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memri
July 19, 2018 No.
1408

Contrary To The Understandings Reached With Russia, Iranian And Iran-Affiliated Forces Are Participating In The Fighting In Southern Syria

By: O. Peri*

Recently, the Syrian army and the forces that back it, with the support of the Russians, managed to take control of a large part of the Dar'a governorate in southern Syria. This occurred following a military campaign against Syrian opposition factions that began on June 19, 2018. The very fact that this offensive took place in that area, as well as the participation of the Russian forces in it, constitute a violation of the de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria that was signed by Russia, the United States, and Jordan in November 2017.[1]

Before the operation was launched, calls were increasing for the withdrawal from southern Syria of Iranian forces, Hizbullah, and the other Shi'ite militias subordinate to Iran. Israel and Jordan were the main voices warning against the Iranian presence there, due to concern about its proximity to their borders, and the U.S. cautioned against it as well. Intensive consultations took place among the U.S., Russia, Jordan and Israel, and according to reports, the parties arrived at agreements about the withdrawal of the Iranian and Shi'ite forces from southern Syria. At one point, senior Russian officials, headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, spoke about an imminent withdrawal of the non-Syrian armed forces from the southern border.[2]

However, it appears that once again Russia violated understandings that had been reached. From many reports published in the Syrian media, especially on Syrian opposition websites and on social networks, it emerges that the pro-Iranian Shi'ite militias have not only remained in southern Syria, but have even strengthened their presence there – and that Russia is aware of this. Several of the Shi'ite militias even announced their presence themselves on social media, posting photographs of their operatives in the region. One of the photographs showed the commander of a Shi'ite militia in southern Syria standing beside a Russian officer.

In addition, numerous reports indicate that the Iranian forces, Hizbullah, and the Shi'ite militias participated in the fighting in southern Syria dressed in Syrian army uniforms so as to disguise their presence there. This casts doubt on all future understandings that may be achieved between the international and regional players with respect to the presence of Iranian forces and their supporters on the borders with Israel and Jordan.

The following review presents several of the reports and photographs that reveal the participation of Iranian and Iran-affiliated forces in the fighting in southern Syria.

Photos, Reports Of Iranian Forces And Shi'ite Militias Participating In Campaign For Southern Syria

Despite reports that the Iranian and Shi'ite forces have withdrawn from southern Syria, other reports and photos, published both before and during the campaign to recapture the area, indicate that these forces are in fact deployed there and are participating in the fighting alongside the regime army. On June 8, 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Iranian forces had rejected the Russian proposal that they withdraw from the Dar'a and Quneitra areas, and from all of the southern regions, and redeploy in central Syria, and that they agreed to withdraw only if the U.S. forces withdrew from their base in Al-Tanf on the Syria-Iraq border. The organization added that it had yet to discern any signs that the Iranian, Afghan, Asian, or Iraqi forces and militias, or Hizbullah, were evacuating their bases in Syria.[3]

On June 6, the Qatari London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi quoted a commander in the Southern Front – an umbrella organization of the rebel factions in the Dar'a and Quneitra areas – as saying that "the Iranian forces and Hizbullah are still present in Dar'a governorate and in the rural area southeast of Damascus, and have headquarters in several villages there, most prominently in Talul Fatima." The commander claimed further that an operations officer from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Khalil Takhti Nejad, had been killed in exchanges of fire between rebel factions and Iranian forces near Deir Al-'Adas in the northwestern Dar'a governorate.[4]

Reports indicate that not only have the Iranian and Shi'ite forces not withdrawn from southern Syria, they have actually increased their presence there. For example, on June 22, the oppositionist Syrian website orient-news.net reported that some 100 operatives of the Shi'ite Al-Quwa Al-Ja'fariyya militia, comprising mainly fighters from Lebanon and Iraq, had arrived in the vicinity of Al-Sheikh Maskin, south of Dar'a, "with five tanks, armored vehicles, and medium and heavy weapons."[5]


Fighters of the Shi'ite Al-Quwa Al-Ja'fariyya militia

On June 13 the website reported that Hizbullah and Iranian militias had redeployed near the Golan as well. Citing local sources, it added that some 300 members of the Palestinian Liwaa Al-Quds militia, along with trained units of the Iraqi Liwa Abu Fadl Al-'Abbas militia, had deployed in government buildings in the Quneitra area, including the Education Authority building in the city of Ba'th.[6]

Photos of these forces and their commanders were circulated on social networks and in the Syrian media. On July 1, for example, the "Republican Guards – Liwa Abu Fadl" Facebook page posted images of the militia commander, Maher 'Ajib Jazza, arriving in the vicinity of the towns of Tafas and Da'el north of Dar'a.[7]


