Iran trying to deepen roots in Syria despite signs it may no longer be welcome

An article from an Assad ally suggests that Damascus may be looking to shift away from the Shiite axis even as Tehran tries to build up local support with Lebanon-style project

Avi Issacharoff

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.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before their meeting in Tehran, Syria, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. erupted nearly eight years ago. (SANA via AP)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before their meeting in Tehran, Syria, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. erupted nearly eight years ago. (SANA via AP)

Last month, Hasan Ismaik, a billionaire Jordanian businessman who writes columns about Syria, published an opinion piece arguing that Iranian entrenchment in Bashar Assad’s country was keeping it from being able to end nearly a decade of strife.

“Today, Syria is experiencing a serious impasse, where the country is living in a state of ‘no war, no peace,'” wrote Ismaik, who calls Syria his own second home. “There are no clear battles on the ground, nor is there the peace which would allow the reconstruction process to begin. Every insight into the situation in Syria and each path in the maze to finding a solution lead to the same complex problem and a huge obstacle: Iran and its influence in Syria.”

It’s far from certain that Ismaik’s words reflect the official opinion in Damascus and it’s impossible to know if they were written with Syrian dictator Assad’s knowledge or consent. But given Ismaik’s close familiarity with the Syrian government, his words may be a sign that Assad is trying to signal to the West that Iran is a problem not only for the region’s moderate Sunni Muslim states, but for his country as well.

“The ‘Syrian-Iranian alliance’ [is] a burden on Damascus, which is aware of the risks and dangers of its relationship with Iran at political, military and cultural levels,” he wrote. “This makes reaching a deal [with the West] possible, and even something to be expected.”

(In a response to a version of this column published in Hebrew, Ismaik denied being close to the Assad regime or being a conduit between Damascus and the West. “I don’t think Damascus, whenever it wishes, is lacking diplomatic efforts, officially or unofficially, to send messages to the West,” he wrote. “My goal in dealing with or writing about Syria remains the same as always, and that is the return of Syria to the family of Arab nations.”)

The recent reconciliation between the Gulf Sunni states and Qatar, after years of open enmity and severed relations, may be inspiring thoughts of a similar rapprochement with Damascus. One wonders if a collaborative Sunni effort to help rebuild Syria would convince Damascus to reconsider its stance toward Iran and the carte blanche it has given to Tehran to operate within its borders.

For years, Iran and its regional proxies have been hard at work establishing a foothold in Syria, a project supported by the Syrian regime and tolerated by its main benefactor Russia, despite a years-long campaign by Israel, backed by the US, to stymie the effort.

The Israeli campaign has stepped up considerably in recent weeks and on Wednesday a reported Israeli sortie struck at least 15 targets in eastern Syria, hitting arms depots said to belong to Iran and Iran-backed forces. Dozens of pro-Iran fighters were reported killed in the strikes, one of the largest-yet bombing runs in over five years of attacks aimed at pushing Iran out of Syria and thwarting weapons transfers.

Iran army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he and other senior officers from the Iranian military visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, October 20, 2017, in a photo provided by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

In southern Syria, one of the main places Iran has attempted to dig in, the initiative has persisted despite increasing signs that local militias and others are no longer willing to put up with the presence of the Iranians and their allies.

At the same time, there are indications that Iran is shifting its strategy to one of soft power, pushing social initiatives and building a proxy network made up of locals rather than foreign fighters — a hybrid approach that recalls the creation of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

The group, Hezbollah Syria, is the latest franchise in Tehran’s terror network, which also includes the aforementioned Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah.

As it did in southern Lebanon, Iran is attempting to build a support base in southern Syria near the border with Israel. This mainly revolves around the triangle between Sweida, Daraa and Quneitra in the Syrian Golan.

The effort has involved investments in youth programs, religious activities and welfare initiatives, filling a vacuum left by the government and meeting needs created by the region’s collapsing economy and harsh poverty.

