Friday, November 30, 2018

Iran Creating A 'New Order' In Syria As Presence Strengthens In The Area

A new order emerges in southern Syria as Assad rises back into control

Evidence emerging from southwest Syria indicates that the Assad regime has begun to settle accounts with former rebels who worked with Israel and with Western countries during the years that this area was outside of regime control.

A number of prominent former rebel commanders in Deraa and Quneitra provinces have recently disappeared after being apprehended by regime forces. Other former rebels have been prevented from leaving the area for opposition-controlled Idlib province in the country’s northeast.

What is returning to Syria’s south, however, is not the status quo antebellum. Iran and its allies have a central role in the emergent power structure. Indeed, the emergent reality is one in which it is difficult to discern where precisely the Syrian state ends and Iran and its allies begin. Syria’s southwest, which was the cradle of the uprising against Assad, is now being transformed into the birthplace of a new Syria, in which Iran and its allies form a vital and inseparable component.

DERAA AND Quneitra provinces were among the first areas of Syria to break free of regime control. The demonstrations that launched the Syrian uprising began in Deraa city in mid-March 2011. By the end of the year, the regime had lost control of the greater part of both provinces.

In the subsequent six years, a flourishing post-regime reality came into being. International NGOs began to operate projects in the areas. A provisional local authority functioned. Unlike in northern Syria, militias aligned with Salafi- or Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam did not swallow up all other elements. Rather, groups aligned with these streams existed alongside other less ideological formations.

Israel, determined to prevent the arrival of Iran and its proxy militias to the border with the Golan Heights, developed relations with a number of non-jihadi local rebel groups and assisted their control of the border area. Organizations such as Fursan al-Joulan and Ahrar Nawa, among others, benefited from the Israeli connection. Further east, Western governments, including the US and the UK, offered assistance to the opposition in Deraa province. Through projects such as the Free Syrian Police force, the West sought to aid the development of rudimentary civil society structures to replace those of the Assad regime.

A recent report on the Syrian Observer website provided details of a large Iranian base under construction in the Lajat area of Deraa province. According to the Syrian Observer, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah, operating on behalf of the Iranians, “destroyed about 650 houses and cleared out a number of villages in Lajat, leveling them to the ground, to create an area of 30 square kilometers. In these villages, the Iran-backed militias prepared training barracks and warehouses for weapons and ammunition, in order to make this area into a military base for foreign Iran-backed militias to be based. The first batches of weapons and ammunition reached the militias in the area by this route at the beginning of October.”

The report went on to describe the route taken by Iran-associated fighters from the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Abu Kamal to Lajat, under the supervision of IRGC personnel.

Evidence is also emerging of the presence of Hezbollah personnel and other pro-Iranian Shia militiamen in Syrian Arab Army uniforms among the regime forces returning to the border area with the Golan Heights. This is despite the nominal Russian commitment to keep such elements at least 85 kilometers from the body.

This Iranian activity close to the border goes hand in hand with Tehran’s activity further afield, including the transfer of Shias from southern Iraq to deserted Sunni neighborhoods.

All this adds up to an emergent new postwar order in the regime-controlled part of Syria. Those who hoped for one kind of new Syria are being rounded up, detained and disappeared. 

Iran, meanwhile, is busy creating a very different kind of new order. In it, an independent Iranian presence is intertwined with, and largely indistinguishable from, the body of the Syrian state itself, in a way not coincidentally analogous to the situation in Lebanon and Iraq (minus the nominal institutions of representative government).

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