Militarily, the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad is the emerging winner of the Syrian civil war, which has ravaged the country for nearly a decade. Politically however, the regime must now negotiate with those players who helped it survive from a place of diminished power.
One of those major players has been the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a powerful paramilitary involved in the war since its beginnings in 2011. Hezbollah kept Assad’s regime afloat while its official military suffered from mass defections, territory losses and mounting casualties.
Now that the regime is looking to reconsolidate, Hezbollah is likely to get a long-term spot within the regime’s military structure according to a report from the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute analyzing the political possibilities for the various pro-regime militias.
That has Israel extremely worried, since it views Hezbollah as a major threat.
So while the battle over who controls Syria is all but over, a subsequent military-diplomatic conflict between Syria and Israel looks to heat up and may shape the future of the region.
Hezbollah’s Growing Presence
A Hezbollah soldier looks on from the Qalamun hills, near the Golan Heights (AFP/FILE)
Swooping in to rescue the embattled Syrian regime, Hezbollah supplemented Assad’s ailing military with a steady stream of well-trained and equipped foot soldiers.
Combined with Russian air support, Assad was able to keep the state afloat, beat back rebel groups and ensure his place as the undisputed political victor.
Negotiating with the Assad regime from a place of strength, Hezbollah’s presence appears poised to be legally entrenched within Syria.
According to the Clingendael report, “the most likely scenarios are that either pro-regime militias will attain legal status as paramilitary forces or that they will be integrated into the SAA [Syrian Arab Army].”
Table showing options for paramilitaries in post-war Syria (Clingendael)
This possibility would guarantee the influence Iran gained during the war to stay and shape the strategic priorities Assad’s regime will have.
Al Bawaba spoke with one of the report’s authors, Nick Grinstead, who is an independent conflict researcher, to understand what Hezbollah’s status as a legal paramilitary could mean.
“Hezbollah already has legal authority to operate in Syria but in the most likely scenario we laid out in our policy brief they would be granted a larger role in training the Syrian armed forces and pro-regime militias,” he said.
Hezbollah’s integration into the Syrian regime’s military structure would closely follow a similar development in Iraq. When ISIS stormed through Iraq’s middle regions and threatened Baghdad, Iran deployed a network of military advisors to form and merge Shia militias together under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).
After ISIS was ousted from the country, the U.S. demanded the PMU be disbanded as an Iranian affront to Iraqi sovereignty. Instead, Iraq legally integrated the PMU into its own military, granting Iran a foothold for the foreseeable future.
In both instances where political vacuums are opened, Iran has gained considered influence by deploying troops and military officials, furthering its reach.
“They [Hezbollah] could be granted a seat in some form of a military or paramilitary council that would take orders from the regime on paper but in actuality would be largely independent and align more closely with Iran's strategic goals in Syria, as opposed to Russia,” Grinstead added.
“Their on-the-ground presence would likely be concentrated in areas in southern Syria close to the Israeli border and to the west near Lebanon,” Grinstead added.
One of Iran’s objectives in its Syrian intervention has been to antagonize Israel and has done so by building up its forces near the Golan Heights.
Both Syria and Israel neighbor the hotly contested Golan Heights region; a strategic mountain range that Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 war and has occupied ever since.
Israel’s Golan Heights Nightmare
A destroyed Israeli tank rests on a hilltop in the Golan Heights (AFP/FILE)
Israel prefers to deal with Assad as its antagonist in Syria rather than Hezbollah, since they consider him a generally more predictable ruler as opposed to Iran.
On this, the report reads: “With a regime ‘win’ supported by Iran and Hezbollah, Israel fears the influence both actors would gain in the future architecture of the Syrian state. Concretely, what that means for Israel is that Syria would transform from the ‘devil they know’ to an actor influenced by Israel’s perceived primary regional threat: Iran.”
Israel has long dreaded the possibility that Hezbollah, among other Iranian-backed groups operating in Syria, could establish a foothold in the war-torn country and target Israel from there. For years, the Israeli military has continually deployed jets to bomb Iranian-linked targets inside Syria.
Despite these strikes, Hezbollah has only grown in stature, and has hunkered down in southern Syria, near the Golan Heights.
Israel, meanwhile, continues to steadily build up its outsized military presence on the Golan Heights, in violation of international law, which recognizes the Golan Heights to be part of Syria.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on March 25 that the U.S. formally recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights ironically boosts both sides.
Israel now has the official approval of the U.S., the most powerful force in the world and one of the international community’s principal rule-makers, to reign over the Golan Heights. Ironically, Hezbollah can use that same announcement to justify its own agenda to oust Israel from the region.
“The U.S.' recognition of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights certainly gives a moral boost to Hezbollah and its allies and further justifies Hezbollah's resistance policies in Syria and Lebanon,” Grinstead said.
“President Trump's recognition did not make clear on the status of the Shebaa Farms which means that Hezbollah will split the difference and use the lack of clarity to support their own propaganda,” he added. The Shebaa Farms is a particularly contested region on the northern tip of the Golan Heights. In Jan 2015, Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli military convoy in the area, killing and wounding several Israeli troops.
Future confrontations like these are all but ensured given Hezbollah’s position in Syria and Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights.
The Israel-Iran Cold War
Israel and Iran have been positioning themselves against one another since Hezbollah’s founding during the Lebanese Civil War. It was established by Iranian and Lebanese officials in 1982 as a way to counter Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, and it immediately found success.
Hezbollah launched a campaign against both Israel and the U.S., which had a contingent of troops in Lebenon, using what was then an unheard of mix of suicide bombings, kidnappings and other terror tactics. Following a massive suicide attack on a barracks, the U.S. pulled out of Lebanon and Israel eventually followed suit, withdrawing entirely from the country in 2000.
Israel and Hezbollah then again engaged in a war with each other in 2006, which stalled as neither side could decisively defeat the other.
The war in Syria has given both sides the ability to operate and organize more freely against each other, where each have launched attacks periodically.
If Hezbollah becomes legally entrenched in Assad’s military as a militia, it will gain even more room to cement its holdings in southern Syria, essentially guaranteeing an escalation in the conflict between it and Israel.
The Russia in Between
A Russian military policeman patrols Aleppo, Syria (AFP/FILE)
Russia, an emerging power-broker in the region, is positioned best to mediate the conflict between Iran and Israel, but even its power is being subtly contested by Iran.
Though Russia sided thoroughly with the regime, it also cooperated with Turkey to delay a regime assault of the last rebel holdout in Idlib, and has tacitly allowed Israel to launch aerial operations against Iran and Hezbollah targets in southern Syria.
Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin has also kept his eyes on Syrian Mediterranean ports and Syria’s need for reconstruction as a means of shoring up his faltering domestic economy. He also sees having influence over Assad as a vital means for solidifying Russia’s influence more generally in the Middle East.
Along with a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah stewing, Nick Grinstead sees a growing spat between Russia and Iran for post-war influence over Assad’s regime.
According to him, Russia may threaten the long-term viability of Iran’s project to establish an uninterrupted land corridor of influence spanning from Lebanon to Tehran if that project undercuts Putin’s attempts to corner elements of the Syrian economy.
Additionally, Russia prefers that paramilitaries like Hezbollah operating in Syria are entirely integrated into the SAA or disbanded, which would disempower Iran’s long-term influence over the Syrian regime. At the same time, Russia has leased two military bases in Syria’s western Latakia region potentially until the end of the century.
All this means that the region’s best-positioned mediator, Russia, may not be able to effectively stymie a conflict between Iran and Israel.
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