(December 22, 2020 / JNS) A new report released by the Alma Research and Education Center has exposed new details about suspected efforts by the Iranian-led Shi’ite axis to build civilian support networks throughout south Syria.
The report highlighted the strategic thinking being pursued by Iran, which views a civilian infrastructure as a foundation for building a military-attack infrastructure against Israel.
Maj. (res.) Tal Beeri, director of Alma’s research department who composed the report, told JNS that the Iranian-Shi’ite axis was skillfully exploiting the basic survival needs of the mostly Sunni population in the area.
He added that this effort received a green light by a key figure who visited the area in 2018, named as Abu Al-Fadl Al Tabatabai, the personal adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“The Iranian-led Shi’ite axis sees southern Syria as a strategic area of paramount importance aimed at achieving the goal of exporting the Islamic revolution in terms of its civilian establishment. Achieving this objective will be an essential supportive instrument towards the advanced efforts of forming a military foundation, enabling the creation of a direct Iranian front against Israel from southern Syria,” it stated.
“This civilian establishment of founding a foothold in southern Syria creates an active link with the local population to the ends of which is to create a dependence of the population on elements of the Shi’ite axis. This dependence produces sympathy. This sympathy enables the free action of Shi’ite axis elements inside and out of the local population.”
The majority of the axis’s civilian entrenchment efforts are taking place in the Quneitra and Dara’a district, he said, with some additional efforts underway in the Druze Sweida region, although those activities are running into more local resistance.
Beeri, who spent 20 years as an intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces specializing in Lebanon and Syria, explained that after the reconquest of southern Syria by the Syrian army with the help of Shi’ite axis officials (at the end of 2018), an accelerated process of civic establishment began.
This included the takeover of mosques and the founding of Hussainiyas (a site for Shi’ite religious gatherings) and the initiation of economic projects. The objective is an Iranian seizure of civilian life and the creation of a dependency of the local population upon Tehran’s axis for basic needs, such as economics, education and religious services.
“They want to entrench military infrastructure into civilian infrastructure like in southern Lebanon. All of this is based on a clear assumption that civilian infrastructure enables them to operate in a supportive environment—a kind of human shield,” he said.
“The Shi’ite axis states explicitly that southern Syria is a strategic area from their perspective,” said Beeri. “It is part of the axis’s land corridor connecting Lebanon, Syria Iraq and Iran. The corridor is a little blocked because of the presence of American troops in Al-Tanf, southeast Syria, on the Jordanian border. But the Americans won’t sit there forever. And the Iranians, masters of chess, have a lot of patience.”
‘They want money’
In southern Syria, the Iranians are working to create a new front close to Israel and to replicate the successful Iranian project of building Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, turning it into a military front.
“They want to copy Lebanese model from south Lebanon to south Syria,” said Beeri. “The only difference between these two areas is that in south Lebanon, most of the population is Shi’ite—this is the base of Hezbollah. In southern Syria, most of the population is Sunni. By definition, they are supposed to object to the Shi’ite axis. But this isn’t happening, due to a meeting of interests.”
Those interests are based on the fact most of the local population is merely interested in survival, and Iran can help them achieve that in exchange for their assistance in agreeing to promote Iran’s radical ideology and support its military activities. “The civilians want basic services. They’re putting ideology to the site,” said Beeri.
“In the Yarmouk Basin, where ISIS was once active, many of the people who were ISIS operatives have crossed over to the Shi’ite axis. Why? Because they want money. For the same reason that they went to ISIS,” he added.
The report detailed the civilian services and organizations mushrooming in the area under Iranian sponsorship, including health, religion, education and relief agencies.
A process of converting local Sunnis to the Shi’ite faith is underway, as well as a limited effort to resettle the families of Shi’ite militiamen in south Syria, thereby affecting the demographic balance, which is majority Sunni.
The primary efforts involve mass indoctrination of locals into Iranian ideology and Shi’ite religious messaging, coupled with economic aid. The report listed five civilian associations that it said were sponsored by the Iranian axis, two of them explicitly.
“All of these associations receive direct funding from Iran, and some of them—at least two that we identified—have active militia components,” said Beeri. “We have tracked down a number of Hezbollah operatives in the area who work with the militias of these associations and who assist their economic activities.”
The only organized opposition to this activity is coming from the Russian-backed Syrian rebel group, the Fifth Corps, which is led by Muhammad Al-Uda. “They are trying to fight these activities,” he added.
‘A clear clash of interests with Russia’
Russia has also activated its military police personnel in the town of Al-Hara, near the Israeli border, to shut down Iranian axis construction projects for schools, religious centers and water supply. “This shows how important it is for the Russians to stop this activity. There is a clear clash of interests here with Russia,” he said.
But such efforts are unlikely to succeed, argued Beeri, due to the basic survival needs of the local population, which the Shi’ite axis continues to tap into and exploit.
The end game, he stressed, is to create support bases that will enable military force build-up against Israel.
“The deal is that they will put weapons storehouses and rocket-launchers in their communities,” he said, “and they won’t say anything because they work for the Iranian axis, and they want to survive.”
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