"The arrival of the heroes of the Republican Guards and the Liwa Abu Fadl Al-'Abbas elite forces in [the towns of] Tafas and Da'el"

On July 7, the oppositionist website enabbaladi.net posted another photo that had been circulating on social media, showing Jazza with a Russian officer at a Da'el school that serves as the militia's headquarters.[8]


On June 26, the Facebook page of the Iraqi Shi'ite Liwa Dhu Al-Fiqar militia announced that its members were fighting alongside the regime forces in the Dar'a area, and added photos of its fighters and Syrian soldiers in the city of Buser Al-Harir east of this city.[9]


"Fighters of the Arab Syrian army and the Islamic resistance [militia] Liwa Dhu Al-Fiqar in the heart of Buser Al-Harir"

Reports: Iranian And Hizbullah Forces, Shi'ite Militia Members Fight In Syrian Uniform To Conceal Their Presence

Numerous reports, both in oppositionist and pro-opposition Syrian websites and in media outlets that support Hizbullah and the Assad regime, stated that members of the Shi'ite militias are fighting in southern Syria as part of the regime forces, wearing Syrian army uniforms to conceal their presence there. The Southern Front commander quoted by the Qatari London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated that the Iranian and Hizbullah troops fighting in the Dar'a governorate "wear the uniform and emblems of the Syrian government forces and fly the Syrian flag on their vehicles." Similarly, the head of the political bureau of the Jaysh Al-Yarmouk rebel faction, Bashar Al-Zu'abi, told Al-Quds Al-Arabi on June 18 that the no Iranian or Iran-affiliated militias had withdrawn from southern Syria. What looks like a withdrawal, he said, is simply a tactical measure by these militias, as part of which they retreat from their bases on the Israel border and then return wearing Syria army uniform and reinforced by Syrian army troops.[10]

The oppositionist orient-news.net website likewise reported, on June 17, that fighters from the Iranian militias and the Palestinian Liwa Al-Quds militia had reinforced their presence in southern Syria, wearing Syrian army uniforms and riding vehicles belonging to the Fifth and Seventh Divisions of the Syrian army. Sources told the website that over 500 fighters from these militias were deployed near the villages of Al-Tayha, Shams and Himrit.[11]

The Turkey-based Nors Studies institute, which publishes many reports on the military situation in Syria, stated in a June 14 report that "Iran has started integrating its militias into Syria army divisions." The report added: "Recently, we monitored the presence of the [Shi'ite Iraqi militia] Liwa Abu Al-Fadl Al-'Abbas in Quneitra [and found its members to be wearing] uniforms of the National Defense [Forces, units founded by the Syrian regime to fight the rebels]. Even before this, we were aware that troops of the Lebanese Iranian party [i.e., Hizbullah], as well as Iranian experts, were part of the [Syrian] 121st Division, some of which has moved from the rural area of Damascus to the rural area of Quneitra..."[12]

As mentioned, similar reports appeared in the media supporting or affiliated with the Syrian regime army and Hizbullah. Ibrahim Al-Amin, chief editor of the pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, wrote on July 2 that, as part of understandings between the Assad regime, Hizbullah and Iran, the latter two had agreed "to avoid embarrassing the regime in front of the Russians and the Russians in front of others by integrating Hizbullah forces that are participating in the fighting in southern Syria into the forces of the Syrian army."[13]

Conversely, the e-daily Rai Al-Yawm, owned by journalist 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, denied that the Hizbullah was camouflaging its fighters as Syrian soldiers. On June 28 it reported that Hizbullah was participating in the battles in southern Syria and that, "in contrast to what has been claimed on [Syrian] opposition websites – that the organization's troops are fighting in Syrian army uniforms out of awareness of the sensitivity of the region – Hizbullah is [actually] fighting [there] openly, with its ordinary units."[14]

 

*O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 


[1] It should be noted that Russia claims that the campaign in southern Syria stems from violations by "groups of terrorist extremists" against the Syrian regime forces, and that it hasn't reneged on the de-escalation agreement. Facebook.com/Russianmilitaryinsyaria, June 27, 2018.

[2] Reuters.com, May 30, 2018.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 9, 2018.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 6, 2018.

[5] Orient-news.net, June 22, 2018.

[6] Orient-news.net, June 13, 2018.

[7] The Republican Guards – Liwa Abu Fadl Facebook page, July 1, 2018.

[8] Enabbaladi.net, July 4, 2018.

[9] Facebook page of the Iraqi Shi'ite Liwa Dhu Al-Fiqar militia, June 26, 2018.

[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 18, 2018.

[11] Orient-news.net, June 17, 2018.

[12] Norsforstudies.org, June 14, 2018.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 2, 2018.

[14] Raialyoum.com, June 28, 2018.