Thursday, June 20, 2024

No 'One Size Fits All': Iranian Influence Building in Syria - Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi


by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

An overview of these trends and patterns would suggest that one cannot speak of a single Iranian model and strategy in all the main countries where Iran exerts influence in the form of its "axis of resistance."


The Iranian project of influence building in neighboring states forms a core part of Tehran's regional strategy. It has produced a situation in which Iran exerts major influence in a number of Arab states, including Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. Close observation of the specifics in each case, however, reveals that Iran does not operate according to a "one size fits all" pattern. Rather, Iranian state bodies, most significantly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), can adapt their methods to the local context in each given situation.

In the case of Syria, with which this article is concerned, the Iranian method is adapted to a context in which Iran's local key ally is a dictatorial, pro-Iran regime: that of President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria (unlike in Iraq and Lebanon), there are no real established power centers outside of the regime structure, and no parliament with any meaningful power. At the same time, the regime is both partially dependent on Iran for its survival and has been in an alliance with Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This context impacts on the Iranian approach in Syria, which as seen below, is to work within the regime and in cooperation, with it, and to avoid building up Syrian centers of power which might act as an alternative to it. At the same time, Tehran maintains the presence of non-Syrian proxy militias on Syrian soil, which it operates in a command structure independent of, though in cooperation with the Syrian official authorities. In addition, on a secondary level, Tehran seeks to expand its religious and cultural influence within the country.

No Attacks By Syrian Armed Groups Since October 7

In contrast with the repeated current clashes with Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border and the multiple attempted attacks on Israel by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, there is very little to suggest that the Syrian armed groups backed by Iran and Hezbollah have engaged in any major action since October 7 to pressure the U.S. and Israel. This contrast raises the obvious question of why, and the broader matter of Iranian goals, modes of operation and objectives in Syria.

These issues can be best addressed through an overview and assessment of the Syrian groups that have been backed by Iran and Hezbollah. Primarily examining two networks of auxiliary armed groups for the Syrian army—namely, the National Defence Forces (NDF) and the Local Defence Forces (LDF)—this study explores the Iranian objectives and goals behind the support that Iran's IRGC and its Lebanese client Hezbollah have provided to these networks. In doing so, this study does not aim to provide a simple catalogue of the Syrian armed groups in these networks, which risks missing the wood for the trees, but rather uses examples of these groups to discern broader trends and patterns.

An overview of these trends and patterns would suggest that one cannot speak of a single Iranian model and strategy in all the main countries where Iran exerts influence in the form of its "axis of resistance." Iran's primary goal to maintain Syria as an artery of support for Hezbollah rather than a ground to develop a new war front with Israel, and the Syrian government's own desire to keep the southern front with the Golan Heights quiet, mean that while Israel cannot realistically hope to eject Iran from Syria, it does not necessarily follow that Israel's Syria policies have failed, and if anything, there is some consolation to be had in the lack of threats from the Syrian front in comparison with the far bigger problem of Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon, attacks directed from Iraq, and more recently, the threat of direct Iranian strikes launched from Iran against Israel.

It is to be emphasized from the outset that a considerable amount of information in this study comes from the author's own interaction with those connected to the NDF and LDF networks. Open-source information has also been used, but the main focus is on information from NDF and LDF affiliates, pro-Syrian government and pro-"resistance axis" outlets, with pro-opposition outlets consulted only when the information can be properly checked and verified. The problem is that a lot of purported information in pro-opposition outlets on topics like the Iranian presence and activity in Syria or movements of government forces is completely unverifiable at best and outright fabrication at worst.

The NDF: The Syrian Basij?

The NDF is one of the most widely known networks of auxiliary forces on the government side in the Syrian conflict. The NDF first emerged at the turn of 2012-2013, though it was not simply created in a vacuum but rather emerged out of pre-existing structures of pro-government auxiliary groups that were organized on the local level. For example, the representative of the NDF in Dayr al-Zur province in eastern Syria told this author in 2019 that the local contingents that came to form the basis of the NDF in the province were affiliated with the military intelligence (also known as the "military security") [1]. A founder of the NDF in the province mentioned to this author that he originally led a small local contingent of fighters affiliated with the NDF. Simon al-Wakil, the head of the NDF in the Christian town of Muhradah in northern Hama province, told this author that the NDF's foundational basis took the form of "popular committees," a familiar form of pro-government local auxiliary organization in the period 2011-2012. [2]

Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran in 2018.

