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A Syrian Army T-72 tank during the 2018 Rif Dimashq offensive. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A Syrian Army T-72 tank during the 2018 Rif Dimashq offensive. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
featureMiddle East

Mysterious blast draws attention to Iran-affiliated Syrian army division

Commanded by the president's brother, the 4th Division maintains close coordination with the Revolutionary Guards.

A mysterious blast that rocked a main base of the Syrian Fourth Armored Division this month has yet to be explained. But the explosion does serve as a reminder of the elite unit that, under the command of Maj. Gen. Maher Assad, the younger brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has grown very close to Iran over the years.

Iran’s extensive coordination with the Fourth Armored Division even led some observers to consider it a proxy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the elite Iranian military organization that plays a central role in Tehran’s takeover efforts in Syria.

According to Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a central operations command center in Damascus is used jointly by the Assad regime and the IRGC to oversee pro-Iran militias in Syria, and this command includes representatives of the Fourth Armored Division.

The command center also includes representatives of Syrian Military Intelligence, General Intelligence—Syria’s state security agency—and Iranian envoys and consultants who are usually from the IRGC, Abdul-Hussain told JNS.

He named Ghassan Bilal, the Fourth Division’s Security Bureau Chief, as working at the central operations command center.

Bilal also directly liaises with the central bureau of the Iranian mission in Syria, said Abdul-Hussain, adding that this mission operates from the Rawda Hotel in the Sayydeh Zaynab suburb of Damascus. Sayydeh Zaynab is the epicenter of a growing Shi’ite, Iranian-affiliated presence.

Some observers believe the hotel houses a clandestine prison jointly run by the Fourth Division and the IRGC, Abdul-Hussain noted.

Branch 900

“At the intel level, the Fourth Division and the IRGC created a joint agency called Branch 900 whose headquarters is in Qutaifeh, near Damascus. Branch 900 is under the jurisdiction of Syria’s General Intelligence (State Security) and Military Security,” he said.

Branch 900 is responsible for counterintelligence efforts—rooting out spies—within pro-Iran Shia militias, including Hezbollah, Abdul-Hussain said. 

Branch 900 is also responsible for disciplinary measures against fighters from pro-Iran militias, especially after several incidents of them selling arms to the opposition were discovered.

“In cases of wrongdoing, fighters of the pro-Iran militias in Syria are referred to Syrian intelligence agencies and courts, but only after the approval of the Iranian mission,” Abdul-Hussain said.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of IDF Military Intelligence’s Research Division and ex-director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said that the Fourth Division “is the element that manages the closest ties from within the Syrian military with the Iranians.

“This is due to their common role in defending the Syrian regime—the Iranians arrived in Syria to protect [Basher] Assad—and it’s also due to the division’s commander, Maher Assad, who is in charge of this and is close to the Iranians. Hence, the cooperation between them is tight and ongoing,” he said.

Kuperwasser, currently the director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, added that the Fourth Division is also close to pro-Iranian forces in Syria such as Hezbollah operatives and is linked to their activities. 

According to the Alma Reach and Education Center, an Israeli defense research group specializing in Lebanon and Syria, the Aug. 13 blast rocked an ammunition depot at a base west of Damascus where the Fourth Division headquarters are also located.

The cause of the explosion has yet to be publicly established. Two days later, a second mysterious blast rocked an ammunition warehouse at the base of Syria’s 1st Brigade, northeast of Damascus.

In April, the Israel Air Force reportedly struck the Fourth Division’s headquarters, following rocket fire from Syria that targeted the Golan Heights.

The airstrikes did not target the area from where the rockets were fired, leading some in Israel to conclude that the attack was a message to the Syrian regime, warning it of the price of cooperating with Iran and its proxies.

“There have been airstrikes over the years on sites tied to the Fourth Division, in the context of dealing with Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” said Kuperwasser.

“There has been both a direct and indirect context—some of the strikes directed at the Fourth Division were aimed at sending a message to the Syrians to not allow the Iranians to entrench in Syria. This message was sent, whether it was Iranian or Syrian targets struck,” he said. “The message sent to the Syrians is: ‘Don’t deal with the Iranians. Don’t allow them to entrench.’”

Amphetamines

According to a report by the BBC in June, meanwhile, the Fourth Division facilitated the movement of Captagon amphetamines. The report alleged Ghassan Bilal’s involvement in the trafficking of Captagon, adding that division soldiers also sell the drug in Syria for profit.

David Adesnik, a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, stressed the Fourth Division’s role in the production and smuggling of Captagon.

This has become “a vital financial lifeline for the regime, likely bringing in billions each year. This narco-trafficking is a cause of substantial tension with Jordan and is creating internal problems for the Saudis and Emiratis, whose population are main consumers,” he said.

Adesnik added that “Maher’s role in Captagon trafficking has been known for a few years, but in March, the [United States] Treasury Department imposed sanctions on key figures in Maher’s network.”

The Treasury Department described a close associate of Maher Assad, Khalid Qaddour, as being “in charge of revenues from the wide range of illicit activities for which Maher and the Fourth Division are responsible,” he noted.

The Syrian regime “pretends to fight narcotrafficking and makes various arrests, but it’s all for show. The regime is the cartel,” Adesnik said. 

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