Inside the Middle East – Intelligence Perspectives
March 14, 2017
A Prediction Materialized: Iranian Proxy Vows to “Fight to liberate the Golan Heights”
In my January 2017 article “A Growing Whirlpool of Violence: The Middle East Legacy of Barack Obama “ I made the following prediction regarding the growing direct and indirect Iranian military presence in Syria and Iraq: “That military capacity may be activated by Iran against Israel when the time is right – probably under the excuse of “liberating the occupied Golan Heights.”
In late February 2017, Akram al Ka’abi, the leader of the Iranian backed Iraqi Shi’ite Militia, Harakat Al-Nujaba (The Movement of the Noble Ones), announced that the militia will operate in Syria to: “Liberate the occupied Golan Heights”.
On March 8th 2017, Harakat Al-Nujaba’s spokesman announced in a press conference in Tehran, that the Harakat Al-Nujaba Militia had established a military force named: “The Brigade for The Liberation of The Golan.”
And this video published by the Militia announcing the establishment of the “Brigade For the Liberation of the Golan ends with the words “Israel will be eliminated.”
Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi is an umbrella organization made up of predominately Iraqi Shi’ites Militias totaling some estimated 100,000 militants. Some of these Militias are financed, trained, guided, and massively armed by Iran.
In November 2016, the Iraqi Parliament – except for the Sunni delegates who did not attend the vote in protest – approved a law formally defining Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi as a legitimate military force. According to the law, Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi will operate in parallel to the Iraqi armed forces, and will be under the command of the Iraqi government.
The Harakat Al-Nujaba Militia is one of the Iranian backed Shi’ite militias fighting in Syria. According to some estimations, the total number of Iranian backed Shi’ite Militias operating in Syria varies between 20-25,000 militants including Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian forces deployed in Syria. Harakat Al-Nujaba is deployed mostly in the vicinity of Damascus and Aleppo. In September 2016, an Al-Nujaba spokesman announced that the Militia had sent more than 1,000 militants from Iraq to participate in the battle over the city of Aleppo.
The recent announcements made by Al-Nujaba leaders regarding the “Liberation of the Golan Heights” is of course coordinated with Iran. And the timing of the announcement is of course, not by chance. It has to do with Iran’s growing concern that a Russia-US-Turkey understanding regarding the political future of Syria is underway.
The Iranian concern is not groundless. On March 7th, the Chiefs-of-Staff of Turkey, Russia and the United States Armed Forces met in Turkey to discuss the situation in Syrian and Iraq.
Why is Iran concerned?
For the past 30 years, under the slogan of Al- Muqawama (“The Resistance”) – whose goal is an alternate world order in the spirit of Radical Islam, the eradication of Western influence in the Middle East, and most importantly, the unrelenting struggle against Israel until it is annihilated – Iran has skillfully developed an arsenal of allies like Syria, and proxies like the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad (IJIP) in the Gaza Strip. This alliance is called the “Axis of Resistance”, and it is the card used by Iran to expand its influence in the region. Syria is the backbone in the Axis of Resistance massively developed and nurtured by Iran.
On the eve of the war in Syria, Iran and Assad were the unquestionable powers in Lebanon and Syria. The outbreak of the events in Syria, which led to a civil war, and has evolved into a full blown Sunni-Shi’ite and Iranian-Arab war on Syrian soil has, among other things, jeopardized Iran’s most valuable strategic ally – Bashar al-Assad.
Iran, massively invested in Assad’s rule in every possible way, wants to make sure its investments will not be in vain. Maintaining Assad in power enables Iran to continue the stream of weapon shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the weapon with which Hezbollah actually – in the service of Iran – hijacked Lebanon from within, thus providing Iran with a strategic base on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Maintaining Assad in power is crucial for Iran’s desire to create a land corridor of influence, stretching from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon. The downfall of Assad could jeopardize Iran’s strategic base in Lebanon as well as its expansion master plan – being the leading regional superpower – and eliminating Israel.
This is why throughout the war in Syria Iran has rushed to save Assad’s rule – supporting Assad with money, ammunition, weapons, and militants. Iran streamed Iranian proxies into Syria including the Lebanese Shi’ite organization, Hezbollah as well as Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani Shi’ite Militias – in addition to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as well as other Iranian military forces.
The Mullah regime does not like the scenario of a political arrangement in Syria that will not take into account Iran’s interests.
Iran fears that a Russian-US-Turkey arrangement will not keep Assad in power, will favor the Sunnis (who are the majority in Syria), and will not tolerate the Shi’ite occupation on Syria. This will jeopardize decades of Iranian investment towards their goal of hegemony.
Therefore, the announcement made by Al-Nujaba leaders regarding the creation of The Brigade for The Liberation of The Golan, whose goal is to “Liberate the occupied Golan Heights,” conveys Iran’s discontent, and aims to signal that Iran has cards to play with.