The NDF is officially headed by a "secretariat general" (Arabic: amana 'aama) and consists of various provincial and large-town "centres" and then more local "sectors." [3] Officially then, the NDF is supposed to have a command-and-control structure at the national level, though it is questionable how effective this command-and-control actually is. [4] To date, the NDF has not been considered to be officially on the registers of the Syrian armed forces, meaning that joining and serving in the NDF is not considered to be an official alternative to compulsory and reserve military service in the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Rather, the NDF is considered a civilian volunteer force: that is, "civilian" in the sense that those affiliated with the NDF are not considered to be military personnel by virtue of this affiliation. In fact, NDF members who have been wanted for compulsory or reserve service have had to engage in a process known as "regularisation of status" (Arabic: taswiyat al-wada'), which essentially allows for a temporary amnesty and grace period but does not equate service in the NDF to service in the SAA. [5]

The NDF has sometimes been described in analysis as modelled on the Basij, a paramilitary force inside Iran affiliated with the IRGC. [6] This comparison is primarily based on the observation that Iran and Hezbollah played a role in the formation of the NDF. For example, a representative of the NDF in al-Suwayda' told this author that Iran and Hezbollah played a role in materially supporting, advising, and training NDF fighters during the stage of the NDF's establishment. [7] Yet beyond this observation, the fact that the NDF is considered a civilian volunteer force and the fact that some "Islamic Resistance"-brand Syrian groups appear to have started out life within the NDF (as discussed below), the analogy seems questionable.

To begin with, there is evidence that the Iranians and Hezbollah reduced support for the NDF and distanced themselves from it over time. For example, the NDF representative in al-Suwayda' complained to this author in 2019 and 2020 about not having received a salary for more than two years. [8] In a similar vein, a founder of the NDF in Dayr al-Zur mentioned that Hezbollah had initially provided salary payments but these payments subsequently stopped, with the burden of providing salaries then coming upon the leader of the NDF in the province. [9] This point of the NDF provincial leader's responsibility for salary provision was also affirmed by the NDF in Dayr al-Zur's representative in 2019. [10] In October 2017, a representative for another armed group not affiliated with the NDF claimed to this author that the Iranians stopped supporting the NDF because of "many mistakes" made by the NDF, though these exact mistakes were not specified. [11] It is notable also that some formations that subsequently became known as "Islamic Resistance in Syria"-style formations (i.e., of the sort of branding associated with Iran and Hezbollah) appear to have originally been part of the NDF, and subsequently became disassociated from it. [12] Meanwhile, some current NDF affiliates, such as those in Muhradah and al-Suqaylabiyah (a Christian town like Muhradah), openly advertise their links with the Russian presence in Syria, with Russia being keen to promote an image of protecting Christian minorities in Syria. [13]

In addition to this issue of Iran and Hezbollah having apparently distanced themselves from the NDF, the Basij analogy risks overlooking the role that the Syrian armed forces have also played in organizing and playing leading roles in the NDF. For instance, the leader of the NDF's Damascus center was once a Syrian army colonel called Bassam Nu'man. [14] Subsequently, the Syrian army brigadier general Ali al-Safi became leader of the NDF Damascus center. [15] It is clear then that the Syrian military assigns some officers to roles in the NDF in order to coordinate with it. Some interviewees also highlight the Syrian military role in the creation, arming, and training of the NDF. Thus, Simon al-Wakil stressed that it was the Syrian army that provided the NDF in Muhradah with arms and ammunition, [16] while one of the founders of the NDF in Dayr al-Zur—mentioned earlier—highlighted the role of Syrian army officers in training the NDF as well as that of senior personnel of Hezbollah, but also claimed that the decision to establish the NDF went back to the general command of the SAA. [17]

In summary then, while it is apparent that the IRGC and Hezbollah played a role in initially organizing and supporting the NDF, the analogy with the Basij may erroneously suggest that the NDF somehow constitutes an Iranian and Hezbollah-controlled parallel army in Syria. Perhaps there was such a grand design to develop the NDF in this way when it was initially established, but the notion is purely speculative unless new evidence emerges. Even if that hypothesis were correct, it seems likely that such plans were abandoned long ago. In so far as Iranian and Hezbollah support for the NDF still exists, then it is more likely just part of bolstering the broader manpower and military capabilities of their Syrian government ally.

