Iran, Hezbollah plan to build militia network in Syria
AP PhotoIran and its Lebanese-based ally, Hezbollah, are trying to build a network of militias inside Syria to protect their interests there in case President Bashar al-Assad falls, The Washington Post reported Feb. 10.
Citing unnamed U.S. and Middle Eastern officials, the newspaper said Iran’s goal appears to be to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
Iran claims to be backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. Efforts to find a political solution to the nearly two-year-long conflict appear to be deadlocked, according to Agence France-Presse.
“It’s a big operation,” the paper quotes a senior U.S. administration official as saying. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”
The Post quotes a senior Arab official as saying that Iran’s strategy in Syria has two tracks. “One is to support al-Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses,” that official said.
While ostensibly created to bolster Syria’s battered, overstretched army, Jaysh fighters, separate from Syria’s pro-regime shabiha, or “ghost,” units, which are notorious for reprisal killings of suspected rebel sympathizers, are predominantly a sectarian fighting force overseen by Iranian and Hezbollah commanders.
“Jaysh is essentially an Iran-Hezbollah joint venture,” said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. According to Cohen, given the other constraints on Iranian resources right now, it’s obvious that this is an important proxy group for them.
In slapping sanctions on the militia in December, the Treasury Department said Iran had provided it with “routine funding worth millions of dollars.”
The fragmentation of Syria along religious and tribal lines is a growing concern for neighboring governments and the administration, as the civil war approaches its third year with little sign of a political solution or military victory for either al-Assad’s forces or the rebels.
Tehran’s allies in Syria include Shiite and Alawite communities concentrated in provinces near Syria’s border with Lebanon and in the key port city of Latakia, the paper said.
Under the most likely scenarios, it is there that remnants of al-Assad’s government, with or without al-Assad, would seek to establish a coastal enclave closely tied to Tehran, according to the Post. This enclave will be heavily dependent on the Iranians for survival and help them retain a link to Hezbollah, the paper said.