The Struggle for Control of Southern Syria: Where is Israel?
Carmit Valensi and Udi Dekel
INSSInsight No. 1414, Dec. 16, 2020
In the summer of 2018, the Assad regime regained control over southern Syria, following the signing of “reconciliation” agreements between the regime and the rebels, mediated by Russia. Russia also promised the United States, Israel, and Jordan that in return for their non-intervention, it would keep the Iranian forces away from the area. In contrast to the expulsion of residents from rebel-held areas to the north of the country following surrender agreements, most residents of the south, who had previously joined the rebel organizations, were not expelled to Idlib in northern Syria; they were recruited by local security forces obedient to the Assad regime in exchange for a promise that the regime would not wreak vengeance on them and would restore stability.
Since then, despite the Assad regime’s nominal control of the area, three provinces in southern Syria are in effect subject to the rule and influence of various forces.
Daraa, with about one million residents, most of whom are Sunnis, is subject to the rule of local leaders. These leaders, formerly members of the opposition to the Assad regime, now enjoy a degree of autonomy in managing daily life. They are supported by forces from the 5th Corps, and especially the 8th Brigade, established by Russia as a unique framework in the Syrian army’s order of battle. The province includes a limited presence of Assad regime elements, which are reinforced by additional forces, depending on the situation, for example the deployment of units of the 4th Also active in the area are local defense militias supported and trained by Iran, together with units from the 313th Brigade founded in a separate framework in the Syrian army under Iranian influence and control in competition with the 5th Corps, which was established under Russian influence.
Quneitra in the west, with about 90,000 residents, mostly Sunnis, features a more prominent regime, based on the 1st Corps of the Syrian army and Hezbollah presence.
Suwayda in the east, with about 500,000 residents, mostly Druze, is under the control of local Druze groups (among them the al-Karama forces). Despite the Druze dominance, this province features a growing presence of pro-Iranian groups, mainly the National Defense Forces. The Assad regime is assisted by militias supported by Iran in order to create division within the Druze community and crush the aspirations for autonomy in the Suwayda and Jabal Druze theater. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Why Iran’s Syria Strategy Is Shifting
The National Interest, Nov. 27, 2020
These days, Iran is actively contemplating its future in Syria. Since 2013, the Islamic Republic has become deeply involved in that country’s civil war—in the process emerging as a key player in one of the Middle East’s most brutal and enduring conflicts.
It has used the Qods Force, the paramilitary arm of its feared clerical army, the Pasdaran, to bolster the ranks of the Syrian military. It has trained and deployed a “Shia Liberation Army” made up of thousands of Pakistani, Afghan, Iraqi and Yemeni irregulars to fight in support of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It has tasked its principal terrorist proxy, Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia, with doing the same. And it has erected scores of military installations throughout the country in an attempt to institutionalize its presence there. All of this has been done based upon the longstanding Iranian view that Syria’s security is “its own security”—and that support for the Assad regime is critical to Tehran’s long-term strategic interests.
But now, circumstances are changing. Over the past year-and-a-half, the Syrian civil war has wound down, with the country’s balance of power shifting back decisively toward Assad, thanks in large part to Iranian (and Russian) support. As it has, Tehran’s footprint on the territory of its premier regional partner has undergone a profound transformation.
A new analysis by the Atlantic Council illustrates just how much. The survey, authored by Navvar Saban of Turkey’s Omran Center for Strategic Studies, notes that “with the decrease of military operations, Iran began searching for new ways to enhance its control and influence in different Syrian provinces.”
The methods it has used to do so are diverse. They include the infiltration of Syrian society via charitable organizations such as the Jihad al-Bina Organization, which is tasked with rebuilding schools and restoring health facilities in the war-torn nation. Tehran has also spent millions of dollars to open universities throughout the country. These institutions—like Islamic Azad University and the College of Islamic Schools—are designed “to influence a new generation” of Syrian citizenry through what other observers have termed an “educational invasion.”
Iran’s presence in the Syrian economy is also growing. Despite its own declining economic fortunes, the Islamic Republic has nonetheless provided Syria with oil shipments worth billions of dollars in recent years. It has also picked up the tab for everything from militiamen salaries to the functioning of the country’s central bank. All told, the Islamic Republic is estimated to have spent at least $5.6 billion to date to keep the Assad regime afloat.
Indeed, Saban notes, by virtually every social, communal and economic metric, Iran’s presence—and its influence—throughout the length and breadth of Syria has grown in recent years. The aggregate result is pronounced. “Iran is in Syria for the long term and is taking the time it needs to get results,” he concludes.
That enduring presence will be a significant challenge for the new U.S. administration. President-elect Joe Biden has already made clear that he plans to take a more accommodating, less confrontational approach to Iran than the “maximum pressure” strategy employed over the past two-and-a-half years by the Trump White House. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Was An IRGC Officer Really Killed Near the Syria-Iraq Border?
Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem Post, Dec. 3, 2020
Just days after the high-profile killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist and general, another Iranian officer was killed in the far-off desert sands between Iraq and Syria. He was supposedly killed sometime in the evening between Saturday and Sunday, November 28-29. Reuters and other media outlets reported the news. He allegedly was involved in procurement of weapons. Several others may have been killed, according to the reports.
But there were few details: no name of the man, no reports in Iran and denials in the border area. It’s the Middle East, though, and it took place in an area of the border that is difficult to get to and where there is no free media. That means truth and fiction blend together. Rumors spread. Agendas can be set by people who feed information to online media with the goal of laundering it through other reports.
Many have chimed in as to what may have happened or not happened. The incident is interesting because it is one of many like this that form part of the narrative of what is, or is not, happening in the shadowy “war between the wars” in Syria. This refers to airstrikes on Iranian and Iranian-allied groups in Syria.
