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January 28, 2015 No.
1138

Following Killing Of Hizbullah Operative Jihad Mughniyah, New Information Comes To Light Regarding Hizbullah, Iranian Activity In Syrian Golan On Israeli Border

Introduction

The death of six Hizbullah operatives in a January 18, 2015 airstrike in the Syrian Golan, including two senior organization members - Muhammad Ahmad 'Issa, known as Abu 'Issa, and Jihad Mughniyah, the son of 'Imad Mughniyah, Hizbullah's chief operations officer who was killed in 2008 - placed the issue of Hizbullah's military presence in the Syrian Golan, its character and its purpose, back in the spotlight. Also killed in the airstrike were operatives from the Qods Force in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), among them Gen. Mohammed 'Ali Allahdadi.[1]

Hizbullah and IRGC forces are known to have been assisting the Syrian regime in fighting the rebels since an early stage of the Syrian uprising. Initially this help was extended in secret, but gradually it became open, despite criticism and objections from various elements in Lebanon. Hizbullah and its patron Iran consider their presence in Syria crucial, not only in order to assist the Syrian regime but also in order to defend the resistance axis at large. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah emphasized on several occasions that the war against Bashar Al-Assad is not a popular uprising against his regime but rather a war declared by the Islamists, the West and Israel against the resistance axis, which is fighting for its life. In a May 25, 2015 speech, he said: "...Syria is no longer an arena for a popular rebellion against a political regime, but rather an arena for imposing a political plan led by the U.S., the West, and their lackeys in the region... Syria is the backbone and mainstay of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand by with its hands tied when its backbone is exposed and its mainstay is broken.[2] He said further: "Any strike on Syrian soil is a strike against the entire resistance axis... and the entire resistance axis has the right to respond, not just Syria."[3]

 

Reports in the Arab media - especially the media affiliated with opponents of Hizbullah and the resistance axis - provide numerous details on Hizbullah's presence in Syria and in particular its military activity in the Syrian Golan. For example, reports have it that Hizbullah dispatched its Druze Lebanese operative Samir Al-Quntar to Druze villages in the Mount Hermon area in Syria to form a pro-Assad militia there.[4] A former pro-Syrian Lebanese minister, the Druze Wiam Wahhab, said that the six Hizbullah operatives killed in Quneitra had "helped the Druze in Syria, [and] had trained people to defend themselves and armed them. They did a lot to defend the Druze, along with the brothers from the IRGC."[5]

Some reports revealed that Hizbullah's activity in the Golan was not aimed exclusively at assisting Assad against the rebels, but also to consolidate the organization's presence there in preparation for opening up a new front against Israel. In this context, Syrian opposition elements reported in October 2014 that Jihad Mughniyah had been appointed as Hizbullah's commander of operations against Israel in the Golan.

However, despite Syrian, Iranian and Hizbullah threats regarding the opening of a front in the Golan,[6] Nasrallah has recently been trying to downplay the importance of Hizbullah's presence there. In a January 15, 2015 interview with the Al-Mayadin channel, he said that Hizbullah had no military presence in the Golan but was only assisting the Syrian resistance: "What is happening in the Golan is Syrian resistance. Hizbullah has no military force carrying out resistance operations there... We may be helping, assisting or training some of the [Syrian] resistance groups, or providing some of their needs."[7] However, Lebanese media close to Hizbullah, as well as Syrian opposition elements, have revealed much information to the contrary.  This information includes further details on Hizbullah's activity and preparations in the Golan and the establishment of a force that would act against Israel from this region and from the Syrian Mount Hermon area. It was also reported that IRGC officers were present in bases on the Israeli border. These reports shed light on the scope of the involvement of Iran and the IRGC, and of organizations they sponsor, such as Hizbullah, in Syria and especially in the Golan.[8]      

This article reviews the numerous details that have recently come to light regarding the activity of Hizbullah and the IRGC in the Syrian Golan.

