In a reality once unthinkable, Assad’s troops along Golan border are heeding commanders of the Iran-backed terror group, and helping it prepare for conflict with the Jewish state
Earlier this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based watchdog group, reported that Israeli fighter jets struck Hezbollah positions on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. There was no Israeli comment on the claim.
The report said one of the targets was a post on Tel al-Harra, a mountain that is considered a strategic point that overlooks the Golan Heights, while the other was in Quneitra, near the UN-monitored border crossing with Israel, where Arab media reports a Syrian air-defense position and a Hezbollah intelligence center are located.
The Iran-backed Lebanese terror group had been trying to set up a front on the Syrian Golan for years, but had previously been unable to gain a sufficient foothold in the area. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s conquest of the border area last summer provided the regime-allied organization with an opportunity to once again attempt to establish the necessary infrastructure with which it could threaten Israel near the border.
The alleged Israeli strikes near the border were a rare occurrence. In the past Israel has targeted villages and towns along the Golan Heights frontier after identifying Iranian and Hezbollah attempts to establish cells and infrastructure in the area.
But the incident also highlighted a reality once unthinkable in Syria: With Hezbollah one of the chief powers setting the tone in the country after years of civil war, Syrian army forces are now in some cases taking their orders from the organization — and helping it spy on Israel.
Hezbollah’s presence in Syrian territory opposite the Israeli border is a natural continuation of the group’s expanding activity in the Middle East (in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, among others), and the civil war that has been raging in Syria for approximately eight years.
Its increased clout is particularly noticeable in the region of southern Syria that the Syrians call Hauran. In the same area that gave rise to the protests against Assad in March 2011 in the city of Daraa, a situation has now formed in which Syrian soldiers receive “recommendations” — which are in effect orders — from Hezbollah commanders.
A segment of the Syrian army that controls the southern part of the country works closely with many consultants from Hezbollah, which use it for purposes such as intelligence-gathering, and is also helping the Lebanon-based group prepare for an expected future war with Israel (as well as assisting it in dealing with local opposition).
To put it in the simplest terms, these Syrian troops are now serving Hezbollah’s Shiite army in Lebanon. Bashar’s deceased father, Hafez Assad, would be rolling in his grave: During his time the elder Assad waged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and killed hundreds of its members.
How did the tables so turn? The civil war was, without a doubt, the key event, with the Syrian army now dependent on assistance from Hezbollah and Iran in order to survive.
Earlier in the war, when Assad’s regime appeared to be on its last legs, Hezbollah sent numerous advisers to the region whose stated purpose was simply to aid the fighting against the opposition groups in Hauran. A great deal has happened since then, and about a year ago — with Assad buoyed also by Iranian and particularly Russian forces — it became clear that the battle for Syria had been decided: the regime had won. But Hezbollah didn’t stop at that point — it began to establish its forces permanently throughout Syria, particularly in its southern sector.
This process took place with quite a bit of hesitation by Hezbollah’s leaders, especially regarding the financial implications of leaving troops on Syrian soil. In the end, the strategic thinking that troops should be positioned against Israel on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights won out.
And thus a “Southern Headquarters” operated by Hezbollah is currently operating in secret in the territory known as Hauran. It is a military organization in every sense, which operates with several dozen Lebanese and hundreds of Syrians, most of them from Hauran: Thanks to financial difficulties brought on by the war, Hezbollah has had little trouble recruiting quite a few locals to serve its purposes.
The force, led by Lebanese commander Munir Ali Naim Shaiti (better known by the alias Hajj Hashem), is now focusing less and less upon threats at home and much more on the old threat: Israel.
The Southern Headquarters is armed with weapons that include antitank missiles and particularly powerful short-range rockets with a minimum weight of approximately 250 kilograms and effectiveness at a range of approximately four kilometers. Their original purpose was to strike opposition targets, but they are now being repurposed with the aim of destroying Israeli villages on the Golan Heights or the upper Galilee.
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