As Syria’s center begins to crumble, regime allies are realizing it’s Every Man for Himself.
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Since late January, the tide of Syria’s revolution has turned significantly in favor of Opposition forces. Tabqa Dam is in rebel hands; al-Jarrah airbase was stormed and numerous aircraft were recovered, spawning the creation of a new FSA Air Force brigade; the Nayrab military airport, Aleppo International airport, Kwaires airbase, Minnegh airbase, Deyr Ezzour airport, and Damascus International are all under siege; Damascene suburbs are falling weekly to Opposition forces pushing inwards from the south and east, including the major industrial center of Adraa; with the exception of a few Shia strongholds like Nubl and Zahra, most of Aleppo’s rural western and northern regions have been liberated; a steady flow of Balkan and Eastern European weapons, likely shipped from large Libyan stores, is being directed toward moderate FSA units via Turkish and Jordanian supply routes. As the pace of Opposition victories and gains is now rapidly increasing, allies of the regime are beginning to shift to contingency mentalities in order to preserve their own various interests when the regime falls.
Hezbollah, in particular, has made the news in recent days in the wake of an FSA ultimatum aimed at forcing the Shia militant group out of western Syria. It is no secret that Hezbollah has trained pro-regime forces within Syria, has set up training camps in the country’s west, and has even sent its own fighters and commanders to bolster Syrian Army efforts on the ground. Hezbollah, of course, relies on the Syrian regime and Syrian territory as conduits for much of its materiel support, and as a crescent of political alliance linking Iran to Lebanon. This important lifeline to the Islamic Republic is not one that Hezbollah is willing to give up, which explains, in part, its activity. However, As a recent Al-Monitor article noted, there are deeper interests–not inclusive of the Assad regime–that motivate Hezbollah’s activity inside Syria.
Hermel, the area from which much of Hezbollah’s recent cross-border shelling has originated, is a Shia district in the Beqaa Valley. Hermel and most of the Beqaa Governorate itself are home territories for Hezbollah due to the large amount of Shias concentrated there. As a rule that applies for much of the Middle East, territorial boundaries created by the European Mandate system are not reflective of geographic divisions between ethnic and religious groups. The Beqaa Valley’s Shias extend into areas of western Syria along the Lebanese border, particularly in the western portion of Homs in the al-Qusayr and Lake Qattinah areas. It is here, as one internal Syrian Support Group intel source has said, that skirmishes between Hezbollah and rebel groups have occurred frequently in the recent past:
“The most dangerous front [of al-Qusayr] is the western front, where Hezbollah has begun to encroach on the city’s western outskirts after they shell the road with artillery and rockets that are launched from the Lebanese mountains of Hermel.”
Due to this boundary-transcending sectarian continuity, Hezbollah has long-established familial and religious relationships with Syrian Shias in this region, which means that personal connections and strategic incentives (the Hermel/al-Qusayr cross-border region also serves as a critical arms and supply transport route) are motivating Hezbollah to extend their physical presence over the border to protect Shia villages in Homs. By doing so, they not only extend their reach into what may possibly become a de facto Hezbollah-governed territory when Syria dissolves, they also build and maintain strategic relationships in Syria’s Shia/Alawite Fortress Region along the Mediterranean coast. These gains will not come without blowback, however; a Stratfor article has mentioned that the tensions between Hezbollah and Syria’s Sunni opposition are already reaching into other Hezbollah bastions in Lebanon’s south. Sunni Salafist leaders in Sidon have threatened to raid Hezbollah apartments in retaliation. As has been feared, Lebanon’s fragile religious landscape is being tested by these incursions.
When it comes to manipulating regional instability in favor of national interests, Iran is a well-known champion. From the more overt tactics of deploying Quds Forces abroad to the covert infiltrations of the supposedly politically neutral Iranian Red Crescent, Iran has sent human and material resources to shape conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and the Balkans. Iran has remained Assad’s most important regional ally, and the recent surge of Opposition victories has served to unmask some of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to support the regime: an ex IRGC commander was killed on the Damascus-Beirut highway; an Iranian civilian aircraft thought to be carrying arms was shot down near Damascus International Airport; several unconfirmed reports emerged noting the presence of an “Iranian-made unmanned aircraft” at Tabqa Military Airbase just after the fall of Tabqa Dam. But recently the strategy of Iran, too, seems to have shifted in preparation for Assad’s fall. The new Jaysh al-Sha’bi (also known as the National Defense Army or the Popular Army) is thought to be at least a force of 50,000 that is funded and trained by Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Forces. These units are reportedly being modeling on the Iranian Basij militias famous for the havoc wreaked during the botched 2009 Green Revolution in Tehran. A senior U.S. official stated in one recent Guardian article that the Popular Army was indeed created to provide Iran and Hezbollah with willing and capable Syrian clients to preserve their interests when the regime capitulates. As mentioned in a previous blog, Popular Army units are already active and effective in battle, including in al-Qusayr, where our source reports that they are pushing against FSA forces on the city’s northern front.
Russia, the Assad regime’s largest international benefactor, has altered its rhetoric to suggest that its interests are in Syria itself, not in Assad. This comes as Russian aircraft consistently land in Beirut and, when able, in Syria to evacuate Russian citizens. Launches and other vessels are also waiting off the coast to receive potentially larger waves of the ~30,000 Russian citizens residing in Syria. Rather than strategize or implement its own unilateral plan for maintaining influence in Syria, Russia seems to be bowing out of the conflict, relying on Iran, Hezbollah, or thus far unforeseen proxies to carry out its interests.
What seems most likely, as the conflict reaches its climax, is that Hezbollah and Iran will continue to support the regime while building and maintaining social and territorial gains in western Syria. By doing so, vital transport routes through even more vital Shia areas will be maintained, and Syria’s only access to the Mediterranean coast will be under their control. Behind the Jabal Nusayriya (Alawite Mountains) range, the Fortress Region, whether it becomes Assad’s last stronghold or not, will be a formidable and valuable gain for Iran and Hezbollah after the fall of the regime.