At the same time, Iran sends a similar message through its proxy yet in other arena – Yemen.
On March 5th 2017, The US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) warned merchant ships of the dangers of mines that were set by Houthis and militias allied with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the Bab-el-Mandab Strait near the Mokha port entrance. The mines clearly are not manufactured by the Houthis in Yemen. One cam assume they were provided to the Houthis by Iran.
And then there is the real decision maker on the in Syria today – Vladimir Putin.
Accumulating reports indicate growing tensions between Russia and Iran, emanating from substantial differences in their outlook regarding the features of a future political arrangement in Syria.
Iran – disturbed with Putin’s policy regarding Syria – sent a signal this week via a former spokesman of the Iranian government, who reportedly estimated that “Russia will stab Iran in its back” in Syria. The fact that the spokesman is an ex-Iranian official is not by chance. This is Iran’s way of conveying its growing discontent with Russia’s policy in Syria, while not risking an open confrontation with Russia.
Iran has good reason to be disturbed with Putin’s policy regarding Syria.
First, as opposed to Iran – who has no problem to continue and to sacrifice its allies and proxies – the Lebanese Hezbollah, Afghan and Iraqi Shi’ites Militias, and anyone else – on the altar of its interest in Syria, Putin does not want to endlessly sink in the Syrian blood bath. Putin invested in Syria to collect political dividends – and now he wants to start cashing in. Putin is now looking for a deal in Syria that will pave the way to ending Russia’s direct military involvement the war, yet – of course ensure and secure the Russian Naval and Air Force bases which Putin has been successfully building in Syria through his involvement in the war. (For more on that matter read my January 2016 article “A Bear in A Sad Circus.”)
Second, Putin is aware of the fact that Syrian Sunnis (who are the majority in Syria) as well as the Muslim Sunni world (and primarily Turkey and Saudi Arabia to whom Putin is very tuned) will not settle for less than two basic terms:
- The formation of a new political structure in Syria that must end the half-a-century ‘Alawite dictatorship in Syria.
- The total evacuation of Iranian forces and all its foreign Shi’ite militias from Syria.
Failing to meet these terms means continuation of the war – and that is not in Putin’s interest.
Third, Putin is very aware of the fact that Israel will not tolerate an Iranian attempt to open a military front against Israel on the Golan Heights. (For more on that matter read for example my January 2015 article “A Significant Israeli Message.”).
Iran’s desire to use the Syrian Golan Heights as a base to unleash its proxies against Israel – an excuse the Mullah regime uses to legitimize Iran’s (and its proxies) military presence in Syria – could result in a massive military collision between Israel and Iranian proxies. That is not in Putin’s interest. Therefore, Putin shares Israel’s message to Iran: The Golan Heights is off limits.
Cold political calculations drew Putin to intervene in the war in Syria. Putin answered Iran’s call to save Assad because he saw an opportunity for Russia to impact the war in Syria, and the same time, regain a foothold in the Middle East. Putin will throw Assad, and Iran, under the bus in a heartbeat should he see it in his political interest.
In my evaluation, Iran – at this point – has no intention to follow through on it’s threats made by its Iraqi proxy. It’s not out of a lack of willingness or capacity – it’s about timing and circumstances and cold calculations of the pros and cons.
Iran knows that – given the current environment – unleashing its proxy to attack Israel in the Golan Heights might not be a wise move.
Backed by the Trump administration, who has already made it clear that it is not a friend of the Mullah regime, and with Russia’s silent consent – the Israeli retaliation to such an attack will not necessarily be limited to the Syrian part of the Golan Heights and will likely not be limited to eliminating the attacker – whoever it may be. It is likely that the Israeli retaliation would be a severe one, to the point that it would further shake Assad’s crumbling chair – and that is not in Iran’s interest.
It is likely, however, that Iran will continue to use the intimidation potential embedded within the unleashing of its proxies, as a pressure card aimed to assure its interest in future arrangements in Syria.
Thus, for example, it is possible Iran will use Al-Nujaba – as well as other proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah – to provide military training and support for local Syrian factors in the Golan Heights (such as the Druze). It also will not be surprising to see the opening of offices in Iran and Iraq “recruiting volunteers to join the battle to liberate the occupied Golan Heights”.
Though in the current and foreseeable future Iran has no intention to unleash its proxies in the Golan Heights, one should not negate the seriousness of the threat. In a situation where Iran comes to the conclusion that its interest in Syria are being jeopardized, the odds of Iran unleashing its proxies in the Golan Heights substantially increases.
In the wider context, the announcement of Al-Nujaba, furthers emphasizes the major analysis I have made in regard to the serious ramifications of Obama’s Middle East policy: Enabling Iran’s growing military presence in Syria and Iraq has unfortunately resulted in a growing whirlpool of violence, with increasing odds for a massive Israeli-Iranian collision in the areas of Syria and Lebanon.