'Al-Akhbar' Journalists: Hizbullah Establishing Syrian Force In Golan For Attacks On Israel; Resistance Frontline Stretches From Mediterranean To Syrian Golan; Iran Is On Israel's Border

Firas Al-Shoufi, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, referred to the organization's activity in the Golan in an article he published on January 19, 2015, one day after the airstrike in which the Hizbullah operatives and Iranian general were killed. According to him, Hizbullah and the Syrian regime are working in concert to establish a military force to carry out resistance operations against Israel. He wrote: "It is no secret that, over the past year, the resistance [Hizbullah] and Syrian security apparatuses have been trying to establish [in the Syrian Golan] a well-trained and well-equipped force comprised of Golan  villagers, in order to defend villages close to the border with the occupied Golan and occupied Palestine against terrorist attacks; as well as another force for carrying out resistance operations from the Golan and Mount Hermon against the Israeli enemy only. Incidentally, [these operations] are not restricted to the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, since reports coming from the Lebanese side of the mountain indicate that [the towns of] Hasbaya and Shab'a [in the Lebanese Golan] will also be part of any future campaign with Israel,[9] as will the villages in the central and western [parts] of South Lebanon [that border the Galilee]." Al-Shoufi cited security sources in Quneitra as saying that "eliminating a number of field commanders on the ground will not weaken the activity in the Golan. On the contrary, the blood of the martyrs will only strengthen the resolve of the resistance fighters... Israel can no longer separate the fronts stretching from Ras Nakura [Rosh HaNikra, the westernmost point on the Israel-Lebanon border]  to the Golan and Al-Suwayda [in southwestern Syria]."[10]

A January 19 article in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir likewise stated that the airstrike had contributed to the formation of "Israel's [new] northern border, [stretching] from Ras Nakura south [of Lebanon] to Quneitra in the Golan... which means widening the geographical margins of the resistance activity."[11]

Two days later, Al-Shoufi published another article, in which he wrote that at least six months before Hizbullah had announced its intention to establish a resistance force in the Golan, Assad had given it permission to "start organizing a ground force comprised of residents of the [Syrian] Golan that would carry out attacks against the [Israeli] occupation forces."[12]

Another Al-Akhbar columnist, Wafiq Qanso, also wrote on the day following the attack that this operation had provided the resistance with "the justification to continue working with the Syrians to create a supportive and active Syrian environment that would [facilitate] the establishment of a resistance movement in the Golan - [work] which had already been underway and even at advanced stages [at the time of the attack]. The attack will catalyze steps in this direction and even increase them twofold."[13]

Jordanian Al-Akhbar columnist Nahed Hattar claimed that the first step towards reestablishing what he called "natural Syria" (i.e. greater Syria or Al-Sham) was "unifying the resistance in South Lebanon and the Golan, [a step] which is [now] being taken in practice."[14]

On January 28, 2015, Hizbullah retaliated for the killing of its operatives with an attack on an IDF patrol, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven were wounded. The following day, Ibrahim Al-Amin, board chairman of Al-Akhbar, threatened in an article that an Israeli invasion of the Syrian Golan would be met with a response from the IRGC, which would dispatch large forces to defend the area. He wrote: "I believe that, if the enemy decides to widen [the scope of] the conflict, it should expect further blows, even harsher than yesterday's [blow]. If [the enemy] engages in special operations inside Syria or Lebanon, it should expect a response. If, finding itself on the edge of the abyss, it decides to launch an [actual] ground campaign on the border of the occupied Golan [i.e., inside the Syrian Golan] rather than in South Lebanon, it should expect to find the resistance there. What [the enemy] has perhaps not anticipated, but I do anticipate, is that tens of thousands of IRGC troops will then arrive in the conflict zone with all their gear and weapons."[15]

Al-Akhbar columnist Sami Kleib, also referring to Hizbullah's January 28 attack, wrote that the battlefront with Israel now stretches from Palestine to Iran, and that Iran is now on Israel's border. "Perhaps the new and most important [message] that Hizbullah wanted to convey [in its operation yesterday] was that this operation demonstrated the inevitable connection between the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. More than that: it demonstrated the inevitable connection between the [various] fronts stretching from Palestine, through Syria and Lebanon, to Iran. The operation was revenge not only for Hizbullah's martyrs in Quneitra but also for the Iranian general and for Syrian officers and soldiers. This is what Israel must now greatly fear: Iran is [right] on its borders." [16]   