The LDF: The Network of IRGC and Hezbollah Influence in Syria

In contrast with the NDF, the LDF can be definitively seen as a network of Iranian and Hezbollah-backed groups, in the same way that the V Corps is a network of Russian-backed groups. The Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the LDF not only entails financing, training and arming the groups in this network, but also IRGC and Hezbollah personnel assuming advisory and commanding roles within certain units or collections of units as well as the overall network, while also more broadly coordinating with the Syrian army, which may assign officers to roles within individual LDF units and to the broader command structure alongside IRGC officers in particular. [18] Thus, even as Iranian or Hezbollah commanders play leading roles in the field, the LDF is not in fact a structure wholly separate from the Syrian military, in keeping with the observation that many pro-government militias that have emerged during the war are not as independent from the Syrian military as they might seem. [19]

Rather than list all the groups that have been or are identified with the LDF, this section will seek to discern Iranian goals behind the cultivation of the LDF and various groups in it.

Protecting, Recruiting and Influencing Existing Twelver Shi'a Communities in Syria. In Syria, the Twelver Shi'a—the same sect of Shi'ism that is espoused by the Iranian government and Hezbollah—were a small minority prior to the war, with many of the communities outside the area of the shrine of al-Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus often constituting isolated pockets, such as the villages of Nubl and Zahara' to the northwest of Aleppo city, the villages of al-Fu'a and Kafariya in the province of Idlib (also in the northwest of Syria) and the village of Hatla in Dayr al-Zur province.

Whatever one thinks of the rights and wrongs of the government and insurgent sides of the Syrian war, it is undoubtedly the case that a perception arose among the Iranians that these Twelver Shi'a communities were under threat—a perception that was enforced by incidents such as the May 2012 kidnapping of Lebanese Shi'a pilgrims returning from Iran to Lebanon via Syria, the reported massacre of Shi'a residents of Hatla in June 2013, [20] the destruction of the shrine of Oways al-Qarni in al-Raqqa by the Islamic State (the ruins of which were seen by this author on a trip in the area in 2018), and the insurgent sieges imposed on Nubl and Zahara' as well as al-Fu'a and Kafariya. It is therefore little surprise that Iran and Hezbollah sought to cultivate LDF units that drew on members of these communities, with some prominent examples of formations including Junud al-Mahdi (recruited from the people of Nubl and Zahara'), the al-Imam al-Hujja Regiment (Nubl and Zahara'), Quwat al-Ridha (attached directly to Hezbollah and recruiting mainly from the Shi'a of Homs) [21] and the Martyr Abu Turab Force (recruiting mainly from the Shi'a in the Damascus area). [22]

Not only have these units served the broader purpose of providing support for the war effort of the Syrian government that seeks to remain in power and eventually reassert its control over the entirety of Syrian territory, but also they have allowed for Iran and Hezbollah to promote themselves as protectors of the Shi'a in the region and the advancers of their interests, and for the promotion of the religious ideology of the Iranian government and Hezbollah among these communities. Beyond the military level, a notable example of the cultural outreach to these communities is the existence of a branch of Hezbollah's Imam al-Mahdi Scouts in Nubl (also called the Loyal Scouts of Nubl). [23]

Promotion of Twelver Shi'ism to Other Communities. In addition to outreach to the already existing Twelver Shi'a communities, some LDF units and recruitment into them may serve as a gateway for religious outreach to those who are not Twelver Shi'a. Such outreach is indeed logical and does not have to suppose an Iranian conspiracy to transform Syria into a country that is Twelver Shi'a by majority. [24] Rather, the fact is that Iran is an Islamic Republic and its government espouses a religion that is missionary by nature, and thus where the opportunity to convert others to Twelver Shi'ism, Iran will seek to do so. In addition, conversion to Shi'ism in Syria was taking place prior to the war, and thus the phenomenon during the war represents a continuation of an existing trend. The most prominent relevant example within the LDF network is that of Liwa al-Baqir ("The Baqir Brigade"), [25] which counts hundreds of 'martyrs' from its ranks during the war and has its origins in Bekara tribesmen in the Aleppo region who converted to Twelver Shi'ism. Liwa al-Baqir is arguably one of the most important LDF formations, and is notable for being one of the LDF groups that has pushed for local political influence in the election of Omar al-Hassan to the Syrian parliament for the terms 2016-2020 and 2020-2024. [26] Liwa al-Baqir has also reportedly expanded its influence into Dayr al-Zur. In 2018, a petroleum engineer who was of Dayr al-Zur's Twelver Shi'i minority and had been a leader of the armed group Liwa al-Imam Zayn al-'Abidin, told this author that it was Iran's intention to turn Dayr al-Zur into a majority Shi'i region, positively highlighting what he saw as the affinity for Shi'ism among the customs of the people of Dayr al-Zur. [27]

Lebanese women whose husbands were kidnapped in Syria in May 2012.

