Martin Chulov reports: Not far from Mosul, a large military force is finalising plans for an advance that has been more than three decades in the making. The troops are Shia militiamen who have fought against the Islamic State, but they have not been given a direct role in the coming attack to free Iraq’s second city from its clutches.
Instead, while the Iraqi army attacks Mosul from the south, the militias will take up a blocking position to the west, stopping Isis forces from fleeing towards their last redoubt of Raqqa in Syria. Their absence is aimed at reassuring the Sunni Muslims of Mosul that the imminent recapture of the city is not a sectarian push against them. However, among Iraq’s Shia-dominated army the militia’s decision to remain aloof from the battle of Mosul is being seen as a rebuff.
Yet among the militias’ backers in Iran there is little concern. Since their inception, the Shia irregulars have made their name on the battlefields of Iraq, but they have always been central to Tehran’s ambitions elsewhere. By not helping to retake Mosul, the militias are free to drive one of its most coveted projects – securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria that would end at the Mediterranean Sea.
The strip of land to the west of Mosul in which the militias will operate is essential to that goal. After 12 years of conflict in Iraq and an even more savage conflict in Syria, Iran is now closer than ever to securing a land corridor that will anchor it in the region – and potentially transform the Islamic Republic’s presence on Arab lands. “They have been working extremely hard on this,” said a European official who has monitored Iran’s role in both wars for the past five years. “This is a matter of pride for them on one hand and pragmatism on the other. They will be able to move people and supplies between the Mediterranean and Tehran whenever they want, and they will do so along safe routes that are secured by their people, or their proxies.”
Interviews during the past four months with regional officials, influential Iraqis and residents of northern Syria have established that the land corridor has slowly taken shape since 2014. It is a complex route that weaves across Arab Iraq, through the Kurdish north, into Kurdish north-eastern Syria and through the battlefields north of Aleppo, where Iran and its allies are prevailing on the ground. It has been assembled under the noses of friend and foe, the latter of which has begun to sound the alarm in recent weeks. Turkey has been especially opposed, fearful of what such a development means for Iran’s relationship with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ party), the restive Kurds in its midst, on whom much of the plan hinges. [Continue reading…]
Tom Cooper writes: The general impression is that the Syrian Arab Army remains the largest military force involved in the Syrian Civil War, and that — together with the so-called National Defense Forces — — it remains the dominant military service under the control of government of Pres. Bashar Al Assad.
Media that are at least sympathetic to the Al-Assad regime remain insistent in presenting the image of the “SAA fighting on all front lines” — only sometimes supported by the NDF and, less often, by “allies.”
The devil is in the details, as some say. Indeed, a closer examination of facts on the ground reveals an entirely different picture. The SAA and NDF are nearly extinct.
Because of draft-avoidance and defections — — and because Al Assad’s regime was skeptical of the loyalty of the majority of its military units — the SAA never managed to fully mobilize.
Not one of around 20 divisions it used to have has ever managed to deploy more than one-third of its nominal strength on the battlefield. The resulting 20 brigade-size task forces — each between 2,000- and 4,000-strong — were then further hit by several waves of mass defections, but also extensive losses caused by the incompetence of their commanders.
Unsurprisingly, the regime was already critically short of troops by summer of 2012, when advisers from the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps concluded that units organized along religious and political lines had proven more effective in combat than the rest of the Syrian military had.
Thus the regime’s creation, in cooperation with Iran, of the National Defense Forces. Officially, the NDF is a pro-government militia acting as a part-time volunteer reserve component of the military. Envisioned by its Iranian creators as an equivalent to the IRGC’s Basiji Corps, the NDF became an instrument of formalizing the status of hundreds of “popular committees” created by the Syrian Ba’ath Party in the 1980s.
According to Iranian claims, the NDF’s stand-up resulted in the addition of a 100,000-strong auxiliary to Syria’s force-structure. Moreover, the NDF functioned as a catalyst for the reorganization of the entire Syrian military into a hodgepodge of sectarian militias. [Continue reading…]
Alex Rowell writes: The first deployment of foreign regular army ground troops to the front lines of the five-year-long battle between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came with rather less fanfare and controversy than might have been expected.
