June 19, 2014 | Now Lebanon
The Devil You Don’t Know
As Washington's anxiety grows over the territorial gains made by the jihadist outfit, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the White House showed its cards when it immediately announced that it would turn to Iran to deal with the situation in Iraq. The administration had to downplay its initial declarations about military cooperation with Tehran, especially after the Pentagon publicly rejected it. Nevertheless, the impulse behind the administration's statements and its preoccupation with Sunni jihadists carry implications for Syria, where the US is focused not only on ISIS, but also on Jabhat al-Nusra – particularly in the south of the country.
The conventional view holds that Nusra poses the biggest emerging threat to Israel, Jordan, and, ultimately, to the West. Addressing this threat, in Washington’s view, is the foremost priority. To do so, some prefer Assad regime institutions controlling the border to the volatility in place today. The problem is, more than three years into the war, that's not a real option. It is, rather, nostalgia for a status quo that no longer exists. According to Dr. Shimon Shapira, a retired Brigadier General in the IDF, that status quo is irretrievable, even if Assad were to regain control once more. “If Assad survives, things will not be like before,” Shapira told me. “We have newcomers. It will not be the same.”
The newcomers, of course, are the Iranians. Put differently, pressuring moderate rebel factions to open a new front against Nusra at this time would fragment their resources with the result that Iran will come out the winner, positioning itself on another of Israel's borders as well as Jordan's.
In fact, the Assad regime's counteroffensive to reclaim lost ground in the south is being spearheaded by Iranian assets like Hezbollah. In a recent article, Shapira outlined how Tehran's strategy is to set up a Hezbollah structure in Syria. In particular, he pointed out how “in the buds of 'Hizbullah Syria' lay the infrastructure for enhanced Iranian subversion in the Golan Heights, which is perceived by Iran as a new and extended confrontation line with Israel in light of the changing regional landscape.”
This, in part, is why Shapira thinks that the focus on Nusra as the principal threat in the Golan and southern Syria “is a mistake.” Shapira sees that the Iranians are behind “a new phenomenon” which he calls the Soleimani plan, named for Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. The plan, hatched during Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s visit to Iran last year, consists of establishing a sectarian militia, backed by imported Shiite groups, that would be integrated with the regime’s army.
The idea of force integration is already evident in Lebanon and Iraq, where Iranian assets maintain a synergy with so-called state institutions. This Iranian set-up is why the former status quo in Syria – what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as “the devil you know” – is gone. Should the regime reestablish control over the border region with Israel, it will bring with it this Iranian force, which, Shapira adds, “will operate from the Golan” against Israel.
Hezbollah propaganda has been zeroing in on the prospect of “resistance” operations in the Golan, supposedly by “unknown parties,” and Nasrallah announced in May his readiness to support such operations. Nasrallah had taken credit for a roadside bomb attack against the IDF in the Golan back in March, which underscored this emerging reality. For this reason, Shapira says, “Iran won’t let the rebels control Quneitra.” Indeed, Hezbollah has been leading the charge in southern Syrian towns like Nawa as well as in Quneitra.
As a result, late last month an unnamed Israeli military officer was quoted as saying that the IDF was closely monitoring the presence of Hezbollah elements in the Golan, particularly after Nasrallah’s threat. The officer added that this state of alert was also the result of “Hezbollah dispatching, in recent months, elements of an unknown group to carry out operations against the Israeli military along the border.”
The precedent of Hezbollah using an unknown group is well established. The group has done it repeatedly in Lebanon when it needed to carry out operations and maintain deniability, often pinning it on obscure “Sunni jihadist” outfits. The added benefit was that Hezbollah could also claim to be the preferred alternative to such jihadist groups. But more importantly, as Shapira noted, an operational base in the Golan would add to Hezbollah’s deterrence. This way, Hezbollah hopes to introduce new rules of engagement, reminiscent of those that prevailed in Lebanon prior to 2006, enabling it to strike at Israel while avoiding devastating retaliation in Lebanon.
This assessment raises interesting questions about priorities in southern Syria so long as Assad remains in power. If the White House hopes to push the Syrian rebels to open another front against Nusra under the existing dynamics, it is misguided. For one, the rebels have resisted this proposal, despite some recent tensions with Nusra. But more importantly, such a step would come as a net gain for the Iranians. The reality is that a nostalgic return to the old status quo is no longer an option. Rather, the actual choice at this time in southern Syria is between the rebel conglomerate of local rebels and Nusra, and Iran’s militia force setting up shop in the Golan.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.