Yet as one former Syrian Shi'i member of the LDF group al-Ghalibun explained to this author in 2017, the proselytization may not necessarily require that recruits to LDF units convert to Shi'ism, but rather take a more subtle form of telling recruits about the religion, providing them with religious reading materials etc. Indeed, this author has come to know of members of the Druze and Christian communities who joined LDF units but clearly did not make the decision to convert. For example, earlier this year a Christian contacted this author to indicate his appreciation for writings documenting the lives of 'martyrs' who had been involved in the LDF. He noted to this author that he had been involved with the LDF formation called the 313 Force (a name that clearly evokes Shi'ism, being a reference to the 313 companions of the messianic figure of Imam al-Mahdi) [28] and was presently deployed to Dayr al-Zur where he was working with the Iranians. [29] Another individual, originally from the Druze locality of Hadr on the border with the Golan Heights, had previously been a member of a Hezbollah-affiliated group called Quwat al-Wa'ad al-Sadiq ("The True Promise Forces") that was formed in the Sayyida Zaynab area. He subsequently switched to working with Russian-backed formations. In other cases, LDF formations have been established with no apparent trappings of Shi'ism, such as those established in the Christian towns of al-Suqaylabiyah (led by one Phillip Sulayman) and Muhradah (led by Maher Qawerma, a Ba'athist member of the Syrian parliament). [30]

Promotion of Iranian-Sponsored Reconstruction: The Case of the Aleppo Defenders Legion. The LDF can also serve as a conduit to Iranian-sponsored reconstruction and service and social outreach efforts. The most notable example of this trend is the Aleppo Defenders Legion (Arabic: Faylaq al-Mudafi'in 'an Halab), which was established in February 2017—not long after the Syrian government's recapture of the east of Aleppo city from the insurgents. One of the aims of the Legion, as explained to the outlet by local Legion commander Colonel Ghassan Kaykhi, is to work on "improving the services, social and humanitarian situation" in Aleppo, while "encouraging citizens" to engage in "popular or voluntary work to restore life to its ordinary nature," including establishing activities for children. [31] The Legion, which has participated in activities and meetings with the local Aleppo government, the Aleppo branch of the Ba'ath Party, and other LDF formations such as Liwa al-Baqir, and also the former LDF formation Liwa al-Quds, [32] was originally commanded by the IRGC's al-Hajj Muhsin, who, by late 2021, had subsequently been replaced by al-Hajj Sabir Radhi, also of the IRGC. [33]

Securing the Wider Iraq-Syria Land Corridor. While LDF formations have participated in many of the Syrian civil war's most important battles and are still deployed along essentially frozen frontlines, primarily brokered by Russian and Turkish understandings in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, one of the most important security functions for LDF units at present is playing a role in trying to secure the broader badiya region, which can be roughly defined as the sparsely populated central desert and steppes, extending to the Syria-Iraq borders in Homs and Dayr al-Zur provinces. Of the various regions in which the Islamic State insurgency still operates, the greatest security challenges exist for the Syrian government in the badiya region, though the Islamic State itself appears to underreport its activity in this region to a significant degree, likely for reasons of operational security. The insurgency in this region is characterized by successful ambushes and assaults by the Islamic State on a periodic basis that can result in the killing and wounding of multiple personnel on the Syrian government side. [34] The participation of LDF units in the attempts to secure the badiya region and border areas is not a new development but rather goes back years. For instance, one source who had been linked to the LDF formation called Qamr Bani Hashim [35] told this author in March 2021 of the unit's involvement in the badiya region centered around the city of Palmyra, and attributed the persistence of the Islamic State insurgency to the wide area of the operating field, besides invoking the familiar conspiracy theory of American support for the Islamic State and claiming that this support was a means to put pressure on the IRGC in the region. [36] More recently, a Sunni individual from the town of Zabadani on the border with Lebanon told this author of his ongoing service in Dayr al-Zur as part of the LDF's Regiment 47. [37] In addition, a source linked to the LDF unit Fawj al-Nayrab (Aleppo-based) confirmed that four of its fighters were killed in Ithriya (in what was an Islamic State attack). [38]