In this photo released July 17, 2018, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians celebrate as they hold their national flags and pictures of Syrian president Bashar Assad, in the town of al-Hrak, Daraa province, Syria. (SANA via AP)

Militarily, the Iranians are active near the border, integrating into the Syrian army’s 1st Division, alongside Hezbollah fighters (in Syrian army uniforms), while continuously establishing more and more Shiite mosques and study halls.

The area is one that has seen fighting persist, despite the virtual end of the civil war elsewhere. Battles between armed militias in the area result in some 40 to 60 casualties a week, according to estimates by Israeli sources.

But many of the main actors have shown signs of growing impatience with Iran’s campaign.

Among those are the Russians, who have tried, mostly without success, to mediate between the warring militias. In Daraa and al-Suwayda, this has included so-called reconciliation centers, staffed by Arabic-speaking officers who warn or reprimand whichever faction has stepped out of line.

Syrian government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against US President Trump during demonstrations following a wave of US, British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Damascus, Syria, April 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The Russians are also interested in keeping Iran in check and keep a close eye on developments near the frontier with Israel.

Among the Druze, who are mostly concentrated near Suwayda, one can observe on social media a major split fomenting regarding the future of their ties with the regime.

The community backed Assad throughout the war, but is now unhappy that the result has been Iran and Hezbollah getting more than a foothold in its region. The financial situation is quickly deteriorating, and there are reports of drug use and prostitution.

Among those now opposing Damascus is the Ghazal el-Carmel (Men of the Carmel) militia, which fought alongside the regime during the civil war.

In this October 4, 2018, photo, Druze armed men, who carry weapons to defend their village from Islamic State attack, patrol the village of Rami in the southern province of Sweida, Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Some local groups of fighters have also turned against the regime and Iran.

The largest and most surprising of these is a militia headed by Ahmad Odeh, a former rebel commander who agreed two years ago to join the Syrian army, together with his10,000-strong Shabab al-Sunna paramilitary brigade.

These troops now make up the 8th brigade of the 5th corps, but their salaries are not paid by Damascus. Rather, they are bankrolled by the Russians, under whose command they operate. For $200 a month per troop, the Russians have bought themselves a brigade of the Syrian army.

Odeh is no fan of Iranian or Hezbollah involvement in the area, and is known as something of a renegade. He’s confronted ostensibly allied forces, and even exchanged gunfire with them, though these were mostly shows of force to make sure everyone knows who’s running the show in the region. At the graduation ceremony of his brigade’s officers – an official ceremony of the Syrian army – songs were sung denouncing the Syrian regime and praising the locals.

Pro-government supporters take a selfie in front of a picture of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Maher Assad in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

But at the same time, there are armed groups that do still back the Iranians.

The army’s 4th Division, which is commanded by Assad’s brother Maher and essentially acts independently of the Syrian military and in collaboration with Hezbollah and the Iranians, is one such group. A recent investigation found that the group was allegedly involved with Hezbollah in a massive operation to make and sell counterfeit Captagon, the amphetamine that helped fuel Islamic State’s reign of terror. Over $1 billion worth of the drug was recently seized in Italy and traced back to the group and the Syrian regime.

The Syrian Army’s 1st Division is deeply entangled with Hezbollah, which is in effect the tail that wags the dog. Those in charge of training the soldiers of the 1st Corps of the Syrian army are the men of Hezbollah’s Southern Command, under the command of Hajj Hashem.

In 2017, the Israeli military released video footage claiming to show the head of the 1st Division helping Hezbollah set up a base in the region, and warned the Syrian regime that it would be held responsible “for all enemy activities emanating from its territory.”

In his piece, Ismaik highlighted the wealth of differences between Syria and Iran, from their approaches to secularism to the Shiite-Sunni split. He claimed that many Syrians are unhappy with statements by high-ranking Iranians making Iran out to be Syria’s savior or insinuating that Damascus is a vassal of Tehran.

But with Iran ingratiating itself deeper and deeper within Syria, the question should not be whether Assad wants to remove Iran, but whether it is even possible anymore to disentangle Syria from the Shiite axis and bring it back into the fold.

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