On April 4, less than two months after US Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress Iran was winding down its direct presence in Syria, Iranian Brigadier General Ali Arasteh declared the Islamic Republic was in fact sending its official armed forces, known as the Artesh, onto the Syrian battlefield for the first time, naming the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade in particular as one among “other units” joining the fray. The occasion marked the army’s first deployment outside Iranian territory since the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
While there have been Iranian ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria since as early as 2012, these had hitherto all belonged to the irregular Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the parallel military organization established after the 1979 Revolution in part as an ultra-Islamist counterweight to the Artesh, viewed suspiciously at the time for its roots in the secular ancien régime. A contingent of several hundred IRGC militants fighting in Syria surged to an estimated 3,000 last October, coinciding with the Russian air campaign masterminded in the summer of 2015 by the IRGC’s external operations commander Qassem Soleimani. In strictly literal terms, what Secretary Kerry said in February was true: the IRGC itself had by then withdrawn most if not all of the reinforcements added in October. However, those withdrawals have now been offset by the dispatch of the Artesh. [Continue reading…]
Richard Spencer writes: The video shows the attack on Palmyra, the historic Syrian city reclaimed from Isil for the Assad regime, and as a column of troops heads across the desert behind him a soldier is giving a commentary.
“Despite many casualties, they are moving forward in the advance,” he says.
The oddity is that he is not speaking Arabic, but Persian. The man himself is Afghan, a member of a 10-20,000-strong Afghan army recruited in Iran to fight the war in Syria.
The reconquest of Palmyra was presented to the world as a victory for President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.
As Islamic State jihadists fled, regime troops forced their way into the town, known for its celebrated Roman ruins. Everyone from Russian apparatchiks to British conservative politicians congratulated Mr Assad for reclaiming the town for civilisation.
The role of the Russian air force in preparing the way for the ground advance was noted: this was the anti-Isil alliance promised at the start of Russian military intervention in Syria but which in practice seemed slow to make gains.
In fact, it is now clear it was an eccentric multinational force that took Palmyra. Analysis of photographs, social media posts and Iranian, Russian and even Syrian media has shown that the path was led by the Russians, with much of the “grunt” work done by Afghan Shia and Iraqi militiamen under generals from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. [Continue reading…]
Human Rights Watch: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited thousands of undocumented Afghans living there to fight in Syria since at least November 2013, Human Rights Watch said today, and a few have reported that Iranian authorities coerced them. Iran has urged the Afghans to defend Shia sacred sites and offered financial incentives and legal residence in Iran to encourage them to join pro-Syrian government militias.
Human Rights Watch in late 2015 interviewed more than two dozen Afghans who had lived in Iran about recruitment by Iranian officials of Afghans to fight in Syria. Some said they or their relatives had been coerced to fight in Syria and either had later fled and reached Greece, or had been deported to Afghanistan for refusing. One 17-year-old said he had been forced to fight without being given the opportunity to refuse. Others said they had volunteered to fight in Syria in Iranian-organized militias, either out of religious conviction or to regularize their residence status in Iran.
“Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Faced with this bleak choice, some of these Afghan men and boys fled Iran for Europe.” [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards did well under international sanctions, and the elite military force is destined to become still richer now they’ve been lifted.
Iran’s clerical rulers have supported economic growth of the Guards, rewarding the group for sanctions-busting as well as suppressing dissent at home and helping Tehran’s allies abroad – notably Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Now the country is expecting an economic boom in the post-sanctions era and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), will be a beneficiary. Likewise, the leadership will ensure it is well funded to continue the effort in the regional crisis, including the Syrian civil war.
The Guards aren’t entirely off the hook, even though the United States, European Union and United Nations lifted most sanctions on Saturday under a deal with world powers where Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program. [Continue reading…]
Phillip Smyth writes: Ever since Tehran started beating the drum over Nimr, its Shiite Islamist proxies across the Middle East have followed suit.
In early January 2015, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy group listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, released a propaganda song that threatened the Saudis with an attack if they carried out the sentenced execution. The tune also included the rare addition of English translations and was likely aimed at Western, particularly American, audiences. The song blared, “The enemies of God will not be safe.… Ali’s [Shiite Islam’s first imam’s] enemies fear him [Nimr].… We will avenge Sheikh Nimr if he is executed.… Our brigades will roar like a lion.”
It wasn’t the only time that Kataib Hezbollah would threaten Saudi Arabia over Nimr’s fate. In March, the Iraqi militia posted another video showing trucks loaded with rockets and balaclava-wearing armed militiamen driving up to the Iraqi-Saudi border.
Iran’s other proxies in the region have adopted a similar stance. Starting in July, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, another Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia in Iraq, ran a promotional video to show support for Nimr, and Lebanese Hezbollah pushed solidarity campaigns for the Saudi cleric.
Following Nimr’s execution, Iran’s allies in the region issued nearly matching statements condemning Saudi Arabia and at times blaming the United States for the cleric’s death. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada are just some of the Iranian-backed and ideologically loyal Shiite militias that toed Iran’s line on the issue.