It is likely that one of the aims of LDF, Hezbollah and IRGC focus on the badiya region and the borders extending to Iraq is a desire to create a secure land corridor between Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Iranian-backed formations in the Popular Mobilization Forces, such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Ansar Allah al-Awfiya', play

an important role in securing the Iraqi side of the border in western Anbar province. It is reasonable to consider that the Iranians have an interest in this secure land corridor as one means to transfer weapons into Syria and Lebanon, though this land corridor is not necessarily more important than transfer of weapons via air. Moreover, the LDF and Iranians are not the only forces of note in the badiya region. Other actors including the SAA, the NDF and Russian-backed forces are also present.

Transfer of LDF Personnel to the SAA

One of the main problems that has faced the SAA over the course of the war has been evasion of compulsory or reserve military service and desertion from such service. Common reasons for these problems include the length of service and difficult working conditions. Formations outside the SAA could prove attractive not only for reasons of possible ideological affinities (e.g. Syrian Twelver Shi'a who might identify with Iran and Hezbollah) but also for better alternative service conditions, with the chance for some form of employment and a salary. For a time at least, when military needs were more pressing and the conflict was not in the frozen state that it is now, Assad and the Syrian Ministry of Defence were content to allow for an arrangement in which individuals wanted for compulsory and reserve military service and affiliated with LDF units could complete their service within the LDF units. This emerged in leaked documents dating to April 2017, which listed a total of 88,723 personnel affiliated with LDF units. [39]

Beginning at least from last year, however, it would appear that the aforementioned arrangement regarding performing compulsory and reserve service in LDF units no longer applies. Multiple current and former personnel of the LDF have affirmed to this author that large numbers of LDF personnel wanted for military service have been transferred to the SAA. [40] An individual who commanded the now dissolved LDF formation al-Ghalibun explained the rationale for this move as follows: "The number [of personnel] was large and not useful organizationally speaking: a burden on the structural organization of the friends [i.e. the Iranian-backed forces]. In the end only those who have evaded compulsory service are those who have been transferred to perform their obligation." [41] Logically, this move makes sense, because allowing an arrangement to remain in place where one could perform the equivalent of compulsory or reserve service with Iranian and Hezbollah-backed units offering better terms of service would create a lasting incentive for people to evade service in the SAA- in which military service is a matter of Syrian law. As the same individual who commanded al-Ghalibun explained: "The obligatory service personnel are the true foundation in terms of numbers for the Syrian army. The army command cannot neglect this matter." The LDF fighter from Zabadani gave a more specific example of a larger LDF unit called the Hadhrat Abbas Brigade, the majority of whose personnel, he said, have been transferred to the SAA. However, he added that for LDF personnel presently stationed in Dayr al-Zur, the transfers have not been applied on the basis that Dayr al-Zur constitutes a frontline zone. [42]

The Question of 'Syrian Hezbollah' and Implications for the U.S. and Israel

During the course of the Syrian civil war, it has become common among analysts, including this author on some previous occasions, to speak of the rise of 'Syrian Hezbollah'. While it is certainly true that at least some of the LDF units have the image and branding of 'Syrian Hezbollah', the use of this terminology may convey a misleading picture of the nature of the Iranian-backed Syrian groups and Iran's broader approach in Syria in suggesting that what is at play here is identical to Iran's approach in Lebanon. In fact, on the general level, there is no real Syrian equivalent of Hezbollah, which is by far the largest armed political faction in Lebanon, monopolizes political representation of Lebanon's Shi'a community that constitutes a sizeable proportion of the country's inhabitants, and plays a leading role in the formation of the Lebanese government that is elected in a democratic process. Similarly, there is no Syrian equivalent to some of the leading Iranian-backed factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, which have multiple armed brigades and play an influential role in the Iraqi government (which is also elected in a democratic process) and increasingly in Iraq's economy.

