Iran and the New State of Play in Southwest Syria

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Iran and the New State of Play in Southwest Syria

by Nir Boms and Stéphane Cohen

In the summer of 2018, the Asad regime reestablished its control over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, restoring Syrian sovereignty and redeploying the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to its pre-war positions. However, a deeper look at the developments across the Syrian-Israeli frontier reveals that the new reality is substantially different from pre-civil war Syria. The Syrian military bases today host a number of new actors, which include pro-Iranian militias, Russian military police, and reconfigured Syrian units under new command. The local leadership and elements identified with the opposition, who informally governed these areas before the Asad regime reestablished control, have fled or been killed. In its place is a new Syrian security architecture that is based, in part, on foreign actors (some with Syrian identity cards), who are playing the role that used to be reserved for the Syrian security apparatus.

Post war Syria and the changing border reality in south Syria

Eight years of war have dramatically changed the face of the Syrian state. The Syria of the past no longer exists. First, demographic and social changes have rearranged the country, which numbered 23 million people before the war.1 The ruling Asadfamily comes from Syria’s ʿAlawi community, a religious minority (about 12 percent of the prewar population)2 that is an offshoot of a heterodox Shi’i sect of Islam.Today, there are more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees living outside the country,3the vast majority of whom are Sunni, but also include some minorities. The numbers of those killed is reported to be at least 511,000 (with opposition sources claiming a

1 Sarah El Deeb, “Home may be forever lost for displaced within Syria,” Associated Press (AP), July 14, 2018.

2 “Syria’s Alawites, a secretive and persecuted sect,” Reuters, January 31, 2012.
3 The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), https://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html

much higher figure),4 of whom about 350,000 are known by name. The Syrian army, which numbered some 200,000 soldiers before the war,5 quickly eroded due to attrition and significant waves of desertions that resulted in the establishment of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the diverse group of militias that fought under the opposition umbrella, albeit without success. Asad remained in power, supported by mobilized militias that filled the ranks of his army. At its peak, the number of militiamen fighting for Asad amounted to some 80,000,6 more than the depleted Syrian Arab Army at the time. Iran played an important role in providing Syria with conventional and unconventional military support as well as intelligence training to help suppress the popular uprising.7

Since last summer, Iran has deepened its presence on the Syrian Golan. Contrary to the reports of a Russian-brokered Iranian withdrawal to an imaginary line – approximately 85 kilometers from Israel’s border8 (with the exclusion of Damascus)– Iran has instead steadily entrenched itself in southwest Syria.

Prior to July 2018, southwest Syria was operating as a quasi-independent entity. The Syrian Golan region was able to function without the regime due to the presence of armed militias on the one hand, and civil organizations on the other, all of which were supported by external actors and stakeholders, including Israel. The common interest of most of the actors representing the Syrian opposition was to make sure that neither the Asad regime nor other radical actors in the area would be able to set up camp in the territory bordering Israel, where the opposition was already established. However, the gradual return of the Asad forces to the Golan Heights has already led to Iranian militias establishing a presence on the border, putting them in the crossfire between Iran and Israel.

For example, in 2015, six members of Hizballah and six Iranian military personnel, including an Iranian general, were killed by an alleged Israeli strike near the Druze village of Hader. Four years after the incident, Hezbollah commemorates the deathof six of their fighters, including Jihad Mughniyeh. Jihad was the son of ʿImad

4 Angus McDowall and Andrew Roche, “Syrian Observatory says war has killed more than half a million,” Reuters, March 12, 2018.

5 “The Syrian Army in the Civil War,” Global Security; “Syrian army prepares for post-conflict Challenges,” Jane’s.
6 Seth Frantzman, “Who are Iran’s 80,000 Shi’ite fighters in Syria?,” Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2018.7 Karim Sadjadpour, “Iran’s Unwavering Support to Assad’s Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:8, Syria Special

Issues, August 2013.
8 Polina Nikolskaya and Dan Williams, “Russia says Iranian forces pulled back from Golan in Syria;

Israel unsatisfied,” Reuters, August 1, 2018.
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Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO) chief,9 responsible forthe group’s international operations and as the liaison to Iran’s security and intelligence services. ʿImad was on the FBI and EU’s most wanted lists and found hisdeath in February 2008.10

The regime’s victory – with Iran and Hizballah’s support – has and created a number of changes:

To begin with, the Syrian military is no longer the sole authority on the ground. Six Russian Military Police positions were deployed on the Bravo Line (the eastern border line of the Demilitarized Zone between the SAA and the IDF, as part of the 1974 Disengagement Agreements following the Yom Kippur War), with the aim toenforce a series of “understandings,” reached to restore stability in the region and to remove non-Syrian forces, as agreed upon in the Astana process.11 Despite these diplomatic agreements, the reality on the ground is more complex.

The Syrian Arab Army, which has also returned to its positions, is no longer the same. In the south, the 61st Regional Brigade was completely wiped out. The 90thRegional Brigade returned, but it has been reinforced with various militias, such as the Suqur al-Quneitra and the NDF. The 112th Brigade (from 5th Syrian Division), was deployed forward in the southern Golan Heights, 10 kilometers from the Israeli border on Tall al Jabiyah to fill the vacuum left by the destroyed 61st Brigade: it is probable that a local Hizballah force may have been stationed under its auspices and a recent report claimed that there are over 10,000 men trained and led by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been mobilized opposite the frontier with Israel.12 As outgoing Israeli Army Chief of Staff Gabi Eisenkot detailed in an interview with the New York Times, Hizballah developed a three-pronged strategy to confront Israel: building factories in Lebanon to manufacture precision- guided missiles, digging attack tunnels under the Israeli border, and setting up a second front from Syria on the Golan Heights. Furthermore, a Hizballah intelligence position was reportedly struck by the IDF at the end of 2018. It was located on the Golan Heights, less than two kilometers from the border.13

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