Israel had carried out more than 1,000 strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot said in January 2019. It is almost two years since that number was announced.
In August 2017, former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amir Eshel said Israel had struck arms convoys in Syria nearly 100 times. Most airstrikes in Syria are reported, but no one takes responsibility for them, leaving a lack of clarity as to whether they took place and who carried them out. The US, Russia, Turkey and the Syrian regime all have air-force assets in Syria, although they operate in different areas.
It is hard to keep track. Last Thursday, reports indicated that an airstrike in Syria had killed 19 pro-Iranian militia members. That strike took place near Albukamal, a Syrian border city across from Al-Qaim in Iraq. Iran has a base there called Imam Ali. Revealed in 2019 and struck several times, new tunnels were built there in May 2020. There was an airstrike on that base the previous March. The US carried out large “training airstrikes” near its Tanf garrison in Syria near the Jordanian border in late November.
Questions remain about the killing of the IRGC officer. Evan Kohlmann, who follows the region, wrote on Twitter that a photo of the killing was actually from earlier this year. The Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected that story. But Reuters said two Iraqi security officials confirmed the details. The vehicle carrying weapons was hit with an airstrike after it entered Syria, it reported.
Iran uses this corridor to traffic weapons to Syria and then to Hezbollah. Al-Arabiya said the man’s name was Muslim Shahdan. However, many sources who are close to Iran throughout the region were skeptical. One expert who follows events in Iraq wondered why major outlets had posted this story with little evidence. Sources on the Iraqi side did not post video or images. There were also questions about why reports indicated a “drone” had been used. Who uses drones in this area? Primarily the US. But America does not carry out airstrikes on the IRGC. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
A Riveting ISIS Story, Told in a Times Podcast, Falls Apart
Mark Mazzetti, Ian Austen, Graham Bowley and Malachy Browne
NY Times, Dec. 18, 2020
He described the killings in lurid detail — how he shot one man in the head and stabbed another in the heart before hanging the corpse on a cross. He spoke at length about joining the religious police of the Islamic State in Syria, and being trucked to a terrorist training session on attacking the West, including North America, his homeland. He recounted how Islamic State commanders displayed maps and color-coded instructions, showing recruits like him how to strike major Western targets, get into restricted areas, kill people and attain martyrdom. They envisioned “something as spectacular as 9/11,” he said. “They wanted to outdo Al Qaeda, make their mark.”
But Shehroze Chaudhry, the central figure in the 2018 podcast “Caliphate,” by The New York Times, was a fabulist who spun jihadist tales about killing for the Islamic State in Syria, Canadian and American intelligence and law enforcement officials contend.
Mr. Chaudhry, they say, was not a terrorist, almost certainly never went to Syria, and concocted gruesome stories about being an Islamic State executioner as part of a Walter Mitty-like escape from his more mundane life in a Toronto suburb and in Lahore, Pakistan, where he spent years living with his grandparents.
Mr. Chaudhry’s elaborate accounts, told to The Times and other news outlets, caused a political uproar in Canada. The award-winning “Caliphate” series broadcast his claims of killing for the Islamic State to millions of listeners, fueling outrage that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had allowed a terrorist to live freely in suburban Toronto despite the crimes Mr. Chaudhry had so openly confessed to committing in Syria.
Now, Mr. Chaudhry’s public declarations have put him in legal jeopardy. In September, the Canadian authorities charged Mr. Chaudhry with perpetrating a terrorist hoax, a criminal charge that could bring up to five years in prison if he is convicted.
Tracking the thousands of fighters who have traveled from across the world to fight with the Islamic State is a sprawling, often murky, undertaking. Before “Caliphate” aired, two American officials told The Times that Mr. Chaudhry had, in fact, joined ISIS and crossed into Syria. And some of the people who know and have counseled Mr. Chaudhry say they have no doubt that he holds extremist, jihadist views.
But Canadian law enforcement officials, who conducted an almost four-year investigation into Mr. Chaudhry, say their examination of his travel and financial records, social media posts, statements to the police and other intelligence make them confident that he did not enter Syria or join ISIS, much less commit the grievous crimes he described. American officials interviewed for this article support the conclusion that Mr. Chaudhry, who turns 26 on Saturday, was never a terrorist threat. It is difficult to say with absolute certainty that he never entered Syria, they warn. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
For Further Reference:
Coronavirus Cases in Syria Go Uncounted Amid Shortages Of Critical Supplies and Medical Personnel: Lauren Wolfe, NY Times, Dec. 19, 2020 — Syrians living in bomb-scarred cities have long had to deal with a kneecapped health system that can barely handle the basic needs of the country’s exhausted population. Now, like the rest of the world, Syrians are facing the coronavirus. And detected cases are skyrocketing.
Former Lebanon Justice Min. Blames Hezbollah for Deaths of Hundreds: Tobias Siegel, Jerusalem Post, Dec. 19, 2020 — Lebanon has been experiencing unrest following new discoveries surfacing in the investigation surrounding the explosion at the Beirut port on August 4 that led to hundreds of casualties and thousands of injuries.
Rise in Israeli Strikes in Syria Has Led to Decrease Of Iranian Activity: Anna Ahronheim, Jerusalem Post, Dec. 10, 2020 — Iran’s entrenchment in Syria is slowing down as a result of ongoing IDF operations which have increased over the past year, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi announced Friday. The IDF chief also revealed for the first time that the military has been carried out cyberattacks.
Syria Makes Command Changes to 1st Corps Following Israeli Threats: Anna Ahronheim, Jerusalem Post, Dec. 13, 2020 –– The Syrian Arab Army has made changes to the leadership of the 1st Corps and its operations center in the southern part of the country, following threats to its leadership by the Israeli military.