Jihad Mughniyah - Hizbullah's Commander Of Operations In Golan

As noted, one of the senior Hizbullah operatives who were killed in the January 18, 2015 airstrike was Jihad Mughniyah, in his early twenties, the son of ÔÇÿImad Mughniyah, Hizbullah's chief operations officer who was killed in 2008 in central Damascus. Jihad was reportedly close to the Hizbullah leadership and the IRGC. In October 2014, it was reported that he had been appointed Hizbullah's commander of operations in the Syrian Golan. Moayyed Ghazlan, a member of the general secretariat of the oppositionist Syrian National Council, told CNN Arabic on October 12, 2014 that Mughniyah had been placed in charge of the Golan dossier, and that he had begun mobilizing elements from Hizbullah, as well as local elements in the Golan, in order to strengthen Hizbullah's presence in Syria. Ghazlan also stated that Mughniyah had been appointed to this role thanks to his close ties with Nasrallah, with Mustafa Badr Al-Din, who is considered to be Hizbullah's current chief operations officer, and with the IRGC, and that his appointment "indicates that Hizbullah is planning a security and strategic escalation in Syria in the coming period."[17] 

In a eulogy published in Al-Akhbar two days after the attack, Hadi Ahmad wrote: "There are widespread rumors regarding your role, including that you were  appointed commander of operations in the occupied Golan [meaning in Israeli territory]."[18]

According to a January 19, 2015 report in Al-Arabiya, Mughniyah attended the American University in Lebanon and became active in Hizbullah in 2008, following his father's death. The report claimed further that he had undergone military training in Lebanon and Iran, and was a prot├®g├® of Nasrallah and of IRGC Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani.  Unlike other reports, this one claimed that Abu 'Issa, the other Hizbullah operative killed in the attack, was the organization's commander of operations in the Golan, rather than Mughniyah himself, and that Mughniyah was the commander of a Hizbullah company in the Quneitra area, under Abu 'Issa.[19]

A report published in Al-Akhbar on January 18, one day after Jihad Mughniyah's death, possibly provides some indication regarding his plans in the Golan. According to the report, during a party held by Mughniyah's extended family one week before he was killed, young family members were asked to mention some of their plans for the new year. According to the daily, Mughniyah himself refused to speak and merely said: "I will announce my plans to you next week."[20]


Jihad Mughniyah with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (image: Farsi.khamenei.ir, January 20, 2015)


Left: Jihad Mughniyah with Hassan Nasrallah; right: Jihad Mughniyah with his father, ÔÇÿImad Mughniyah (images: Alarabiya.net, October 13, 2014)


Jihad Mughniyah with IRGC Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani (image: Alarabiya.net, October 13, 2014)

Syrian Opposition Sources: Capture Of Tal Al-Harrah Exposed Hizbullah's Deep Involvement In Golan

Extensive information on Hizbullah's presence in the Golan and on the nature of its activity there was revealed in early October 2014 by the Syrian opposition, after various Syrian rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat Al-Nusra fighters, captured Tal Al-Harrah, a strategic hill in the Quneitra area.[21] The strategic importance of Tal Al-Harrah lies not only in the fact that it overlooks a wide area of the Syrian Golan, stretching as far as Rif Dimashq. It is also the location of a large intelligence base of the Syrian army, which reportedly served the Russian army as well. In a video posted on the Internet, FSA officers reported on what they had found in the base after they captured it. The findings indicate that it was a joint Syrian-Russian intelligence and espionage post for collecting information on Israel.[22] Other videos of the base after its capture, released by the FSA and Jabhat Al-Nusra, also show Hizbullah flags and the bodies of Hizbullah soldiers, indicating that operatives from this organization were likewise present there in recent months.[23] 

In addition, according to Syrian opposition elements, the FSA captured many Hizbullah intelligence documents that shed light on the organization's activity and plans in the Golan. Moayyed Ghazlan told CNN Arabic: "In capturing the strategic Tal Al-Harrah, we exposed Hizbullah's massive involvement in the Golan. We discovered [evidence] that Hizbullah has many posts there [in the Golan], as well as evidence tying it to plots concerning the Golan... The evidence uncovered in Tal Al-Harrah... proves that Hizbullah has long-term plans for this area."[24] Firas Al-Shoufi claimed that materials seized at the base were transferred to Israel in broad daylight via the Quneitra crossing.[25]

Syrian Opposition Sources: Hizbullah, IRGC, Russian Experts, Stationed In Several Bases In Syrian Golan, Are Independently Directing Campaign Against Rebels

Reports in the Arab media also mentioned the IRGC's presence in the Syrian Golan. The London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat cited Syrian opposition elements as saying that both Hizbullah and IRGC soldiers have been present in the Golan for some time. According to these sources, "Hizbullah's fighters and experts have been in Quneitra since May 2013, when Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah first announced that his organization would 'stand by the popular Syrian resistance and provide it with aid, coordination, training and cooperation in order to liberate the Syrian Golan.'" The sources also claimed that Hizbullah "has effectively been directing the military campaign in the Quneitra region since March [2014], assisted by Iranian officers.ÔÇØ[26]

