Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad is long standing. Much of that support has been through Iran’s proxies and allied militias. Some of these, such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have contributed thousands of men who have fought in Syria on the side of the regime.
Other groups are channelling foreign fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan into Syria to wage what Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, termed the ‘Shia Jihad’ in his report The Shiite Jihad and Its Regional Effects.
These groups are tightly integrated into the regime’s war effort and are essential for its survival. Hezbollah units fought in campaigns to secure the regime’s control of Damascus and its surrounding areas. Two Hezbollah fighters were killed in a suspected Islamic State attack in Deir ez-Zor province, showing the extent of Hezbollah’s presence across Syria.
Militias linked to Iran are vital to Assad and discomforting for his enemies. Israel worries about their proliferation. Israeli politicians, fearful of Hezbollah’s increased dominance of Lebanon, do not want Iranian proxies to establish a base near the Golan Heights, a Syrian border area Israel has occupied since 1967.
Israel has persistently struck Hezbollah targets inside Syria, including supply routes and encampments. After Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-linked groups fired missiles across the Syrian border into northern Israel, Israel answered with air strikes hitting more than 70 targets in less than four hours on May 10.
This came after Israeli generals and a junior minister threatened that, if Iran acted aggressively towards Israel, the latter would overthrow the Assad regime. Though Israel’s reaction to the missile attack was likely greater than had been expected, it did not include an overt attack on the regime.
Syrian rebel sources have suggested that militias linked to Iran were taking advantage of the situation by wearing the uniforms of Syrian government troops to avoid Israeli attack.
If confirmed, the reports suggest a high degree of integration between foreign militias and the regime’s military. They would also give the lie to the idea that Iran and Assad could be dissociated or prised apart.
Analyst Ryan O’Farrell expressed scepticism about the reports, saying the climate existed for close coordination between the regime and its Iran-marshalled allies.
‘Iran and its various foreign proxies have been very open about their intentions to open a new front against Israel along the Golan if a new war breaks out and Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria have massively accelerated despite Russia’s intensive efforts to negotiate some sort of deal with Israel,’ O’Farrell said.
‘If these reports of IRGC reflagging as Syrian to skirt Russia’s promise of [Iranian] withdrawal to Israel are true, then I think it’s in order to maintain the kind of intelligence and operational benefits that proximity to Israel would offer in a future war.’
In any case, Iranian forces will operate in southern Syria with or without Russian approval.
Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East policy, said: ‘The south-west, from east of Sweida near al-Tanf all the way to the Israeli border, was supposed to be a zone free of Iranian forces. Russia made it clear it was able to deliver on a form of that zone but it has not always been successful, except when Iran wanted to play along.
‘Recently Iran sent troops from Damascus to Daraa, apparently without going through the Syrian and Russian governments,’ Hassan said.
Smyth, via e-mail, said: ‘It’s impossible to tell how extensive reflagging would be, though it’s not unheard of during a war where many fighters don’t even wear uniforms. Additionally, more covert Hezbollah units had dressed in Syrian Arab Army fatigues early in the conflict, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this could happen again as a means to cover their tracks.’
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said, for Shia militias embedded in regime units, ‘don[ning] regime military outfits to avoid Israeli attack is logical.’
‘The Israelis spoke, for instance, about concerns about the fifth regiment, [which has] Shia militias embedded into it,’ Badran said.
‘Given the current move in southern Syria targets Iran-controlled proxies and the IRGC, I’d assume any of the fighters reflagging would belong to those groups, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah,’ Smyth said.
Whether or not these reports are true, Iran-linked militias will seek to maintain their place in southern Syria. As part of the regional axis of resistance, it is their intention to challenge Israel.
Smyth said: ‘I’m of the belief that no matter how a member of an Iran-controlled militia group is dressed, they will, over time, find a way to get back to sections of the Golan that they want to maintain positions in.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.