WASHINGTON: Iran and Hezbollah are trying to build a network of militias inside Syria to protect their interests there in case President Bashar Assad falls, The Washington Post reported late Sunday.
Citing unnamed U.S. and Middle Eastern officials, the newspaper said Iran’s goal appears to be to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
Efforts to find a political solution to the nearly two-year-long conflict, which has killed more than 60,000 people, appear to be deadlocked.
Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has repeatedly denied claims that the group has been sending fighters across the border, however over the last year several deceased Hezbollah members have been returned from Syria, said to have being performing “jihadist duty.”
“It’s a big operation,” the paper quotes a senior U.S. administration official as saying. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”
The Post quotes a senior Arab official as saying that Iran’s strategy in Syria has two tracks. “One is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses,” that official said.
Tehran’s allies in Syria include Shiite and Alawite communities concentrated in provinces near Syria’s border with Lebanon and in the key port city of Latakia, the paper said.
Under the most likely scenarios, it is that remnants of Assad’s government – with or without Assad – would seek to establish a coastal enclave closely tied to Tehran, according to the Post.
This enclave will be heavily dependent on the Iranians for survival and help them retain a link to Hezbollah, and through them, its leverage against Israel, the paper said.
Experts also told the paper that Iran is less interested in seeing Assad remain in power than it is in maintaining its own channels of power throughout Syria, and as long as Tehran could maintain a sea- or airport there, it could also preserve its Hezbollah-controlled supply route into Lebanon and continue to manipulate Lebanese politics, the Post said.
“Syria is basically disintegrating as a nation, similar to how Lebanon disintegrated in the ’70s to ethnic components, and as Iraq did,” Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the paper. “It’s going to be very hard to put Syria the nation back together.”
“We’re looking at a place which is sort of a zone, an area called Syria, with different powers,” he added.
Two weeks ago, according to U.S. officials, Israel struck a military research center outside of Damascus. Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. has denied claims that the attack was designed to target a convoy carrying anti-aircraft weapons to Hezbollah.