Another report, by Syrian opposition official and director of the Syria Press Agency Maher Al-Hamdan, was published in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar. According to him, the Syrian opposition forces that captured the base in Tal Al-Harrah seized advanced Russian-made systems that were found there. He claimed further that, since the capture of Tal Al-Harrah, the Syrian regime has reinforced other bases in the Golan, with the assistance of Hizbullah and IRGC forces. According to Al-Hamdan, Jihad Mughniyah was in charge of the Quneitra city center area, and according to some reports IRGC Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani also stayed there a short while.

According to Al-Hamdan, the airstrike in which the Hizbullah and IRGC operatives were killed took place in the town Mazari' Al-Amal in the rural area north of Quneitra, and also targeted a military patrol base. Also in the region is a regime infantry base that houses Russian drone monitoring systems. Russian experts, as well as a Hizbullah-IRGC military contingent that provides security for these experts, are also stationed in the area. Al-Hamdan added that several dozen Hizbullah and IRGC operatives were killed in the airstrike and one Russian expert was lightly wounded.

Al-Hamdan provided a detailed list of the most important Hizbullah and IRGC bases in the Quneitra area, as follows:

"Tal Al-Sha'ar regional [base] in the rural area north of Quneitra, or more precisely in the town of Ayouba. This is the main military stronghold remaining to the Assad forces in Quneitra. It serves Russian and Iranian experts, as well as Hizbullah soldiers, as the main base for directing the battles in [this region], and also houses advanced Russian-made espionage systems.

"Division 90 base, located in the northern Al-Koum area in the rural area north of Quneitra, is considered a major planning base for IRGC, Hizbullah and regime commanders, and for Russian military experts.

"Vanguard and infantry bases, both located near Mazari' Al-Amal, considered to be spy bases managed by military experts. They house Hizbullah and IRGC military units; Tal Al-Ahmar serves as their [main] base.

"Tal Al-Ahmar, located in the town 'Ain Al-Nouriyya east of Mazari' Al-Amal. This is the second strongest military stronghold in Quneitra [after Tal Al-Sha'ar]. It houses advanced Russian-made systems and is a stronghold for Hizbullah units and IRGC and Russian experts, and is tasked with managing the battles in the rural area north of Quneitra. It is adjacent to Tal Al-Sha'ar and the Division 90 [base].

"Patrol unit camp, located in the town of Al-Shuhada (Al-Ba'th), houses Hizbullah and Iranian IRGC units that do not exceed 75 troops [altogether], including high-ranking military commanders who oversee the battles against the rebels in the area of the [Quneitra] border crossing. They are responsible for defending the [Quneitra] city center so it does not fall into rebel hands."[27]

Article In Syrian Government Daily 'Teshreen': Hizbullah's Presence In Golan A Strategic Necessity

In an article published January 20, 2015, two days after the Golan airstrike, Salim Harba, a columnist for the Syrian government daily Teshreen, admitted that Hizbullah was present in Quneitra. He described its presence in the Golan as a strategic necessity, due to the need to protect Lebanon and Hizbullah against Syrian terrorists aided by Israel. He wrote: "It is no secret that Hizbullah is in Syria. The lord of resistance, Hassan Nasrallah, already said [in the past] that 'Hizbullah will be where it needs to be,' and it has indeed been [present] in Quneitra.

"If Hizbullah's presence in Syria is a strategic necessity, stemming from the need to defend Lebanon and the resistance against terror - following the principle that 'prevention is better than cure' and as part of the strategy of defense outside the fortified walls - then its presence in Quneitra is no less strategic and necessary than its presence in Al-Qusayr and Al-Qalamoun [in western Syria]."

