Iran Comes to the Israeli Border
As the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah try to drive back rebel fighters in southern Syria, they threaten to spur a larger conflict in one of the Middle East's most volatile regions.
AMMAN — In Jordan, Syria’s war is everywhere. Over 600,000 refugees have fled to the country: Cities like Irbid and Zarqa teem with new Syrian inhabitants, and Zaatari camp, which houses 85,000 exiled Syrian Sunnis, is home to at least four donkeys named Bashar. Above it all, coalition cargo planes and screaming F-16s slice through the spring sky toward northern Syria and Iraq, daily reminders of Jordan’s role in the coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State.
But the most potent force in the battle unfolding just across Jordan’s northern border is still invisible: Iranian power.
Over the past six weeks, soldiers belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah have played a major role in the Syrian regime’s long-awaited offensive on the southern province of Daraa.
The southern province is the moderate opposition’s last stronghold, and the site of steady rebel gains since early summer 2014. With no Islamic State presence to contend with, Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have found ways to work together, tightening their hold on the region. Their reach covers most of the Jordan-Syria border, providing them with valuable supply lines leading to Amman. On March 25, reportedly supported by an influx of arms from their international backers, a coalition of rebel groups were able to seize the Daraa town of Bosra al-Sham from the Syrian regime and its allies.
Yet while the opposition fighters vying for control in this part of the country are mostly locals, their adversaries are not. Sunni rebels, activists, and researchers say the well-trained Iranian-backed Shiite fighters on the ground are more numerous and more powerful than the Syrian Army and the National Defense Forces (NDF), a government-funded paramilitary force they are fighting alongside.
If anything, the Iranian militias seem to be leading the fight, said Issam el-Rayyes, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front.
“We are costing them a lot of losses, but they don’t stop. It’s clear this isn’t the [Syrian army],” he said. “They are fighting for beliefs.”
According to Rayyes, the U.S.-backed Southern Front has about 2,500 men in the battle, compared to the regime’s 5,000. He estimates that just one of every five of the men on the opposite side are Syrian — a number with which several independent experts agreed. The other 4,000 are Iranian-backed Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher of Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, said that Iran and its allies have attracted foreign fighters by painting the fight as a battle to the death with Sunni extremists, in which Shiites are obliged to defend the Sayyida Zainab Mosque in Damascus, one of the holiest shrines for Shiites.
“From the very beginning, they were selling it as a fight against Sunni extremists,” he said. “It’s an existential crisis: If you don’t defend the shrine, this is the end of Shiism.”
From an Iranian perspective, the southern rebels’ links to the United States, Jordan, and Israel have only amplified the need to reverse their gains. The operation to push them back began on about Feb. 10 south of the Damascus countryside, at the intersection of the provinces of Damascus, Quneitra, and Daraa. It churned through the rebel-held towns of Deir al-Adas and Kafr Shams, which previously marked the front line between regime and opposition positions. From there, pro-regime forces pushed west toward Quneitra and are attempting to move down the western flank of Daraa province into the Golan Heights, where Israel Defense Forces and Sunni rebels have quietly co-existed for more than a year.
Rayyes said the front line is now around the town of Kafr Nasij, just 15 miles east of the Golan Heights. “They’re trying to push toward Mashara in Quneitra. Their target is [hilltop town] Tal al-Hara, then to take the Golan borders and eventually cut off supply lines from Jordan.”
A source close to senior Hezbollah figures confirmed that the offensive had reached roughly 10 miles south into the Golan Heights from the north, and was going strong. He said the aim was to sever the territorial link between the rebels and Israel, which he accused of providing the Sunni fighters with military advice and medical care.
“The orders are to take back the borders with the Golan Heights and remove the rebels,” he said. “The goal is to prevent the ‘buffer zone’ Israel is trying to establish along the border.”
He said that the southern offensive wasn’t supposed to happen as quickly as it did, but had been “sped up” when an Israeli attack killed an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters in January — a reminder that it’s Iran, and not Assad, calling the shots here.
Just as Iranian power is behind the recent gains of the pro-regime forces, the southern rebels answer to their own international backers. Several well-vetted Southern Front factions are armed, trained, and funded by the United States and a team of Western and Arab military advisors out of the shadowy Military Operations Command center in Amman.
Iran’s support for the regime offensive threatens to spur an arms race in the area, as each regional power attempts to one-up its rivals in southern Syria. Tehran has been building up a presence in southern Syria for some time: One of its biggest bases was in Bosra al-Sham, a prewar Shiite hub that residents say had since become a hot spot for internationals.
Local activist Abu Khaleed said a team of eight Hezbollah trainers had come to Bosra al-Sham to train local Twelver Shiite fighters, and that they had recently been joined by Iranian and other foreign volunteers. The operation — which includes Druze, Syrian army soldiers, and NDF fighters — is run out of the local Hezbollah office, he said. Weapons are plentiful and relief troops rotate in frequently.
For Smyth, all of this adds up to an Iranian-backed Shiite project with military, geopolitical and as yet fully unrevealed ideological elements.
“Hezbollah has a huge footprint in Syria, and they are building mini-Hezbollahs,” he said. “The national army is having trouble pulling its own weight and its work has been taken over by militias answering to a supranational ideology.”
Iran, so far, has proved reticent to reveal the extent of its leadership in Syria. In the early days of the offensive, photographs emerged on social media of a front-line visit by Qassem Suleimani, the silver-haired Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps general who heads the elite Quds Force. An activist who follows Shiite militias said Suleimani was on a morale-boosting trip, and the soldiers with whom he was photographed are Hezbollah fighters from Qalamoun, a Syrian region bordering Lebanon. But the visit was not meant to be leaked to the public, and the activist noted that the social media account where the images first appeared was no longer operational by the next morning.
“Iran has a vested interest in its ally being seen as a cogent force, even if everybody can see through it,” said Smyth.
The moderate, non-Islamist Sunni rebels trying to hold off this offensive say they are inflicting greater casualties these days, as they settle into a defensive posture rather than an offensive one. But this is an ideological battle, and Rayyes admitted that the framing of the war as a Sunni-Shiite battle was damaging the Southern Front.
“For us it’s about foreign fighters, not Sunni-Shiite,” he said. “They may have all the Shiite support, but we don’t have all the Sunni support.”
For now at least, there is still a moderate Sunni presence in Syria’s south. But the prominent role played by Shiite militias in the ongoing offensive leaves Smyth pessimistic about the country’s future.
“Hezbollah is in Syria to stay,” he said. “[T]he Hezbollah-ization of the Syrian security apparatus has begun, and you can’t really turn that off.”
SAM SKAINE/AFP/Getty Images