Unclaimed strikes bring further complexity to Syria’s intractable war

Kata’ib Hezbollah’s and the Fatemiyoun Division’s latest losses attest to the IRGC’s approach in Syria.
Sunday 24/06/2018
A propaganda billboard  for the pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah militia hanging on a pedestrian crossing in Baghdad. (AFP)
A propaganda billboard for the pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah militia hanging on a pedestrian crossing in Baghdad. (AFP)

After unidentified aircraft targeted Shia Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah positions in al-Harra in eastern Syria, an unidentified source said to have been “present in the field” accused the United States of perpetrating the strike.

The source made the claim in an interview with Tehran-based Mashregh News, a website said to be close to Iranian security and intelligence organisations. The source offered some detail about the June 17 incident, which occurred south-east of Abu Kamal city in the Deir ez-Zor governorate, near the border with Iraq.

“Approximately 20 of the fighters of the Resistance Front were martyred or wounded,” the source said, adding the following claim: In the last month, “Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists, backed by the Western coalition, engaged in several operations” against “Katai’b Hezbollah and the Shia Afghan Fatemiyoun Division forces.”

What are we to make of all of this?

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Rai al-Youm news and opinion website, warned of the perils of Iraqi militia retaliation against US or Israeli targets. The United States, however, denied involvement in the strike in al-Harra. US Army Major Josh Jacques, spokesman for the US Central Command, told Reuters: “No member of the US-led coalition carried out strikes near Abu Kamal.”

Agence France-Presse reported that an unidentified US official said the attack was “carried out by Israel” but Israeli authorities have not accepted any responsibility even though such a strike would be consistent with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s warning of action against Iran’s attempts to entrench itself in Syria.

The day before the strike in al-Harra, Netanyahu said: “We will take and have already taken action against efforts to establish a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria.”

Israel is simultaneously engaged in a diplomatic effort with Russia to persuade Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria. It should, therefore, come as no surprise if the Shia militias were indeed targeted by Israel.

In so doing, however, Israel seems to be proving US President Donald Trump wrong. On June 7, Trump contended that Iran had changed since he pulled out of the nuclear deal. Israel’s actions seem to show that there is no change in Iran’s behaviour.

In fact, there is no evidence of any change in Tehran’s behaviour, and certainly not with respect to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ tactics in Syria. The Iraqi-Syrian border is a vital part of the overland corridor connecting Iran to its client Lebanese Hezbollah militia on the shores of the Mediterranean. The presence of Katai’b Hezbollah and the Fatemiyoun Division forces in eastern Syria — near the border with Iraq — illustrates some of the activity along the corridor.

For months, the Free Syrian Army and remnants of ISIS have been trying to attack Abu Kamal in hopes of cutting off the corridor. That effort coincided with the Israeli bombardment of Shia militia positions in the Iraq-Syria border area, leading Tehran to accuse Israel of providing air support to the Free Syrian Army and ISIS.

Iran is entrenching its military presence in Syria. However, to reduce Iranian losses but perhaps also to preserve its transnational Shia militia forces, Tehran prefers to outsource certain military tasks to its smaller Shia allies.

The toll for Iran and groups allied with it from the start of the Syrian civil war is as follows: at least 894 Afghan nationals; 554 Iranian nationals; 116 Iraqi nationals; 1,232 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters; and 156 Pakistani nationals. All of them were killed in combat in Syria. These numbers must be treated as an absolute minimum; actual Shia militia losses in Syria may be much higher. Even so, the burden-sharing arrangement between Iran’s various Shia militia allies seems to work.

Kata’ib Hezbollah’s and the Fatemiyoun Division’s latest losses attest to the IRGC’s approach in Syria. The question is whether Iran can maintain its military posture in Syria in the face of systematic Israeli strikes.

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