Harba claimed that the Syrian terror organizations, headed by Jabhat Al-Nusra and with Israeli guidance and support, attempted to reach South Lebanon in order to fight Hizbullah. This, in order to "create a bridge between the terrorist organizations in Mount Hermon and those in Al-Qalamoun [to the north], so that the Zionist entity and its terrorist gangs would form a terrorist wedge dividing the resistance from the Syrian army and blocking the supply routes and the passages between Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, Hizbullah's presence in the rural area around Quneitra was a strategic necessity as preventive defense for [Hizbullah] and for its surroundings..."[28]

Bashar Al-Assad In 2013: "The Golan Will Become A Resistance Front"

Nasrallah and Assad threatened in the past that the resistance front would expand from South Lebanon to the Syrian Golan. In May 2013, following airstrikes on Syrian soil that were attributed to Israel, targeting Iranian missiles intended for Hizbullah, Assad declared that the Syrian Golan would "become a resistance front".[29] Nasrallah threatened: "We in the Lebanese resistance announce that we will stand by the Syrian popular resistance and provide it with material and moral support, as well as coordination and cooperation, in order to liberate the Syrian Golan."[30]

In May 2013, Al-Akhbar board chairman Ibrahim Al-Amin also referred to the resistance front expanding from Lebanon to Syria and even broached the idea of eliminating the border between the two states to create a single front with Israel. He wrote: "All must conduct themselves on the basis of an effective expansion of the northern front [from Lebanon towards Syria]. In the near future we may see continued calm on the Lebanese border [with Israel], while the hottest front will be on Palestine's border with Syria [in the Golan]... Simply put, we will witness a new level of unity between the Lebanese resistance and Syria... This means that the possibility of a total conflict [in the region], which will leave no borders between Lebanon and Syria, is very real."[31]

In a May 18, 2013 article, Al-Amin wrote in Al-Akhbar: "The front of active resistance against the enemy has expanded [to include the Golan]. Those who like to document [facts] must familiarize themselves in detail with the geography of the occupied Golan and grow accustomed to the names of the towns, sites, and centers of commerce, industry, and tourism [there], and prepare [to learn] different facts."[32] The same day Al-Akhbar published a map of the Golan marking various sites including the town of Katzrin, the Ski resort on Mount Hermon and an IDF listening post.


(Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, May 18, 2014)

The suggestion to unite the resistance front recurred in a recent Al-Akhbar article by Jordanian columnist Nahed Hattar, who wrote on January 23, 2015: "The Golan is neither South Lebanon nor Gaza, [but] a pan-Arab arena common to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. From this day onward there is no place for partial resistance and partial national programs. There will be no victory no future without a unified resistance, a unified leadership and a unified purpose: an independent unified East without Israel, without reactionism and without sectarian and ethnic distinctions...ÔÇØ[33]

 

 

 

* Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel; H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

 

Endnotes: 

 

[1] Tabnak (Iran), January 18, 2015. Some reports had it that six IRGC operatives were killed in the strike, but Iran confirmed only the death of Allahdadi.

[2] See MEMRI reports: Inquiry & Analysis No. 916, "Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria," January 3, 2013; Inquiry & Analysis No. 980, "Lebanon Openly Enters Fighting In Syria," June 13, 2013.

[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 15, 2015.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 8, 2014.

[5] LDC television channel (Lebanon), January 22, 2015.

[6] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5307, "Assad And His Allies Threaten To Open A Front In Golan Heights," May 21, 2013.

[7] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 15, 2015.

[8] Reports in the Arab media indicate that Iran has established a "Syrian Hizbullah" comprising Syrian troops that receive orders directly from Iran and are loyal to Iran, similar to the Lebanese Hizbullah. A MEMRI report on this topic is forthcoming.

[9] In October 2014,  Al-Akhbar reported that Hizbullah had returned to operate openly in this area, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5857, Daily Close To Hizbullah: In Violation Of UNSCR 1701, Hizbullah Has Resumed Operations South Of The Litani River, October 13, 2014.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 19, 2015.

[11] Al-Safir (Lebanon), January 19, 2015.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 21, 2015.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 21, 2015.

[14] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 21, 2015.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 29, 2015.

[16] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 29, 2015.

[17] Arabic.cnn.com, October 12, 2014.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 20, 2015.

[19] Alarabiya.net, January 19, 2015.

[20] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 19, 2015.

[21] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2014.

[24] Arabic.cnn.com, October 12, 2014.

[25] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 19, 2015.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 20, 2015.

[27] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), January 19, 2015.

[28] Teshreen (Syria), January 20, 2015.

[29] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), Almayadeen.net, May 7, 2013.

[30] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 10, 2013. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5307, "Assad And His Allies Threaten To Open A Front In Golan Heights," May 21, 2013.

[31] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27, 2013. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 980, "Lebanon Openly Enters Fighting In Syria," June 13, 2013.

[32] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5307, "Assad And His Allies Threaten To Open A Front In Golan Heights," May 21, 2013.

[33] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 23, 2015.