The Iranian presence and local militias (Syrian Human Rights Observatory Facebook page, January 3, 2023).
Former commander of the Iranian forces in Syria, Jawad Jafari, and the commander of Fawj 47 in Albukamal (sadaa alsharqia Facebook page, November 14, 2021).
Dr. Eli Galia
- Syria is the geographical center of the Iranian-controlled radical axis and the arena where pro-Iranian militias operate, some of them brought in by Iran and others formed locally by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. They have one main purpose: to ensure the continuation of Bashar Assad’s regime, accomplished on the pretext of “defending the Shi’ite shrines.” The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 and was won by the forces supporting Assad, who continues his efforts to stabilize the government institutions and rebuild his army. The pro-Iranian militias serve as another tool for establishing Iranian strategy in Syria and Lebanon.
- Today there are more than 60,000 operatives in the pro-Iranian militias, deployed in several areas, the most important of which are along the Euphrates, in and around Aleppo and the greater Damascus area, and in the depths of the Syrian desert and the southern part of the country. Some operatives are Asian Shi’ites and are considered auxiliary forces but there are also locally-recruited forces who make up the most of the militias’ battle order and are called “the forces defending the shrines.”
- There is a particularly great concentration of militias in eastern Syria, an area of such great strategic importance it has been referred to as an Iranian colony. It is an overland corridor used to transport weapons from Iran through Iraq to Syria, and from there to Lebanon, bolstering the military buildup through local weapons manufacture. The main purpose of their presence in the Syrian desert is to secure vital facilities and defend them against ISIS attack, while in the south and around Damascus they have made connections with the local Syrian communities.
- Since the middle of 2021, and with greater intensity since the beginning of 2022, the pro-Iranian militias have expanded their presence to other areas in Syria. Some of the changes in eastern and southern Syria were apparently the result of Russia’s withdrawing its forces and the attempts of the militias to avoid Israel and American attacks.
- Of all the militia forces and armed groups operating in Syria under Iranian aegis, Hezbollah-Lebanon poses the greatest conventional military threat to Israel. The organization’s operatives are constructing a system for collecting intelligence along the Golan Heights border, which is meant to serve as a base for planning attacks orchestrated by Iran, which aspires to preserve the “resistance axis,” threatening Israel through proxy organizations.
- The militias are part of Iran’s overall intervention in Syria to increase its sphere of influence and establish a permanent presence, ensure the continuation of Syrian dependence on Iran and gain a foothold in the Levant, in addition to its unreserved support of Hezbollah-Lebanon.
- Iran began its intervention in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, with the short-term objective of preventing the collapse of the Bashar Assad regime. Its long-term, unprecedented objective was to gain an Iranian foothold in Syria as a forward base for penetrating the Middle East. One of its moves has been to use the Asian Shi’ite militias under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force. The militias were brought into Syria to tip the balance towards Assad during the war and turned into a kind of Iranian Shi’ite Foreign Legion.
- Until September 2015 Iranian intervention in Syria was limited to a few hundred Iran advisors and a few thousand Shi’ite fighters, but the combined achievements of ISIS and the Sunni rebel organizations, especially the jihadists in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces, led Iran to significantly increase its support of the Assad regime and send several thousand additional fighters to Syria. The takeover of Aleppo, the restoration of the Damascus Ghouta to the Syrian regime and the collapse of the Islamic State, the three main factors that turned the tide of the Syrian Civil War, enabled Iran to thin out its own forces and rely mainly on the presence of the Hezbollah operatives and foreign Shi’ite militia forces to support the Syrian army. As actual combat dwindled, the IRGC could turn its attention to increasing Iran’s sphere of influence in Syria at multiple levels, and between 2016 and 2019, to gain the massive foothold envisioned by Qassem Soleimani, the architect of consolidating Iran’s influence in Syria.
- Internally, the civil war greatly weakened the Syrian army. It lost massive quantities of weapons and its combat capabilities collapsed as its forces were depleted by the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and officers; in addition, large numbers of Syrians either avoided the draft or defected. The soldiers lacked training and the officers were unsure of the soldiers’ loyalty. There was an insufficient number of recruits, and throughout the war, not even one of its twenty land divisions ever had a full complement of soldiers or could realize more than a third of its combat potential.