In comparison with Hezbollah and the leading Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a factions, the LDF groups are small, and the most notable political achievement among them has been securing the election of some favored local candidates to the Syrian parliament. Even so, while such candidates may be officially independent, they still acknowledge and pay deference to the political dominance of the Ba'ath Party. This can be compared with the phenomenon of officially independent members of parliament in other one-party states such as Saddam's Iraq and present-day North Korea. In the bigger picture, Assad's Syria remains a state institutionally dominated by the Ba'ath Party that has ultimately withstood the challenge posed by the Syrian civil war. [43] There is no indication that Iran wishes to change this fact by creating a Syrian copy of Hezbollah, even as the LDF units have provided avenues for Iran to expand economic, cultural and religious influence inside Syria in comparison with the pre-war era.

Similarly, the Iranian-backed Syrian groups are not comparable to the Lebanese and Iraqi 'resistance axis' factions in the sense of constituting a parallel army. One obstacle to such a project is the fact that the Syrian system imposes conscription whereas the Iraqi and Lebanese systems do not. Ultimately, there is no proper alternative to completing one's military obligations in the SAA, despite the temporary leeway that was granted by the Syrian high command in 2017. The recent transfers of LDF personnel to the SAA confirm this point. In addition, a key difference between Syria on the one hand and Iraq and Lebanon on the other is that the latter two places may feature factions in government and parliament that are hostile to Iran or keen to push back on Iranian influence. In contrast, despite the opaque nature of the Syrian government's inner workings, there is no evidence of a major faction within the government or its military that is pushing to distance the country from the close alliance with Iran- foremost because Assad himself seems perfectly content with this alliance. There is therefore less of an incentive to create a parallel military structure as a means of securing Iranian influence.

These observations and analysis should in turn raise the question of Iran's main objective in Syria. While it is legitimate to point to previously discussed goals such as engaging in proselytization for Twelver Shi'ism and the expansion of economic influence, these seem to be secondary to the goal of simply maintaining the Assad-led government in power indefinitely and ideally helping it to reassert control over the entire country, with Assad's Syria continuing to remain an ally of the Islamic Republic that acts as a conduit point for the delivery and supply of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In other words, the primary concern is not to transform Syria into an Islamic republic modelled on Iran's system of governance or a majority Twelver Shi'a country, but rather to keep a government seen as a traditional and reliable ally of the 'resistance axis' in power, stabilizing and expanding its grip over the country.

The implications of this analysis in fact offer some relief and reassurance for Israel and the U.S. From the U.S. perspective, given the reduced numbers of LDF personnel and also the fact that the Iranian-backed Syrian groups are more preoccupied with problems such as the Islamic State insurgency in the badiya region, the threat posed to U.S. forces by those Syrian groups is not as great as one might imagine. Instead, a far greater threat to the Americans in Syria comes from the very well entrenched Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, which are well integrated into the state apparatus, wield significant political influence, are contending with an Islamic State insurgency in Iraq that is at its lowest point of strength in its history in the country, and have capacity to strike at U.S. forces stationed in Syria by launching their attacks from within Iraqi territory. In this context, it is important to observe that virtually all the attacks against U.S. forces in Syria since October 7 have been coming from Iraqi groups that have employed the same methods of striking at U.S. forces in Syria as they did prior to the date.

For Israel, the main implication is that this analysis need not entail pessimism about the future of the Golan Heights-Syria border. Although it has been common in prior analysis to speak of the potential emergence of a new 'Golan front' against Israel, the fact is that the Syrian government has no interest in having an all-out war start on its border with Israel, battered as it already has been by years of war and an economic crisis that has seen most of its population fall below the poverty line. In addition, the Iranians themselves are arguably in a more exposed position in Syria than in Lebanon and Iraq, where well-established, powerful Iranian-backed groups fielding large numbers of personnel can weather strikes from adversaries. It is certainly true that Israel cannot realistically hope to remove the IRGC presence from Syria so long as there is an Iranian-allied government in Damascus. Yet Israel has nonetheless been able to strike at senior IRGC figures stationed in Syria on multiple occasions since October 7 without real consequences on the Golan front.

When Iran finally decided to retaliate after the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, [44] the retaliation came in the form of strikes launched from Iran against Israel, with auxiliary support primarily provided by Hezbollah on the Lebanon front. The Iranian and Hezbollah-backed Syrian groups were not mobilized as part of that retaliation. In addition, contrary to some expectations, Iran did not focus its retaliatory strikes on the Golan Heights. The direct Iranian strikes do of course raise the question of whether Iran can change the 'rules of game' to deter Israel from conducting further strikes on Iranian targets in Syria and elsewhere, but there is little reason to think that Iran would turn Syria and the Golan Heights into a full-blown war front using the Iranian and Hezbollah-backed Syrian groups as an army against Israel.

