Iran opens new front in Syria – with eye on Israel
Ed Blanche reports from Beirut
Iranian-led forces, spearheaded by seasoned Hizbullah fighters (right) backed by Iraqi and Afghan Shiites, have launched an offensive in southern Syrian, along with Syrian troops, the objective of which is to push back rebel groups threatening the southern approaches to Damascus and the regime of President Bashar Assad.
But it has another, and in many ways more strategic goal: establishing an Iranian-Hizbullah front across the war-divided Golan Heights to confront Israel, a move that would raise the stakes alarmingly as Tehran is expanding its power not only through Syria and Lebanon, but also through Iraq, the Gulf and most recently Yemen as well
The Syrian action is part of a major effort by the elite Al Quds Force (below), the expeditionary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Hizbullah, Iran’s most prized and battle-hardened proxy in the Middle East, to create a continuous front against the Jewish state running from the Mediterranean running eastwards across south Lebanon up to the Israeli sector of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in June 1967 and annexed in December 1981.
“The Iranians are seeking to develop this area … as a springboard for operations against Israel – contrary to the historic practice of the Assad regime, which was to keep that area quiet and apply pressure elsewhere,” observed Israeli analyst Jonathan Spyer. The offensive against Syrian rebels forces began on 12 February, but the first shots in the current phase of Tehran’s effort to consolidate what would be a new front line against Israel were fired by the Israelis themselves on 18 January.
They killed at least one senior IRGC officer, Brig. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Allah-Dadi, in an air strike on a three-vehicle convoy near Quneitra, the onetime regional capital of the Golan that has been largely deserted since the 1967 war. Allah-Dadi was the IRGC liaison with Hizbullah in Syria, which has as many as 5,000 men fighting alongside the Iranian-backed Damascus regime, and with Syrian intelligence. He played a key role in the Iranian build-up in Syria. He was a long-time close associate of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Al-Quds Force which spearheads the Iranian mission in Syria and runs Iranian weapons deliveries to Hizbullah. They fought side by side in Iran’s 1980-88 against Iraq.
Also killed were at least three senior Hizbullah commanders, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the 25-year-old son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Shiite group’s iconic military leader assassinated in Damascus on 12 February 2008 in what recent reports say was a joint operation by the US Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. Informed sources in Beirut say the younger Mughniyeh was appointed leader of an Hizbullah special unit in the Golan in October 2014, under overall IRGC command. He was a rising star in Hizbullah who was adopted by Gen. Suleimani, who had been close to the elder Mughniyeh.
Suleimani is seen as the mastermind behind the current Iranian expansion in the Golan and handpicked the key commanders himself. Allah-Dadi and the Hizbullah commanders were apparently conducting a reconnaissance of positions in the Qunaitra area close to Israel’s occupation zone, no doubt in advance of the regime offensive that followed.
The air strike by two unmanned aerial drones (below) was the Israelis’ deadliest operation in the Golan since Syria’s civil war began in March 2011. The Israelis made vague claims these commanders were plotting an attack against Israeli forces in the occupied western sector of the Golan, a 3,300-foot-high volcanic plateau that dominates northern Israel and Lake Tiberias, a vital source of water for Israel.
Indeed, the strike was so provocative, the initial supposition was that the Israelis did not know the identities of the senior figures in the convoy, since such an attack could easily trigger a dangerous confrontation with Iran and Hizbullah.
But it seems the Israelis, who have long been extremely careful to avoid involvement in the Syrian conflict on their northern border, knew exactly who they were targeting at such great risk, and mounted the aerial ambush as a warning to Tehran not to establish an Iranian bridgehead in the disputed Golan, which since the 1973 war has been Israel’s quietest border.
Hizbullah, with Tehran’s encouragement and assistance, has been building up its forces in Syria, where it maintains big arms depots that include rockets and missiles. The plan seems to be to shift the focus of Hizbullah’s anti-Israeli campaign away from Lebanon to avoid potentially catastrophic Israeli retaliation that would shatter support for the Shiite movement as the embodiment of “resistance” to Israel, and possibly trigger an all-out conflict with Sunni jihadists that would finally tear Lebanon apart. Indeed, the Iranian regime now “perceives Syria and Lebanon as Tehran’s first line of defence against Israel,” retired Israeli brigadier general Shimon Shapira observed in a January analysis for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs where he is a senior research associate.
“Assistance to Syria and Hizbullah and an active ground presence in both countries are seen as additional expressions of Iran’s national defence doctrine. This is meant to distance the Iranian homeland from any threat and to conduct the campaign against Israel and the West in areas distant from Iran’s borders.”