- The severe shortage of military manpower led the Qods Force to recommend to the Syrian army that “new volunteer armed frameworks” based on religious, sectarian or political affiliation be organized under Qods Force command, composed of either foreign or local fighters. The result was the formation of hundreds of local militias of various size and nature which fought alongside the Syrian army according to combat mission. One of the largest and most dominant was the National Defense Force, more or less parallel to the Iranian Basij, an armed upgrade of the Popular Committees formed during the regime of the Baath Party. They were known as the “auxiliary” or “reserve” forces, and their role was to brutally oppress uprisings, without considering organized army forces. According to the opposition narrative which became popular in Syria and was based on the accumulation of eye-witness reports, on dozens of occasions the militias were involved in the slaughter and torture of Syrian civilians.
- As Iran’s desire to increase its military and security influence in Syria grew, it integrated the local pro-Iranian militias into Assad’s army as part of what were known as the National Defense Forces in order to give them legal status and protect them from Israeli and American aerial attacks. The Syrian army and the IRGC joined efforts to integrate officers from both sides into the command structure. In fact, during the past three years, as frontal combat against the rebel organizations has waned and fighting ISIS has become guerrilla warfare, Iran has strengthened the local militias and relies more and more on local Syrian fighters to replace a physical Iranian presence. According to a report from the Syrian Human Rights Observatory in November 2021, the number of pro-Iranian militia operatives in Syria, Syrian and non-Syrian, was estimated at about 65,500.
The Iranian presence and local militias (Syrian Human Rights Observatory Facebook page, January 3, 2023).
- This study is based on open-source information, some of them exclusive, for the most part from local Syrian sources opposed to the Assad regime, to describe the presence of pro-Iranian militias in Syria and the ramifications thereof. The main categories into which the militias can be divided will be given, as well as a geographic cross section of the main locations of their deployment and the nature of their missions. As the militias remain in place and Iran makes a greater effort over time to preserve their capabilities, it will be possible to discern the extent and nature of their activities as they vary from location to location, whether because of Iranian interests or because of political, security or other local circumstances, including attempts made by the Assad regime to impose limitations on the Iranians, although not always successfully.
- Moreover, the study does not aspire to describe all the levels at which Iran is involved to turn it into a regional sphere of Iranian influence. The objective of its involvement is to gain a long-term foothold in Syria and to construct strategic situations, especially to institutionalize the corridors through which it moves weapons for Hezbollah-Lebanon, which serves as a front for the so-called “resistance axis” against Israel. Iran has economic investments, joint Syrian-Iranian military projects, has formed a local network for the manufacture of advanced weaponry and set up terrorist squads, and has even attempted to infiltrate the corridors of the Syrian army establishment. In addition, Iran also invests in “soft power,” founding social and cultural institutions, proselytizing Shi’a, moving the Shi’ite population, actions which are in no way related to the direct conflict between Israeli and Iran, but give Iran more power along Israel’s borders.
 In the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian war which began in February 2022. ↑
 Ephraim Kam, "Iran’s Shiite Foreign Legion," Strategic Assessment, Volume 20, No. 3, October 2017, p. 1. ↑
 Ghouta in Arabic means "basin." The Ghouta is the eastern part of Damascus, an area with intensive agricultural and horticultural production, which was under rebel organization control. ↑
 Raz Zimmt, "Iran in the Post-Islamic State Era: Aims, Opportunities and Challenges Updated Review," https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/iran-post-isis-era-aims-opportunities-challenges-updated-review/, pp. 6-7. ↑
 Commander of the IRGC's Qods Force between 1998 and 2020, killed in an American attack.. The Qods Force operates beyond the borders of Iran.. ↑
 Tom Cooper, "What’s Left of the Syrian Arab Army? Not Much," Souria Houria, May 27, 2016. ↑
 The Basij is a volunteer paramilitary organization operating under the IRGC, established in Iran in 1979, after the Islamic Revolution. ↑
 Ibid. ↑
 أحمد طلب الناصر، بالتفاصيل والأرقام، رصد شامل للميليشيات الإيرانية في سوريا، 21.08.202 https://www.syria.tv ↑
 National Defense Forces (NDF), and the Local Defense Forces (LDF). ↑
 Yogev Elbaz, "Here to Stay: Iranian Involvement in Syria, 2011-2021," Strategic Assessment - Policy Analysis, Volume 24, No. 4, November 2021. ↑
 إيران وميليشياتها خلال 2021 أكثر من 160 قتيلاً في الاستهدافان الجوية والبرية.. وملف التغيير الديمغرافي يتصدر المشهد في ظل التمدد والتغلغل الكبير على كامل التراب السوري، 29.12.2021, https://www.syriahr.com. ↑