Iran and Hezbullah setting up militias in Syria 'just in case'
Because the Obama administration and the Europeans refused to get involved, the rebels are now lead by al-Qaeda and other Islamists. And because the rebel side of the equation is not being led by a world power, Iran and Hezbullah felt safe getting involved on Bashar al-Assad's side. Now that Assad is on the verge of being deposed, Iran and Hezbullah are taking another step: They are setting up their own militias to ensure that the civil war continues for decades and to make sure that Syria continues to be a confrontation front against Israel (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
A senior Obama administration official cited Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. “It’s a big operation,” the official said. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”
Iran’s strategy, a senior Arab official agreed, has two tracks. “One is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses.”
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The fragmentation of Syria along religious and tribal lines is a growing concern for neighboring governments and the administration, as the civil war approaches its third year with little sign of a political solution or military victory for either Assad’s forces or the rebels.
Rebel forces, drawn largely from Syria’s Sunni majority, are far from united, with schisms along religious, geographic, political and economic lines. Militant Islamists, including many from other countries and with ties to al-Qaeda, are growing in power.
“Syria is basically disintegrating as a nation, similar to how Lebanon disintegrated in the ’70s to ethnic components, and as Iraq did,” said Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s going to be very hard to put Syria the nation back together.”
“We’re looking at a place which is sort of a zone, an area called Syria, with different powers,” Salem said.
In a divided Syria, Iran’s natural allies would include Shiites and Alawites concentrated in provinces near Syria’s border with Lebanon and in the key port city of Latakia. Under the most likely scenarios, analysts say, remnants of Assad’s government — with or without Assad — would seek to establish a coastal enclave closely tied to Tehran, dependent on the Iranians for survival while helping Iran to retain its link to Hezbollah and thereby its leverage against Israel.
Experts said that Iran is less interested in preserving Assad in power than in maintaining levers of power, including transport hubs inside Syria. As long as Tehran could maintain control of an airport or seaport, it could also maintain a Hezbollah-controlled supply route into Lebanon and continue to manipulate Lebanese politics.
Preservation of an Iranian-supported area on the coast has always been “Plan C or Plan D” for core regime supporters, Salem said. “If everything fails and they lose, they have always prepared for the fortress region . . . with everything they can cart away, even if they lose Damascus.”
“That’s not necessarily what they want,” he said. “They want to hold on to the whole thing.” But the worst-case scenario is that “the whole regime relocates to the northwest, and they still have the most powerful [armed] unit inside Syria, with a lot of the current structure.”Short of undertaking a full-scare war in Syria, it is highly doubtful that this scenario or similar ones can be avoided.