved to num­ber 10,000 to 15,000 sol­diers, were des­ig­nated for use as a key strike force in lib­er­at­ing ter­ri­tory held by the rebels and later for strength­en­ing Shi­ite and Alaw­ite com­mu­ni­ties in Syria and pro­tect­ing them from re­venge and hos­tile ac­tiv­ity by the var­i­ous rad­i­cal Sunni mil­i­tant groups. Iran, in co­or­di­na­tion with As­sad, is en­cour­ag­ing the sol­diers of these mili­tias and their fam­i­lies to im­mi­grate to Syria, where they un­dergo a process of nat­u­ral­iza­tion and ab­sorp­tion in prepa­ra­tion for re­main­ing there, even if it is de­cided to re­move for­eign forces from the coun­try as part of a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment. The sol­diers and their fam­i­lies are set­tled in of­fi­cers’ neigh­bor­hoods aban­doned by Sunni refugees and dis­placed per­sons. The purpose is to strengthen Shi’ite iden­tity in Syria and to­gether with the Shi’ite and Alaw­ite re­cruits to the LDF/NDF mili­tias, to con­sol­i­date long-term Ira­nian in­flu­ence and for­tify

in­ter­nal sup­port for the As­sad regime.

• Shi’ite rapid in­ter­ven­tion forces: Iran some­times uses Shi’ite mili­tias from Iraq and Le­banon (Hezbol­lah’s Rad­wan units, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbol­lah Clavade, Harakat Hezbol­lah al-Nu­jaba, Liwa’a Zul­fiqar, Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, Liwa Abu al-Fad­hal al-Ab­bas, Kawe al-Jafiryah, and oth­ers) as forces for rapid in­ter­ven­tion in com­bat ar­eas in or­der to de­cide the bat­tle when forces are in­ad­e­quate for over­com­ing rebel re­sis­tance. At the peak of the fight­ing, the rapid in­ter­ven­tion forces con­tained up to 30,000 sol­diers. In con­trast to the at­tempt to make the Afghan and Pak­istani mili­tias into Syr­ian cit­i­zens, the mili­tias from Iraq re­turn to their home coun­tries when their mis­sions are ac­com­plished.

• Hezbol­lah – The Da­m­as­cus shield and pro­tec­tor of Le­banon perime­ter: Hezbol­lah has op­er­ated in Syria since 2012 with an or­der of bat­tle vary­ing from 4,000 to 9,000 sol­diers (the num­ber varies ac­cord­ing to the un­fold­ing events of the civil war) along­side As­sad and un­der Ira­nian di­rec­tion. Hezbol­lah’s first mis­sion in Syria was to save the As­sad regime and closely pro­tect Da­m­as­cus. In late 2016, Hezbol­lah forces took part in the bat­tle to lib­er­ate Aleppo, Syria’s sec­ond largest city. Hezbol­lah fo­cused on fight­ing in or­der to pre­serve its achieve­ment in the area bor­der­ing Le­banon, called the Q zone – Quneitra, Qalam­oun, and al Qusayr. The main goal was to ex­pel the rebels and the Sunni pop­u­la­tion in es­sen­tial ar­eas in or­der to safe­guard the ac­cess roads from Syria to Le­banon, set­tle a friendly pop­u­la­tion along and ad­ja­cent to the Syr­ian-Le­banese bor­der, and pre­vent ter­ror­ist and re­venge at­tacks by Salafi ji­hadist groups in Le­banon. The dis­course on the so­cial me­dia sug­gests that Shi’ite com­bat­ants (ex­clud­ing those from Iraq) land in Beirut Air­port and pro­ceed to re­cruit­ment, ab­sorp­tion and train­ing camps in Le­banon op­er­ated by Hezbol­lah. Af­ter their train­ing pe­riod is over, the re­cruits, wear­ing Syr­ian army uni­forms, are in­te­grated into forces fight­ing on the side of the As­sad regime.

• Le­banese and Iraqi mer­ce­nar­ies: These fight­ers are not mem­bers of the var­i­ous Shi’ite mili­tias, but help in fight­ing in ar­eas where lo­gis­ti­cal and op­er­a­tional sup­port is needed. They are funded by Iran and, like the Shi’ite mili­tias from Iraq and Hezbol­lah, also re­turn to their home coun­tries when their mis­sions are ac­com­plished.

Im­pli­ca­tions for Is­rael

Iran con­ceals its con­trol in Syria. It wants to act and in­flu­ence be­hind the scenes, while in­te­grat­ing the forces un­der its com­mand into the coun­try’s mili­tias and mil­i­tary gov­ern­men­tal frame­work. It is there­fore dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish pre­cisely the num­ber of Ira­nian proxy forces in Syria. Ac­cord­ing to many Syr­ian me­dia re­ports, es­pe­cially on op­po­si­tion web­sites and so­cial me­dia, the Ira­nian forces, Hezbol­lah and the Shi’ite mili­tias are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the fight­ing tak­ing place in south­ern Syria while wear­ing Syr­ian army uni­forms. Rus­sia is cer­tainly aware that not only are the pro-Ira­nian Shi’ite mili­tias not with­draw­ing from south­ern Syria, but they are even re­in­forced there. Pre­sum­ably, the Ira­nian project in Syria will con­tinue, and forces iden­ti­fied with Iran will be de­ployed near the bor­der in the Golan Heights un­der some kind of cover in the near fu­ture.

Is­rael, which en­joys in­tel­li­gence supremacy in Syria, is cur­rently ig­nor­ing the pres­ence of Iran’s prox­ies and the other forces un­der Ira­nian com­mand in south­ern Syria. Ap­par­ently, Is­rael be­lieves that these forces do not con­sti­tute an im­mi­nent threat, at least in the near fu­ture, and is fo­cus­ing on pre­vent­ing the con­sol­i­da­tion of sub­stan­tial Ira­nian mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in Syria – mis­siles, rock­ets, un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles, air de­fense sys­tems and ad­vanced weapons. It ap­pears that at this stage, Is­rael re­lies on Rus­sia and the As­sad regime to keep Iran’s forces and its prox­ies away from the bor­der once they re­al­ize that Iran’s grow­ing in­volve­ment and pen­e­tra­tion of the lo­cal Syr­ian forces in ef­fect un­der­mines the regime’s sovereignt­y. It is highly ques­tion­able, how­ever, whether Rus­sia and As­sad have the will or the ca­pa­bil­ity to get rid of the Ira­nian pres­ence on Syr­ian ter­ri­tory, es­pe­cially in view of the in­te­gra­tion of Ira­nian com­man­ders and Shi’ite fight­ers in the lo­cal forces. In this case, Is­rael will have the op­tion of at­tack­ing the Ira­nian prox­ies even af­ter As­sad com­pletes his lib­er­a­tion of the Syr­ian Golan Heights.

Orit Perlov, a so­cial me­dia an­a­lyst, fol­lows and an­a­lyzes the dis­course on the so­cial net­works in Arab states. Udi Dekel, who joined the In­sti­tute for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies as a se­nior re­search fel­low in 2012, was head of the ne­go­ti­a­tions team with the Pales­tini­ans in the An­napo­lis process un­der the Olmert gov­ern­ment. This ar­ti­cle pre­vi­ously ap­peared as an INSS re­search pa­per.


HEZBOL­LAH FIGHT­ERS stand near mil­i­tary tanks in Western Qalam­oun, Syria.

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