The Iraqi Shiite militias loyal to Iran claimed they would retaliate against Saudi Arabia at a time and place of their choosing. Kataib Hezbollah later announced that the execution had given it the “green light” to target Saudi interests in Iraq. These Iran proxies also amplified threats by shadowy organizations: Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy active in Iraq and Syria, for instance, claimed that an otherwise unspecified “Resistance in Qatif” had threatened to attack the Ras Tanura refinery, an important oil port in Saudi Arabia’s majority Shiite Eastern Province.
The campaign has not simply been limited to mere threats. In mid-December, around 26 Qatari hunters — some of whom are members of the Qatari royal family — were kidnapped by some 100 armed men on the Iraq-Saudi border. While nine were released, the rest are still being held by the gunmen. One of the conditions for the detained Qataris’ release had been the Saudi government’s release of Nimr. (Kataib Hezbollah has been accused of kidnapping the Qataris, but has denied it.)
These messages are part and parcel of Tehran’s geopolitical strategy — a way of asserting that it can and will protect its Shiite coreligionists. The fact that the factions of the Shiite “Islamic Resistance” across the Middle East acted as one further demonstrates Iranian power and the Islamic Resistance’s ability and willingness to project power on behalf of Iran’s regional goals. [Continue reading…]
According to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese commander who had become a high-profile figure in the group, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Saturday.
Israeli officials welcomed the news but did not confirm responsibility for the attack.
While Hezbollah had no hesitation in accusing Israel, as Raed Omari notes, Syrian officials have been more circumspect:
Remarkably enough, the Syrian account of the incident resembled to a greater degree that of Israel – no confirmation and no refuting.
But the Syrian statements on Qantar’s killing were worded with a heavy Russian military presence in the background and they were inseparable from new political developments on Syria and the new international coalitions in the making.
It can’t be that the Israelis launched an airstrike on Syria now without coordination with their Russian allies who now control Syria’s airspace. And if the Syrians confirmed that Israeli jets killed Qantar, then they would appear as either having prior knowledge of the plan or have no sovereignty over their country.
Who actually killed the 54-year-old Qantar? In my opinion, Israel is a likely perpetrator but the question is how its jets flew over Syria now without being spotted by the Russian satellites and space power. The Russian silence on the incident is also worth-noting.
Meanwhile, a Syrian rebel group has released a statement claiming that they were responsible for Qantar’s death.
The New York Times quotes a Druze militia group that said the building which was targeted had been hit by “four long-range missiles.”
An Israeli columnist quotes “Western sources” claiming that Qantar was a “ticking bomb.”
The sources said Kuntar had recently not been working on behalf of Hezbollah, but rather acting with increasing independence alongside pro-Assad militias in Syria.
The attack in Damascus comes at a moment when, according to Israeli sources, “Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria three months ago.”
Assuming that this was indeed an Israeli airstrike, it appears to have not only been aimed at an individual, but also intended to send some additional messages: that Israel is not unduly constrained by Russia’s air operations in Syria and that the Hezbollah fighters propping up the Assad regime are more expendable than their Iranian counterparts.
Creede Newton writes:
Regardless of who fired the missile, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, has already made his decision: this was Israel. Now, the question is, how will Nasrallah respond to another high-level assassination?
Some think Hezbollah’s falling popularity with the Sunni majority in the Middle East due to its meddling in the Syrian conflict could use a boost, and a conflict with Israel would help.
Others say Hezbollah is stretched, and a war with the powerful Israeli military is the last thing the Shia group needs.
Nicholas Blanford writes:
The current situation mirrors the immediate aftermath of an Israeli pilotless drone strike on 18 January in the Golan that killed Jihad Mughniyeh — son of former Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh — an Iranian general and five other Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah struck back 10 days later with an anti-tank missile ambush against an Israeli army convoy at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills, killing an officer and a soldier.
Following the ambush, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the rules of engagement that had defined the tit-for-tat conflict between Hezbollah and Israel were over.
“From now on, if any Hezbollah resistance cadre or youth is killed in a treacherous manner, we will hold Israel responsible and it will then be our right to respond at any place and at any time and in the manner we deem appropriate,” he said.
Nasrallah is due to speak Monday night and will probably reaffirm that commitment, which will ensure a state of tension along Israel’s northern border in the coming days.
The concept of reciprocity is a cornerstone of Hezbollah’s defense strategy against Israel, which may offer a clue as to the party’s response to Kuntar’s assassination. In the years following the 2006 War, Nasrallah has articulated on several occasions Hezbollah’s strategy of retaliating in kind for Israeli actions against Lebanon in a future conflict — if Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah bombs Tel Aviv; if Israel blockades Lebanese ports, Hezbollah will blockade Israeli ports with its long-range anti-ship missiles; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah will invade Galilee.