None of this assessment should lead to complacency. It is after all complacency that gave rise to the security failing embodied in the October 7 massacre. Yet it should be clear that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for the Iranian government in preserving, consolidating and expanding its influence in the various Middle Eastern theatres of conflict where its forces operate. Rather, Iranian strategy and methods will vary according to the specific context. Some of the peculiarities of the Syrian context mean that excess pessimism is not warranted. In the overall picture, Iran's Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian and Yemeni clients and allies pose a far greater problem than their Syrian counterparts do for the U.S. and Israel.

Dr. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

[1] Interview, July 2019.

[2] Interview, February 2019.

[3] For example, the outlet al-Rased ("The Observer"), based in Syria's southern province of al-Suwayda', leaked a document in June 2021 in which the secretariat general issued a decision to remove Adham Abu Zaydan from his position as head of the al-Suwayda' NDF centre.

[4] Thus, in relation to Adham's removal, it was locally reported that the extended family of Abu Zaydan accused Rashid Salum (who succeeded Adham) and a group of his supporters of assaulting Adham's office in May 2021 and forced him to resign. As such, the secretariat general's decision may just have been a rubber stamp to the situation on the ground over which it had no control. See Shabakat Akhbar al-Suwayda'.Net, May 6, 2021.

[5] See e.g. Shabakat Akhbar al-Suwayda', July 13, 2017.

[6] See e.g. "TSG Intelbrief: Iran's Forces in Syria," The Soufan Center, November 24, 2015.

[7] Interview, September 2018.

[8] Conversations, October 2019 and April 2020.

[9] Interview, August 2018.

[10] Interview, July 2019.

[11] Interview, October 2017.

[12] Notable examples being Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (which became prominent in 2013 and eventually became attached to the Republican Guard) and Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.

[13] E.g. Post by Simon al-Wakil, Nov. 16, 2023. Al-Wakil highlighted in this instance distribution of aid to NDF fighters by the Russians working in the so-called 'reconciliation centre.'

[14] E.g. Post by Saryat Rukn al-Din lil-Maham al-Difa' al-Watani, Aug. 4, 2017.

[15] Post by al-Difa' al-Watani Markaz Dimashq, June 27, 2023.

[16] Interview, February 2019.

[17] Interview, August 2018.

[18] To give an examples of this mixed picture, an IRGC officer appears to occupy an overall oversight role for the LDF network. According to a source linked to the LDF unit Fawj al-Nayrab (conversation, March 2024), Major General Muhammad Reza Zahedi (aka al-Hajj Abu Mahdi), who was killed in the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and was described as head of the IRGC's Quds Force for Syria and Lebanon, was overall overseer of the LDF. At an earlier stage, IRGC officers were overall commanders of at least some 'regional' LDF sectors (the most notable example being al-Hajj Asghar, commander of the 'Idlib sector' and killed in 2020). Conversely, Syrian officers- active or retired- may be assigned or approved by the Syrian military to roles within the LDF's overall command structure. Two prominent examples are the brigadier general Haythan al-Nayef, who occupied a position of 'chief of staff' in the LDF and died in a road accident in 2018, and the retired brigadier general Muhammad Qasim al-Zayn, who returned to occupy position of 'leader of the LDF' in Homs in August 2023 after having been removed from his position in January of that year. His return apparently came by recommendation of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, with agreement and approval from the Syrian military. See post by 'Dani Dani', August 18, 2023.

[19] The best example of this is Suqur al-Sahara' ("The Desert Hawks"), which gained a reputation as one of the most prominent 'private' militias in the Syrian civil war and was dissolved in 2017 with its remnants integrated into the Russian-backed V Corps. As a former field commander of the militia explained in an interview in April 2021, Syria's Defence Ministry assigned officers to work with Suqur al-Sahara' and oversee training. The Defence Ministry also provided weapons to Suqur al-Sahara'. A somewhat similar dynamic is at play with LDF units

[20] See e.g., "Tathir Baldat Hatla bil-Kamil 'Ala Yad Abtal al-Jaysh al-Hur Min Milishiyat al-Shi'a," Hay'at 'Ilam Dayr al-Zur, June 12, 2013. In the video, an insurgent boasts of the 'cleansing' of Hatla from the "Rafidite Shi'a." The seizing of Hatla was also portrayed as revenge for the killing of Sunnis by pro-government forces and allies in Baniyas (in Tartous province) and al-Qusayr (in Homs province) in that same period.

