Hezbollah is now giving orders to Syria’s army – and using it to spy on Israel

In a reality once unthinkable, Assad’s troops along Golan border are heeding commanders of the Iran-backed terror group, and helping it prepare for conflict with the Jewish state

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Israeli military outpost in the Golan Heights is pictured from the Syrian town of Quneitra on March 26, 2019. (Louai Beshara/AFP)
An Israeli military outpost in the Golan Heights is pictured from the Syrian town of Quneitra on March 26, 2019. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

Earlier this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based watchdog group, reported that Israeli fighter jets struck Hezbollah positions on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. There was no Israeli comment on the claim.

The report said one of the targets was a post on Tel al-Harra, a mountain that is considered a strategic point that overlooks the Golan Heights, while the other was in Quneitra, near the UN-monitored border crossing with Israel, where Arab media reports a Syrian air-defense position and a Hezbollah intelligence center are located.

The Iran-backed Lebanese terror group had been trying to set up a front on the Syrian Golan for years, but had previously been unable to gain a sufficient foothold in the area. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s conquest of the border area last summer provided the regime-allied organization with an opportunity to once again attempt to establish the necessary infrastructure with which it could threaten Israel near the border.

The alleged Israeli strikes near the border were a rare occurrence. In the past Israel has targeted villages and towns along the Golan Heights frontier after identifying Iranian and Hezbollah attempts to establish cells and infrastructure in the area.

But the incident also highlighted a reality once unthinkable in Syria: With Hezbollah one of the chief powers setting the tone in the country after years of civil war, Syrian army forces are now in some cases taking their orders from the organization — and helping it spy on Israel.

Hezbollah’s presence in Syrian territory opposite the Israeli border is a natural continuation of the group’s expanding activity in the Middle East (in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, among others), and the civil war that has been raging in Syria for approximately eight years.

Its increased clout is particularly noticeable in the region of southern Syria that the Syrians call Hauran. In the same area that gave rise to the protests against Assad in March 2011 in the city of Daraa, a situation has now formed in which Syrian soldiers receive “recommendations” — which are in effect orders — from Hezbollah commanders.

A segment of the Syrian army that controls the southern part of the country works closely with many consultants from Hezbollah, which use it for purposes such as intelligence-gathering, and is also helping the Lebanon-based group prepare for an expected future war with Israel (as well as assisting it in dealing with local opposition).

Illustrative: Syrian troops flash the victory sign next to the Syrian flag in Tel al-Haara, the highest hill in the southwestern Daraa province, Syria, July 17, 2018. (SANA via AP)

To put it in the simplest terms, these Syrian troops are now serving Hezbollah’s Shiite army in Lebanon. Bashar’s deceased father, Hafez Assad, would be rolling in his grave: During his time the elder Assad waged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and killed hundreds of its members.

How did the tables so turn? The civil war was, without a doubt, the key event, with the Syrian army now dependent on assistance from Hezbollah and Iran in order to survive.

Earlier in the war, when Assad’s regime appeared to be on its last legs, Hezbollah sent numerous advisers to the region whose stated purpose was simply to aid the fighting against the opposition groups in Hauran. A great deal has happened since then, and about a year ago — with Assad buoyed also by Iranian and particularly Russian forces — it became clear that the battle for Syria had been decided: the regime had won. But Hezbollah didn’t stop at that point — it began to establish its forces permanently throughout Syria, particularly in its southern sector.

This process took place with quite a bit of hesitation by Hezbollah’s leaders, especially regarding the financial implications of leaving troops on Syrian soil. In the end, the strategic thinking that troops should be positioned against Israel on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights won out.

This had to be done clandestinely though: Following the understandings that Israel reached with Russia, Iranian and Hezbollah presence is prohibited at a distance of approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Syrian border with Israel.

And thus a “Southern Headquarters” operated by Hezbollah is currently operating in secret in the territory known as Hauran. It is a military organization in every sense, which operates with several dozen Lebanese and hundreds of Syrians, most of them from Hauran: Thanks to financial difficulties brought on by the war, Hezbollah has had little trouble recruiting quite a few locals to serve its purposes.

The force, led by Lebanese commander Munir Ali Naim Shaiti (better known by the alias Hajj Hashem), is now focusing less and less upon threats at home and much more on the old threat: Israel.

The Southern Headquarters is armed with weapons that include antitank missiles and particularly powerful short-range rockets with a minimum weight of approximately 250 kilograms and effectiveness at a range of approximately four kilometers. Their original purpose was to strike opposition targets, but they are now being repurposed with the aim of destroying Israeli villages on the Golan Heights or the upper Galilee.

Illustrative: A picture taken from the Israeli Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising during airstrikes backing a Syrian-government-led offensive in the southwestern province of Daraa, July 23, 2018. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)

The purpose of the Southern Headquarters is to collect high-quality intelligence about the Israeli side of the border. The headquarters works under the radar of international forces and does its best to hide its tracks. Seeking to avoid Israeli attacks on its forces, Hezbollah has done its best to camouflage its activity. Its people do not act openly, and it has recruited troops from Syria Army’s 1st Corps to assist its operations.

It is believed the group has set up approximately 20 lookout positions on the Syrian Golan Heights facing Israeli territory. Each such outpost is manned by Syrian soldiers, often accompanied by Hezbollah members but sometimes on their own. These soldiers gather intelligence according to the orders of Hezbollah: training exercises on the Israeli side, the day-to-day security routine, activity in villages and more. The information is sent to several Hezbollah operations rooms in the Syrian Golan Heights, and from there it is relayed to headquarters in Lebanon and/or to the Iranians.

In addition, the Southern Headquarters makes use of technology to attempt to listen in on the Israeli side, via communications networks or other means.

Simultaneously Hezbollah continues to build its offensive capabilities in the Golan Heights. These efforts are led by veteran terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq, also known as Abu Hussein Sajed, a Lebanese man who is wanted in the United States for attacks against American forces in Iraq, including planning an attack in Karbala in 2007 that resulted in the deaths of five US soldiers.

Hezbollah leader Ali Musa Daqduq, suspected of forming a terror cell for the organization in the Syrian Golan Heights. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the US Treasury Department, Daqduq has served “as commander of a Hezbollah special forces unit and chief of a protective detail for Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.” Daqduq was arrested in 2007 and imprisoned in Iraq, but was released five years later and sent to Lebanon.

Daqduq leads an operational unit in every sense, whose purpose is to act mainly in situations of large-scale escalation and carry out high-quality terror attacks. In March, the IDF said it had exposed a nascent Hezbollah terror cell led by Daqduq and established in a border village on the Syrian Golan Heights.

While the commanding officers of this unit are Lebanese, most of its troops — which number approximately two hundred — are Syrian, who were recruited from, among other places, Druze communities such as Khadar and Arnah on the Syrian Golan Heights.

The concern now is that the intelligence and operational arms will join forces: If Hezbollah commanders decide to use Daqduq’s troops to carry out an attack on Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights, they will likely do so with intelligence provided by Hajj Hashem’s Southern Headquarters.

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