Even on a tactical level, Hezbollah has sought to achieve reciprocity against Israel. In October 2014, Hezbollah mounted a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms that wounded two Israeli soldiers in response to the death a month earlier of a party military technician who died when a booby-trapped Israeli wire-tapping device exploded.
The January anti-tank missile attack against the Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms also sought to echo Israel’s deadly drone missile strike in the Golan 10 days earlier.
“They killed us in broad daylight, we killed them in broad daylight… They hit two of our vehicles, we hit two of their vehicles,” Nasrallah said at the time.
Bloomberg reports: Allies of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are challenging restrictions on top reformist politicians as wrangling with conservative rivals heats up ahead of elections next year.
The state-run Ettelaat newspaper ran a front-page editorial last week criticizing as unlawful a ban on publishing the name and picture of former President Mohammad Khatami. A day earlier, Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoun had visited opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, who’s under house arrest and accused of sedition by hardliners.
Buoyed by Rouhani’s success in striking July’s nuclear deal with world powers in the face of domestic resistance, a reformist camp largely silenced since 2009 is showing signs of renewed ambition. Elections for parliament and the assembly that will choose Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s successor could embolden Rouhani, who’s seeking to control a majority in the legislature.
Infighting “is reaching the highest and most sensitive” level since Rouhani won a four-year term in 2013, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute. “How Rouhani chooses to respond to the hardline pushback against his agenda, and the degree to which he is successful, will be a major indicator of political life in Iran for the remainder of his presidency.” [Continue reading…]
Reuters adds: An Iranian committee is examining potential candidates to be the next Supreme Leader, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said on Sunday, breaking a taboo of talking publicly about succession in the Islamic Republic. [Continue reading…]
Earlier, the New York Times reported: Iran’s conservative judicial authorities indicted the managing editor of a prominent daily newspaper on Tuesday, saying that he had violated prohibitions on the coverage of Mohammad Khatami, a reformist-minded former president they now describe as a seditionist.
Rights activists said the indictment was a sign not only of the escalating repression of the news media in Iran, but also of heightening tensions between hard-line factions and the administration of the current president, Hassan Rouhani, with parliamentary elections due in February.
“It is absurd that Khatami, president for eight years, has been declared essentially nonexistent to such an extent that disseminating his picture and voice is considered a crime,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an advocacy group based in New York. [Continue reading…]
It is likewise absurd to view the factions that would try to enforce this kind of political repression as belonging to an “Axis of Resistance.”
Let’s hope that as Iran’s reformists once again grow in confidence, they don’t end up facing the same kind of ruthless oppression that strangled the Green Movement in 2009.
That was an uprising that deserved global support and only the regime’s most rigid loyalists could have viewed it otherwise.
The Washington Post reports: Paramilitary forces from Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard held a war game simulating the capture of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the holy site that has been at the center of the tensions in Israel and the West Bank.
Iranian state media on Saturday said the forces stormed and “liberated” a replica of the mosque in the exercise. It said thousands of members of the Basij, the paramilitary unit of the Guard, participated in the exercise outside the holy city of Qom in central Iran.
The symbolic operations were backed up by Guard helicopters, drones and planes that bombed hypothetical enemy positions before ground troops captured the replica of the mosque. Official photos showed one of the troops going to the top of the dome and waving an Iranian flag and a red flag, a symbol of martyrdom. [Continue reading…]
Lara Nelson spoke to Khaled al-Shami who fled to Jordan after serving for four years in the Syrian army: He described what life was like inside Assad’s army.
“One important thing to realise is that there is no Syrian Army anymore, it is just militias, mostly Iranians and Lebanese.”
Division 9 is the largest and most important military force for Assad in southern Syria. It houses the only tank division, and has around 4,000 troops within four brigades.
However, most of the troops within the division are now non-Syrians: “Without the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah the army could not stand up. Seventy percent of the troops in Division 9 are Iranian troops or Lebanese Hezbollah, the rest are shabiha. Only two to three percent are regular Syrian soldiers,” Khaled said.
Shabiha is the name for the Alawite paramilitary force known for its brutality and sectarian nature. Khaled described the dynamics between these different fighting elements: “The Iranians and Hezbollah are not under the control of the Syrian Army, the exact opposite.”
He described how troops were organised and deployed: “Ten high-ranking Iranian officers control the division, they plan the operations. Only Iranian or Hezbollah forces can access operations rooms, no Syrian soldiers are allowed in.” [Continue reading…]