[21] A key figure in the development of Quwat al-Ridha was Hezbollah commander Hamza Ibrahim Haydar, originally from Kafrdan in the Beqaa Valley and killed in al-Khalidiya in Homs in June 2013. He led Quwat al-Ridha during the initial important battles in Homs city. For a brief biography of him, see eulogy post by "Amir Hamud" commemorating the anniversary of Hamza's death, June 29, 2021.

[22] Named after Hezbollah commander Ali Shabib Mahmud (Abu Turab) who had served as an official in Hezbollah's al-Radwan forces and organised the original formation. He was killed in fighting near the Sayyida Zaynab area in November 2013. For information, see Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, "The Special Force: Syrian Hezbollah Unit,", July 29, 2018.

[23] A representative for the scouts confirmed to this author the introduction of this alternative name. Conversation, October 2022.

[24] It has been claimed by pro-opposition sources and some outside observers that Iran has settled foreign Twelver Shi'a en masse in Syria as part of bringing about a broader demographic shift. This particular claim is not supported by any good evidence.

[25] The brigade is named for the fifth Shi'i imam Muhammad al-Baqir.

[26] A somewhat similar observation can be made about the Aleppo-based LDF group Liwa Dushka (aka the Asasina Brigade, whose manpower foundation lies in the Asasina tribe of the Aleppo region). The brigade's commander is one Khalid Jadih (Abu Hasan Dushka), whose relative Hasan Shahid has served as a member of the Syrian parliament for the 2020-2024 period.

[27] Conversation, May 2018.

[28] The formation, which had previously been attached to Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, has been led by al-Hajj Abu al-'Abbas (aka Ahmad Khalil).

[29] Conversation, January 2024. Another person who had been a member of the 313 Force also confirmed that this individual was part of the 313 Force (conversation, April 2024), and said that the 313 Force had three Christian members. For this individual, the presence of Christians was an example of the non-sectarianism of the 'resistance.'

[30] See post by Muhradah al-Tabbiya wa al-Ma'arafiya, May 5, 2022.

[31] "al-'aqid Ghassan Kaykhi yashrahu li-Dam Press Ahdaf wa Tatallu'at Faylaq al-Mudafi'in 'an Halab," Dam Press, August 21, 2017.

[32] Liwa al-Quds, whose origins lay in Syrian-Palestinians in the Aleppo area, was originally attached to the LDF and received Iranian backing, but then switched to nominal affiliation with the military intelligence with Russian financing and training, though Liwa al-Quds in Aleppo still maintains a working relationship with Iran. Interview with a Liwa al-Quds commander, July 2019.

[33] Khalid al-Khatib, "Qa'id Milishiya Iraniya Yumahhid li-Marhala jadida fi Halab...Ma Hiya Abraz Taharrukatihi?", Syria.TV, December 7, 2021. See also post by Liwa al-Quds (al-Junah al-Sayasi) , January 15, 2022.

[34] E.g. A post that circulated on multiple pro-government pages on November 8, 2023, listed 21 personnel killed in an IS attack on Syrian government positions in the Sukhna area in the badiya region. More recently, on April 18, 2024, Liwa al-Quds announced that 21 of its fighters had been killed in an Islamic State ambush on a bus carrying its members in that same region.

[35] This appears to have been a larger 'division' grouping for LDF contingents.

[36] Interview, March 2021.

[37] Conversation, February 2024.

[38] Conversation, March 2024.

[39] For overview and translation, see Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, "Administrative Decisions on Local Defence Forces Personnel: Translation & Analysis,", May 3, 2017.

[40] Interviews and conversations, May 2023-February 2024.

[41] Interview, February 2024.

[42] Conversation, February 2024.

[43] A similar point was made by Carl Yonker and Christopher Solomon in "The Banality of Authoritarian Control: Syria's Ba'ath Party Marches On," Carnegie Endowment, February 19, 2021.

[44] Relatedly, it should be noted that the claim that Israel hit the consulate as a deliberate provocation to elicit an Iranian response against Israel is not plausible. It is far more logical that the consulate was hit in the expectation that it would not provoke an Iranian response because Iran had failed to respond so many times before, and more generally, there has been little accountability about Israeli strikes on Syria.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi


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