(February 14, 2019 / The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) Reports emerged in early February that Fatah’s Tanzim military arm in the West Bank has been purchasing weapons smuggled from Syria through Jordan to arm itself for the succession battle when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s rule comes to an end. The reports may still be unconfirmed, but we should take note of what is going on in southern Syria, which could grow into dangerous complications between Jordan and Israel.
Iran is entrenching itself in Syria and concentrating on the south of the country, along the border with Jordan, not far from Israel. In contrast to reports of Assad’s army taking control of the area, the true situation is far from that. The Sunni resistance forces are still strong and active. The expected U.S. withdrawal from the Tanf border crossing between southern Syria with Iraq has provoked a race for control of the crossing. The competition even involves various divisions of the Syrian army, who do not hesitate to shoot each other. For them, this is a struggle over the smuggling routes between Syria and Iraq.
However, there is also the political angle—Iran schemes to turn southern Syria into a Shi’ite stronghold, and the Alawites are strongly opposed to this. Within the Syrian army, there are soldiers who wear Syrian military uniform, but they are Shi’ites loyal to Iran, recruited from Iraq and Afghanistan and maybe even from Iran itself.
Israeli artillery struck Shi’ite positions near Quneitra, which were established along the border with Israel on Feb. 11. The observation positions were reportedly manned by Shi’ite militia, and possibly Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers.
In other words, this entire region is devoid of an actual sovereign. From this vacuum come criminal elements, similar to the situation between Libya and Egypt, where the late Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s weapons stores are being smuggled into Egypt. Iran and Hezbollah are active in this enterprise alongside gangster weapons smugglers. It would be more difficult to smuggle weapons to Jordan if there were some kind of sovereignty over the region.
The Iranians and their proxies have identified sites holy to Shia Islam located on the Jordanian border that could be turned into actual pilgrimage venues. According to Jordanian sources, Iran’s entrenchment on its border with southern Syria is one of the topics on the top of the agenda for talks between King Abdullah of Jordan and Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
No one had any doubt that from the moment Iran entrenched itself in Daraa, it would immediately attempt to subvert Jordan, and it was self-evident that the smuggling of weapons to Jordan, and from there to the West Bank, would be one of its main activities.
One of Jordan’s less understandable measures was the opening of the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria with the arrival of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s first soldiers in the area. It did hesitate and postponed the opening of the crossing several times, but even before that, it had abandoned its Sunni allies who were fighting Assad in the region of Daraa. Opening the crossing was a kind of official recognition of the legitimacy of Assad’s regime.
Hezbollah followers are also located in the Daraa region, and it should be taken into account that they could decide to build smuggling tunnels along the border with Jordan, even though this is only a matter of conjecture at this point.
Why are Iran and Hezbollah attempting to smuggle arms into the West Bank? Not to help any specific division of the Tanzim, but to strengthen Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.
Presently, the Tanzim in the West Bank is well-armed. Around a year ago, in 2018, at the funeral of one of the Tanzim activists in Balata camp in Nablus, it was reported that the men of Tanzim had 700 weapons!
Iran understands that to build up Hamas in the West Bank, it also needs to arm the organization, and its weapons channel runs between southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper. He currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.