Iran launches "Hizbullah Syria" to open a new front against Israel on the Golan Heights
By Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall and Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira
Syria Is Iran's Principal Arena of Conflict with the West
Iran's unequivocal support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been consistent since the onset of the civil war over three years ago. Despite regional (Arab) and international pressure, Iran has repeatedly demonstrated its steadfastness toward its strategic Syrian ally, as it enjoys the strategic, military, and political benefits arising from maintaining its ongoing, radical military and political presence in Syria.
If in the past Iranian officials declined public mention of their support, in recent months Syria has been repeatedly defined as a major component in Iran's struggle against the West and Israel. With rapid developments in the Middle East, Iran now views Syria (with or without Assad) as its principal front of conflict with the West and with "heretic (Takfiri) Sunni Islam" (under the guidance of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and al-Qaeda), one likely to impact on and influence the new Middle-Eastern order.
Syria continues to serve as a bridge to Lebanon, where Hizbullah serves as Iran's first line of defense against Israel. Assistance to Syria and an active presence in its territory are seen as additional manifestations of Iran's national defense doctrine. In part this is designed to distance the Iranian homeland from any threat, and to conduct the campaign against Israel and the West in areas distant from Iran. In this regard, Lebanon has been earmarked as a dependable base from which to deter Israel from any assault on Iran's strategic capabilities, or, if deterrence should fail, to provide an instant response against Israel if the "day of reckoning" should arrive.
Iran is seeking opportunities to display its military and political might, its ability to extricate itself from the constraints of international sanctions, and its prowess in both shaping and influencing regional events in the Middle East. Its rapid progress towards a nuclear bomb, under the guise of nuclear negotiations, will allow Iran to act in an unrestricted manner as it realizes its vision for a Pax Irana Middle East under its religious-ideological, economic, and political hegemony, unchallenged by the debris of the Pax Americana.
The conflict with the West and the "moderate" Arab states on Syrian soil presents Iran with an opportunity to assert its position in the new order unfolding in the Middle East as a central player, even if Assad's downfall does ultimately materialize. Despite recent gains by the Assad regime in its struggle against several opposition factions in Syria, Iran is already en route to implementing Plan B, preparing 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 Soleimani Plan – A 150,000-Man Shiite Army in Syria
A major player in Iran's Plan B for Syria is the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. The plan was hatched during a visit to Iran last year by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and leading figures from among the Revolutionary Guards. The plan is comprised of three elements:
Soleimani himself visited Syria in February-March 2013 to prepare the groundwork for the implementation of this plan.
Just prior to Nasrallah's visit to Iran last year, Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, head of Khamenei's Ammar Strategic Base, established to counter political warfare against Iran and a former Basij militiaman, declared:
In May 2014, a year after Taeb's statement, Mohammad Eskandari, a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, stated that the Guards had trained 42 battalions and 138 brigades to fight in Syria. He added that these forces were equipped and prepared "to be sent to Syria and combat the enemies" and that the Revolutionary Guards were raising funds for the Syrian regime. He underlined that "the current war in Syria is our war against the USA raging on Syrian soil." Although this report was subsequently removed from various Iranian websites, it remained on opposition websites.4 In this context, another senior Revolutionary Guard, Majeed Mazahei, emphasized that: "If we withdraw support from our frontlines (Syria and Lebanon), the enemy will reach our borders," and that the support Iran provided Syria is in recognition of the support Damascus had granted Iran in the course of eight years of fighting with Iraq.
This report received extensive coverage on leading Arab satellite stations such as Al-Arabiya, and met with viewers' angry protests ("Iran is the leading terror instigator in the world," "Iran is not interested in liberating Palestine but in killing Sunnis in Yemen, the Gulf, Lebanon and Syria," etc.).
Iran Has Established a Second Hizbullah in Syria
Another senior member of the Revolutionary Guards, Hussein Hamadani, reported that within this framework several support groups for both the Syrian people and the regime had been established across Iran. Their purpose was to raise local awareness of the extent of support the Iranian regime and its people felt for the Syrian cause. For the first time a senior Iranian representative stated that: "Iran has established a second Hizbullah in Syria" (akin to Hizbullah in Lebanon). Qasem Soleimani is the man responsible for the establishment of "Hizbullah Syria," embracing volunteers and fighters from Iraq, Yemen, Bahrein, Afghanistan and Iran (excluding Iranians on active duty). Hamadani clarified that "Today we fight in Syria to protect Iranian interests and the defense which we provide is a sacred defense." (Iran had also defined its war with Iraq as a sacred defense.) Hamadani emphasized that today Iran is sharing the experience it had accrued in the Iran-Iraq war with the Syrian regime, which is implementing it in its struggle against the opposition.
He added that "while Syria did not have any security or military equipment requirements, some 130,000 Basij volunteers have been trained and are waiting to enter Syria." (Sections of news relating to Syria were later removed from the Fars news agency website.)7 In response, the Iranian Foreign Ministry declared it had no knowledge of Iranian voluntary forces active in Syria and that the Syrian army "is well capable of confronting the terrorists itself."
In the wake of the announcement of the establishment of "Hizbullah Syria," the conservative Jomhouri Eslami paper, affiliated with former Iranian President Rafsanjani, stated that the significance of its establishment extends well beyond the Syrian battlefield and impacts the entire region with regard to determining new equations of supremacy. It stated that this was a response to the "arrogant nations" and their regional allies, who focused their efforts on the destruction of "Hizbullah Lebanon" and who considered that Assad's overthrow will facilitate their task.
