Is south­ern Syria head­ing for ‘Le­ban­on­iza­tion’?

Rus­sia has nei­ther the will, nor even the abil­ity, to re­move the Ira­nian pro­ject in Syria. The likely re­sult is a con­test be­tween two sys­tems, Ira­nian and Is­raeli, with en­tirely dif­fer­ent ar­eas of ex­per­tise

Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By JONATHAN SPYER (Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters)

The raid on the T4 base at Tiyas in south­ern Syria this week was, ac­cord­ing to global me­dia re­ports, the third such ac­tion by Is­raeli air power against this fa­cil­ity in the course of 2018. It is the lat­est move in an ap­par­ently on­go­ing cam­paign to pre­vent the en­trench­ment and con­sol­i­da­tion (these are the words fa­vored by Is­raeli of­fi­cials) of the Ira­nian mil­i­tary in­fra­struc­ture in Syria.

Mean­while, the As­sad regime is mov­ing into the fi­nal stages of its of­fen­sive against the re­bel­lion in Deraa prov­ince. Ev­i­dence has emerged of the pres­ence of Iran-sup­ported Shia mili­tias among the forces op­er­at­ing on be­half of the regime in Deraa. The two forces whose com­man­ders were pho­tographed in the area are Liwa al-Zul­fiqar and the Abu Fadl al-Ab­bas Brigade.

Haidar al-Jubouri, Zul­fiqar’s com­man­der, was pho­tographed in the oper­a­tions room of the Syr­ian Arab Army’s 4th Di­vi­sion in Deraa. Com­man­ders of the Abu Fadl al-Ab­bas Brigade, mean­while, were seen in the area of Tafas. No­tably, the lat­ter in­di­vid­u­als were pic­tured in Syr­ian Army uni­form and in con­ver­sa­tion with Rus­sian of­fi­cers.

A num­ber of Is­raeli com­men­ta­tors this week down­played the sig­nif­i­cance of these rev­e­la­tions. They ar­gued that the ap­par­ently mi­nor and lim­ited pres­ence of the Shia mili­tias in the Deraa of­fen­sive was tes­ti­mony to the suc­cess of Is­raeli diplo­matic ef­forts to im­press upon the Rus­sians the im­por­tance of lim­it­ing the Ira­nian pres­ence in the of­fen­sives in south­west­ern Syria.

The Is­raeli con­cern is not pri­mar­ily with Deraa. Rather, Jerusalem is watch­ing care­fully to see which forces will be in­volved in the regime’s ad­vance on Quneitra prov­ince, ad­join­ing the Is­raeli-con­trolled part of the Golan.

If the Quneitra of­fen­sive in­volves a mix of forces sim­i­lar to that in Deraa, this will en­able of­fi­cials to claim that Rus­sian pres­sure is work­ing, while pre­sum­ably re­stat­ing Is­rael’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­tinue ef­forts to ex­pel Iran from Syria in its en­tirety. De­fense Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man said this week that “the fact Ira­nian forces are present in Syria at

all is un­ac­cept­able, and we will act against any Ira­nian con­sol­i­da­tion in the area.” Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, mean­while, met this week with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Prior to the meet­ing, the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice is­sued a state­ment reit­er­at­ing that “Is­rael will not tol­er­ate a mil­i­tary pres­ence by Iran or its prox­ies any­where in Syria and that Syria must strictly abide by the 1974 Sep­a­ra­tion of Forces Agree­ment.”

So Is­rael makes clear its de­ter­mi­na­tion that Iran should quit Syria in its en­tirety, acts against spe­cific Ira­nian tar­gets, and ap­pears to ig­nore or down­play those el­e­ments of the Ira­nian pres­ence against which air ac­tion would have more lim­ited or prob­lem­atic ap­pli­ca­tion (such as pro-Ira­nian units in­te­grated into the Syr­ian Army).

The Ira­ni­ans, mean­while, ap­pear at present to be ab­sorb­ing the blows with lit­tle ap­par­ent at­tempt at re­sponse, while main­tain­ing their over­all pres­ence in Syria. WHERE MAY all this be headed?

First of all, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand the na­ture and di­men­sions of the Ira­nian pro­ject in Syria. Iran’s deep al­liance with As­sad’s Syria goes back to the first days of the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran, and to Hafez As­sad’s sup­port of Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War. Over the past seven years of civil war, how­ever, the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship has changed. Ira­nian pro­vi­sion of man­power and or­ga­ni­za­tion of para­mil­i­tary forces have been es­sen­tial to the regime’s sur­vival. Tehran has in­vested up­ward of $30 bil­lion in Syria. The Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps has es­tab­lished bod­ies within the for­mal struc­tures of the Syr­ian state (the Na­tional De­fense Forces), re­cruited young Syr­i­ans into lo­cally based IRGC-as­so­ci­ated para­mil­i­tary groups (Quwaat al-Ridha, 313 bat­tal­ion) and, of course, brought its para­mil­i­tary prox­ies onto Syr­ian soil, along with IRGC per­son­nel.

