The U.S., European democracies, and Israel, see the Sunni jihadist in Syria as significant and immediate threat to the future of Syria as a potential basis for al-Qaeda and global jihadists. The West’s hesitation to earnestly support the rebel forces and the U.S.-Russian deal for the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal, has actually given the Assad regime a free hand to quell the disunited opposition forces. At the same time, the West tends to ignore or minimize the Syrian regime’s historical record of support for terrorist forces in the region and beyond. In addition, they ignore the potential threat of the various Shia forces involved in the conflict alongside the Assad regime and strong support offered by Iran.
On March 18, four Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously, by a bomb that hit their jeep in the Golan Heights along the Syrian border. This major attack, the most serious since the eruption of the Syrian uprising three years ago, comes after several other similar incidents for which the Lebanese Hezbollah organization was responsible: On March 14 an explosive charge detonated near Har Dov in the vicinity of the Israel-Lebanon border (IDF tanks fired at a Hezbollah position near the border); ten days earlier, on March 4, Israeli army forces spotted several individuals attempting to plant an explosive charge near the border fence with Syria (IDF forces fired artillery shells and bullet rounds in response).
Tensions have risen in the north since the February 24 airstrike targeting a Hezbollah weapons convoy in Lebanon. Foreign reports have attributed the strike to the Israeli Air Force. Hezbollah threatened to attack Israel in retaliation.
Israeli forces responded to the March 18 blast with artillery fire and hours later by retaliatory air strikes against Syrian military sites near the city of Quneitra (an army training facility, a military headquarters and artillery batteries). The Israeli strikes killed one soldier and injured seven, according to Syrian sources. Damascus warned the strikes could further destabilize the region and warned Israel against escalating the situation.
In this author’s opinion, the latest events on the Golan border are not simply the result of Hezbollah’s desire to retaliate for the recent Israeli attacks against the convoys of Syrian strategic weapons transferred to Lebanon, but rather the consequence of the latest military successes of the Assad regime, with the critical support of Iran and its Shia proxies.
First the numbers: according to Israeli sources Shia foreign fighters operating in support of the Assad regime number at least 7,000-8,000, while Western sources evaluate them at perhaps 10,000.
The main celebrated Shia force is represented by several thousand elite Hezbollah fighters, whose numbers change from time to time. Hezbollah has probably already lost more than 500 fighters, including senior commanders.
The second important element is the Iraqi Shia units which began arriving in Syria from spring 2012 onward. Shia leaders claimed last summer there are between 3,800 and 4,700 Iraqi fighters in Syria. Their declared goal is to defend Sayyida Zaynab’s Holy Shrine (the daughter of Ali and Fatimah and the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed) near Damascus. This was at the beginning the pretext and cover of the Hezbollah intervention in the Syrian civil war too.
As of today there are some 14 Iraqi Shi’ite brigades (Liwa’as or Katiba’s) involved in the conflict, the most prominent of which is the Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Contrary to the initial allegations, some of the groups, like Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir (LAIY), are already operating in the Aleppo area. A second important group is Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), formed in 2008 from a breakaway group of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, whose stated objective is “to promote the religious and political principles of the Iranian Revolution inside and beyond Iraq.” Its expeditionary force in Syria, Liwa’a Kafeel Zaynab, is closely cooperating with the Lebanese Hezbollah.
(For more detailed information on this subject see the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) Report by K. Gilbert, The Rise of Shiʿite Militias and the Post-Arab Spring Sectarian Threat.)
In July 2013, the Badr Organization (BO) announced it had sent 1,500 fighters to Syria in the framework of an Expeditionary Force, Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr. The BO was originally a brigade developed with Iranian assistance in the 1980s to fight Saddam Hussein’s regime, and for a long time its leaders were based in exile in Iran. The organization has close links with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and it has been reported that one of its senior figures has been acting on behalf of Iran to coordinate and liaise between Assad’s government and the various Iraqi militant groups operating in Syria.
The number of Iraqi volunteers could see a rise since Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri issued a fatwa in December permitting Iraqi Shias to fight in support of Bashar al-Assad.
Iran has encouraged Iraqi Shia to fight in Syria and has played a key role in the formation, training and financing of Iraqi volunteer groups. They have been taught how to move from the insurgent tactics used in Iraq (roadside bombs, hit-and-run rocket attacks, assassinations) to the urban street-fighting required for regime operations in Syria.
In addition to the hardcore Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia fighters, there are several hundred foreign fighters from the Shia communities in Bahrain, Yemen (some 200 Houthi rebels), Kuwait (a hundred or more), Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even some from Azerbaijan.
The vital support of Hezbollah in the capture of the strategic town of al-Qusayr on the Lebanese border in June 2013 has permitted the continuation of the fight for the control of the strategic road that links Damascus to the Alawite Coast, to Homs and Aleppo through the Qalamoun Mountains. This sustained offensive has led recently to the occupation of Yabroud, last stronghold of the rebels in the region, and the encirclement of the important Sunni town of Arsal in Lebanon, the supplier of fighters and weapons to the opposition forces in the region.
The Iraqi forces have helped the Syrian army to reoccupy much of Damascus’ southern suburbs and ease the siege on the capital. Syrian military sources announced that the army is planning to launch a new phase of military operations in a strategic area in the Damascus countryside.
At the same time, the anticipated rebel spring offensive by the new Islamic Front alliance and the FSA in southern Syria, planned by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia after the collapse of the peace talks in Geneva last month, has not materialized. Nor have the promised supplies of strategic weapons from the foreign backers arrived.
The lack of reaction by the U.S. and Europe in the face of the fierce bombings of the Syrian big cities, the advances of the regime army, as well as the perceived Western weakness during the Ukraine crisis and the success of Syria’s Russian ally, have no doubt emboldened Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.
On the political level, the Geneva II talks in mid-February failed to generate meaningful discussion of a political resolution to the conflict or to improve humanitarian conditions, as Assad’s delegation refused to discuss opposition’s transition plan. Assad has even stepped up preparations for presidential elections due to be held in June under the terms of the current constitution.
On the military level, the warming of the Golan border with Israel by using Hezbollah fighters and possibly other proxies is also a sign of the degree of self-confidence the Damascus regime and its allies have reached.
From Iran’s point of view, after achieving a strong grip on Iraq, the Damascus regime now becomes a vassal that will better serve the strategic needs of its patron. Iran thus achieves a presence on the Mediterranean coast and a direct border with Israel.
The new situation allows Iran and Hezbollah to expand to the Golan the strategy they have used in Lebanon and Gaza. As the latest attempt to transfer by ship strategic missiles to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has failed, the Syrian front is more suitable for this kind of war of attrition.
The new Syrian strategic set-up also serves Russia in a period where it is managing successfully, for the moment at least, the Crimean and Ukrainian crisis. The presence of the Russian fleet in Tartous seems now secure and Russian officials have recently expressed the view that Assad has practically won the war.
Syria is likely the best strategic card in the hands of the U.S. if it wants to seriously challenge President Putin’s move in Crimea.
On March 18 the U.S. suspended the operations of Syria’s embassy including its consular services and asked for the pullout of Syrian diplomats. Moscow called the move “worrying and disappointing” and the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested Washington’s actions were aimed at “regime change”.
It remains to be seen see if Washington will be able to play this card as cleverly as Moscow.
The Israeli government and military now have the difficult task of devising a strategy that deters Syria and Hezbollah from attacking the Golan and at the same time makes sure that the Syrian jihadist forces do not take control of the zone close to the border.
Israel could finally decide that the Assad regime and its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah is indeed the greater evil, and act accordingly.