Facing mounting challenges, Iran mobilises its proxies in Syria

The declaration by the little-known Baqir Brigade and similar groups could ignite a war within a war.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Iran-backed Shia fighters use a helmet to draw sniper fire, during clashes in the town of Hejeira near Damascus. (AP)
Upgrading presence. Iran-backed Shia fighters use a helmet to draw sniper fire, during clashes in the town of Hejeira near Damascus. (AP)

BEIRUT - A little-known Iran-backed Shia group calling itself the Baqir Brigade has declared “jihad” on US forces in Syria.

The declaration April 6 was eight days before US President Donald Trump ordered a barrage of 105 missiles unleashed against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The brigade’s move, however, is seen as the precursor of a countrywide mobilisation by Tehran of its proxies, especially against the United States, at a time of increased wariness by Iran over mounting challenges from the United States and the West and its growing divergences with regional powers, such as Turkey.

The declaration by the Baqir Brigade and similar groups could ignite a war within a war that could wreak a new wave of havoc on embattled Syria and provoke region-wide consequences, including a long-brewing Iran-Israel conflict.

The emergence of the Baqir Brigade, with its logo of a clenched fist holding aloft an AK-47 that’s almost identical to that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, appears to have been a deliberate attempt to upgrade Iran’s military presence in Syria and provide additional firepower as expansionist Iran pursues its long-term objectives in Syria.

Tehran, which has recruited large numbers of Shia militants from Syria as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, has played a disproportionate part in the war, fighting alongside Assad’s men to keep his harsh regime in power.

It may be that the timing of the Baqir Brigade’s declaration is linked to the fate of the landmark July 2015 agreement between Iran and the Obama administration curtailing Tehran’s contentious nuclear programme.

Trump has bitterly denounced the deal and wants to tear it up. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will try to convince the US president during their upcoming White House meetings to safeguard the deal in exchange for the imposition of tighter sanctions on Iran.

Nonetheless, “Tehran seems to believe that President Trump will kill the deal (in May), so it may start prepping its dormant nuclear facilities, sowing divisions between US allies or courting other global powers,” observed Israeli analyst Omer Carmi, director of intelligence for the Israeli cyber-security firm Sixgill.

Trump’s appointment of Iran uber-hawk John Bolton as his national security adviser and the equally hawkish Mike Pompeo as secretary of state feed Tehran’s wariness. Both men support ditching the historic 2015 agreement.

Another key element in Tehran’s thinking, veteran observers of the Middle East’s serpentine affairs say, is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has long been convinced that the Americans want to eradicate the clerical regime in Tehran.

The return of Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, only strengthens that conviction, the sources say.

Recent events in Syria, including the April 14 missile barrage, have fuelled Tehran’s urge to rely even more on its army of diverse Shia groups.

That may already have started and could intensify as the foreign powers in Syria — the United States, Russia, Turkey and regional states — scramble to adjust, each on its own terms, to Trump’s pre-dawn assault on Syria’s illegal chemical weapons arsenal with 105 cruise missiles fired by aircraft and naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf.

Ironically, Russia’s attitude after the strikes has shown it to be less interested than Tehran in a showdown with the United States. Such recent developments are likely to accentuate Tehran’s concerns about being left alone to fend for its regional strategy of expansion.

On April 5, an ostensibly pro-Assad militia calling itself the Popular Resistance in the Eastern Region claimed a rocket attack on US forces. The next day, the Baqir Brigade declared “jihad” on Americans and their allies in Syria.

“These and other cases indicate that the so-called ‘pro-Assad’ Shia militias are increasingly marching to [Iran’s] tune, presenting an even greater threat to US and allied interests,” Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed in an April 12 analysis.

These and other Shia groups that are springing up are increasingly controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and espousing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ideology of Islamic rule.

There has been friction, ideological and military, between Assad’s forces and Hezbollah and its allies since the Lebanese group went to Assad’s support in early 2012. This has grown as Assad’s army fell apart and the Shias had to do most of the fighting.

Smyth noted ominously, however, that “the forces gaining ascendancy in regime-controlled areas will be more prone to supporting Tehran’s foreign policy agenda instead of Assad’s.”

That augurs ill for Syria and Assad’s shrunken regime. He is in danger of being badly out-manoeuvred by an expanding enemy that has long bided its time.