The indications are that the Islamic Republic is exploiting the turmoil convulsing the Middle East to extend its control westward through Iraq then Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean and the very border of Israel as part of the new order emerging in the region and the United States’ declining military presence there.
And none of this is necessarily contingent on Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad, remaining at the head of a brutal regime, even in a truncated state, just so long as Tehran has a land corridor to Hizbullah in Lebanon and access to the southern section of the Golan seized by Israel in 1967.
And the fact that Suleimani appears to be the man in charge of the new offensive underlines just how pervasive Iran’s influence in Syria has become since it came to Assad’s aid in 2011. Indeed, Middle East analyst Tony Badran deems Syria to be a “wholly owned subsidiary of Tehran” these days. The Israelis are extremely jittery as the Middle East is in the grip of epochal change, in which Iran is extending its reach westward to the Levant and south to Yemen. Their fears for what is developing in Syria may be exaggerated, but Tehran sees opportunity arising from the regional turmoil.
The presence of Allah-Dadi and the other IRGC generals “in a highly strategic location would have been read by Israel as Iran staking out its territorial claim and preparing for a second front, thus requiring a strong response,” observed Steven Simon, US National Security Council director for the Middle East in 2011-12. “This could explain the 18 January strike.”
Shapira observed in a June 2014 report he co-authored for the Institute for Contemporary Affairs that the so-called Suleimani Plan “was hatched during a visit to Iran in 2013 by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s supreme leader (below left), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (below right), and leading figures in the Revolutionary Guards.”
Suleimani, who is oversees Iran’s military operations in Iraq and Yemen, made a low-key visit to Beirut in late January, possibly to finalise details of the offensive in Syria with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. He was photographed praying at Imad Mughniyeh’s tomb, where his son Jihad is also buried. Shapira calls this Tehran’s “Plan B” because it prepares “for the eventuality that even if Assad does not prevail, Iran will maintain its presence in Syria and its ability to act against Israel from Syrian territory with the assistance of various committed factions modeled after ‘Hizbullah Lebanon’.”
The core of the plan is “the establishment of a sectarian army composed of Shiites and Alawites, backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hizbullah and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf. This force will number 150,000 fighters.” In May 2014, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Eskandari, a senior IRGC commander, claimed the corps had trained 42 battalions and 138 brigades to fight in Syria, in a conflict that “is our war against the USA.”
According to Iran’s Fars news agency, another prominent IRGC commander, Hussein Hamadani, boasted that “Iran has established a second Hizbullah in Syria” and that 130,000 volunteers of the Basij, an IRGC-controlled paramilitary force that can reportedly mobilise up to 1 million members, “are waiting to enter Syria.” Those figures have probably been inflated for propaganda purposes, but there seems no doubt that the Iranian presence in Syria, military as well as intelligence, has been greatly reinforced and that the wily Suleimani’s group effectively controls those areas held by Assad’s forces.
It would be prudent to view the motivation for the Israelis’ Quneitra air strike through this prism. Shapira observed: “In the buds of ‘Hizbullah Syria’ lay the infrastructure for enhanced Iranian subversion in the Golan Heights, which is perceived by Iran as a new and extended confrontation line with Israel in light of the changing regional landscape.”
Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies”, a neoconservative think tank in Washington DC, wrote in a 23 January analysis that Tehran and Hizbullah “are looking to tether the Golan to their stronghold in Lebanon, melding the two into a ‘single front’ as Hizbullah has begun to describe it. “The presence of top-ranking Iranian and Hizbullah officers in the area underscores the importance that Iran attaches to the objective.”
In early 2014, Israel’s intelligence services perceived the key threat emerging in the Syrian bloodbath was the whirlwind growth of the jihadist forces fighting Assad and his backers, Iran and Hizbullah. But the most dangerous threat is now seen as the expansion of Hizbullah and Iranian power in southern Syria, particularly the Golan around Quneitra.
Some saw it coming. Israeli analyst Ben Caspit observed in February 2014 that Hizbullah, originally a lightly armed guerrilla force, may be taking some heavy losses – at least 700-800 killed since 2013 – but it’s built up its military arm to unprecedented levels, with around half its combat forces deployed in Syria. Hizbullah also possesses an estimated 150,000 missiles and rockets, including several hundred medium-range, satellite-guided weapons provided by Iran that threaten the entire Jewish state. The longer the fighting drags on, “the more Hizbullah trains, gathering experience and improving its capabilities,” Caspit noted. “Israel already considers it to be a ‘semi-regular’ army with state-like capabilities.
“Right now it’s under tremendous internal pressure in Lebanon, sustaining losses and paying a stiff price. But for those who see clearly, it is obvious that once the confrontation is over, Hizbullah will be a far more dangerous, better-trained and more significant enemy facing Israel.”