"Now they were witness to the organization's growing influence on the regional supremacy equation, its increased strength and outreach." The paper commended Hizbullah Lebanon's might and ability to confront Israel, as well as its successful involvement in the Syrian crisis on Assad's side and its place in the resistance front against Israel.
Hamadani's announcement of the establishment of "Hizbullah Syria," and dispatching "volunteers" to fill its ranks, attests to Iran's advanced preparations for the day after Assad, and to its desire to found a solid and loyal power base in that country, which will act upon its instructions.
Iran has established Hizbullah nuclei in many Gulf States, in Iraq, in Turkey and others. Mostly, senior Hizbullah Lebanon members act as local instructors, and at times activists are sent to train in Lebanon and Iran. (In the past, several senior Hizbullah Lebanon activists have been apprehended in Iraq.)
In Iran, criticism has been voiced against dispatching Iranian citizens to their death on the Syrian battlefront. From time to time funerals are held in Iran for Revolutionary Guards and Basij killed in action in Syria, and it is emphasized that they gave their life protecting the shrine of Hazrat Zaynab, daughter of Imam ‘Ali, who is considered by Shi'ites as the rightful successor to Muhammad.9 In this regard it was reported that former IRGC senior commander Abdallah Eskandari was killed in Syria defending the shrine located in the southern suburbs of Damascus. The Netherlands-based Radio Zamaneh put the number of IRGC officers killed in Syria since 2011 at more than 60.
Moreover, in Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, Iran was criticized for posting Afghani and Azeri (of Iranian descent) refugees (residents of Tabriz) to fight in Syria. There are reports of an Azeri Revolutionary Guard killed in Syria, and others who were taken prisoner.12 Iran is also recruiting Shiites in Iraq, allegedly for participating in the defense of Zaynab's shrine, and paying them to join the Syrian battlefront.
The Revolutionary Guards Operate Beyond Iran's Borders
With regard to Syria's place in Iran's national security strategy and the role of the Revolutionary Guards in this framework, Mohamad Ali Jafari, Commander of the IRGC indicated that the Guards' role is not confined to Iran's borders, and that the very essence of the Iranian revolution challenges American hegemony and the new world order it fashioned. As a result, he added, Iran is committed to defending the Palestinian and Syrian people and other peoples in the throes of the Islamic awakening, shaped by the Iranian Islamic revolution and targeted by Iran's enemies. This role of defending the various peoples challenging American hegemony has been allocated to the IRGC, namely, "The Revolutionary Guards defend the Islamic Revolution both within and beyond Iran's borders." The United States leads this hegemonic trend, patently and regionally represented by Israel – the very manifestation of satanic intrigues. Jafari declared that against this background, Syria, which continues to be an integral part of the Islamic revolution, has enraged the U.S., which clearly supports and sponsors the terrorists dispatched to Syria. The IRGC should therefore be committed to assisting Syria in confronting this phenomenon. He said it was the IRGC's duty to play a role in Syria, since it is now considered the center of confrontation between the arrogant powers and the anti-Israel resistance front. Jafari pointed out, however, that Iran's backing was not military: "We provide support for Syria in the training and software fields."
Iran's Security Border Is in the South of Lebanon Against Israel
The advisor to Iran's head of security matters and a former IRGC commander, Seyyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi, also referred to Iran's expanding regional influence with regard to Syria.
New Rules of the Game
From Iran's standpoint, recent developments in the Middle Eastern arena serve to hone Syria's importance in shaping the region's new order. Iran prefers that Assad remain in power, but even if he were to ultimately topple, Iran is striving to maintain its own hold on Syria, alongside Lebanon (and to a great extent the Gaza Strip) as its frontline against Israel and the West.
Furthermore, Iran views its continuing hold on Syria under any condition as a prerequisite in the international and intra-regional geopolitical struggle on Syrian land. The international arena is currently witnessing the formation of several nuclei of power in light of waning American supremacy and the misgivings with which the U.S. is regarded by its allies (in particular, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States). Against this background, inter alia, Iran is conducting frequent, high ranking consultations with Russia. Iran and Russia are closely testing the limits of U.S. power in the Middle East and trying to establish new facts on the ground and new rules of the game to substitute for those which have prevailed for many years. This power struggle is often conducted by Iran's surrogate states and proxy organizations in the region such as Hizbullah.
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. Moreover, "Hizbullah Syria" is an important pillar of Iran's general strategy for Plan B, contingent on Bashar's downfall, or conversely, as a lever for deepening its influence on him.
Tehran is reluctant to abandon this important arena to Sunni Jihadi organizations, likely to uncontrollably enflame the region and damage Iranian interests. Iran itself wishes to determine the point in time and ferocity of the flames. In the past, Iran used organizations in the Golan as a test for Israeli responses and its own operational competence on this front.
In the meantime, "Hizbullah Lebanon" continues to operate under direct Iranian guidance on the Syrian front alongside Bashar al-Assad's forces. Despite the many losses the organization has suffered to date and its erosion, it is gaining combat experience and capabilities in various types of warfare. New recruits are sent to Syria to gain operational experience after training in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. Furthermore, Hizbullah continues to maintain and develop its rocket and missile arsenal, and is possibly training "Hizbullah Syria" fighters in employing these capabilities in the Golan Heights and beyond, come the day of reckoning.
Iran's endeavors in shaping the regional confrontation are not confined just to Syria. Iran continues to enhance its influence and operate in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States, and to empower Shiite elements in these states. Parallel to the destabilization track, Iran's president is radiating an atmosphere of reconciliation (in particular, vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia) and a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of the regions' countries.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company. Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.