This is a ma­jor, far-reach­ing process, re­sem­bling in its key par­tic­u­lars par­al­lel projects in Le­banon and Iraq. The in­ten­tion is to es­tab­lish po­lit­i­cal-mil­i­tary struc­tures that will serve to en­able the pro­jec­tion of Ira­nian power over the long term. The Ira­nian ex­per­tise in this area is with­out par­al­lel in the re­gion. As a re­sult of this ap­proach, Tehran now dom­i­nates Le­banon and has the up­per hand in Iraq. As­sad’s Syria, which has an openly dic­ta­to­rial sys­tem, is a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal con­text, of course, but the ev­i­dence sug­gests that the Ira­ni­ans are dig­ging in to stay.

Will the Rus­sians act as the lever for the re­moval of this Ira­nian pro­ject? This ap­pears to be the hope of Is­raeli pol­icy-mak­ers. But the facts would ap­pear to in­di­cate that Rus­sia has nei­ther the will, nor even the abil­ity, to achieve this ob­jec­tive.

Re­gard­ing the for­mer, on July 4, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov de­scribed US and Is­raeli de­mands for a com­plete Ira­nian with­drawal as “com­pletely un­re­al­is­tic.” The Ira­nian pro-regime me­dia is full of fear and spec­u­la­tion at the prospect of Rus­sian be­trayal. The Rus­sian agenda in Syria does not di­rectly par­al­lel that of the Ira­ni­ans (Moscow seeks good re­la­tions with all in­ter­ested par­ties, the bet­ter to make it­self the es­sen­tial ar­biter). But Moscow also has no in­ter­est in see­ing the Ira­ni­ans hu­mil­i­ated or their pro­ject re­versed, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they re­main es­sen­tial to the vi­a­bil­ity of As­sad’s regime.

In any case, the Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion in Syria has been pred­i­cated on a modest ground pres­ence. It is thus not clear by which mech­a­nism Rus­sia could seek to in­duce such a with­drawal, even if it wished to.

So the Ira­nian pro­ject in Syria is likely to con­tinue, and Ira­nian-as­so­ci­ated forces in one guise or an­other are likely in the pe­riod ahead to be op­er­at­ing close to the bor­der with Is­rael. Is­rael, mean­while, is likely to main­tain its in­tel­li­gence dom­i­na­tion across Syria, and to con­tinue pe­ri­od­i­cally to strike at Ira­nian and Ira­nian-as­so­ci­ated tar­gets, in or­der to build de­ter­rence and pre­vent the con­sol­i­da­tion of weapons sys­tems and de­ploy­ments.

Does this sound fa­mil­iar? It ought to. It is in its es­sen­tials the sit­u­a­tion that per­tains in south Le­banon and (in a far less threat­en­ing way) the Gaza Strip.

What we see here is a con­test be­tween two sys­tems with en­tirely dif­fer­ent ar­eas of ex­per­tise. The Ira­ni­ans ex­cel in es­tab­lish­ing and uti­liz­ing po­lit­i­cal and para­mil­i­tary clients to build power within re­gional spaces. They are, how­ever, sharply de­fi­cient in con­ven­tional mil­i­tary skills. Is­rael, mean­while, is out­stand­ing in the fields of air war­fare and in­tel­li­gence, and seeks to avoid be­ing sucked into in­volve­ment in the com­plex and cut­throat world of proxy war­fare within Arab so­ci­eties (the now soon-to-be­a­ban­doned co­op­er­a­tion with the rebels of Quneitra rep­re­sented only a par­tial ex­cep­tion to this rule).

The likely emer­gent pic­ture in Syria, as in Le­banon, is there­fore the on­go­ing con­sol­i­da­tion of an­other IRGC pro­ject, in the frame­work of a weak­ened and trun­cated Arab state, along with an on­go­ing Is­raeli ef­fort to de­ter the mas­ters of this pro­ject from acts of ag­gres­sion, or to con­fine such acts to the realm of rhetoric.

Such a state of af­fairs is, by its na­ture, pre­car­i­ous and po­ten­tially com­bustible. At the same time, the Is­raeli sys­tem has shown con­sid­er­able skill in re­cent years pre­cisely in the man­age­ment of com­pa­ra­ble sit­u­a­tions. •

IN­TER­NALLY DIS­PLACED boys from Deraa look out from their tent in Quneitra, near the bor­der with Is­rael, ear­lier this week.

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