Iran will deploy 4,000 Revolutionary Guards to Syria to bolster Damascus against a mostly Sunni-led insurgency, media reported. Meanwhile, US F-16s and Patriots will stay in Jordan – speculatively, to help establish a no-fly zone to aid Syrian rebels.
The deployment of the first several-thousand strong military contingent was reported by The Independent on Sunday who quoted Iranian sources tied to the state’s security apparatus. The sources said the move signals Iran’s intention to drastically step up its efforts to preserve the government of President Bashar Assad.
The Islamic Republic’s heightened military commitment could reportedly extend to the opening up of a new “Syrian” front on the Golan Heights against Israel.
Golan Heights have recently become a source of new instability with increasing cross-border fire and Austria withdrawing its peacekeepers from the buffer area after a checking point became the spot of military dispute between and Assad’s and opposition’s forces.
This stirred concern in the UN with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warning the fragile state of no-war between Tel-Aviv and Damascus is at risk.
“The ongoing military activities in the [Golan] area of separation continue to have the potential to escalate tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic and to jeopardize the cease-fire between the two countries,” Ban Ki-moon said in a June 13 statement.
Journalists have frequently asked Assad whether he plans to open a resistance front at Golans. The option discussion was brought back to the table after every air strike on the Syrian territory pinned on Israel. Tel-Aviv always stopped short of confirming the strikes but hinted that it would do “whatever it takes” to stop arms supplies to Lebanon’s Hezbollah even if convoys are found going through Syria.
The strikes resonated across the world – and back in February Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council, warned Israel would “regret” them.
…vs. US troops in Jordan?
Reports of Iran’s decision to get directly involved in the Syrian conflict come just days after Israel’s ally, the US, chose to reverse its policy of not providing lethal aid to rebel fighters. The argument the Obama Administration used was that Damascus had crossed a red line by deploying chemical weapons against opposition forces on four separate occasions.
Washington’s policy shift has quickly materialized on multiple fronts, some of them also in the press.
On Saturday, the Pentagon announced a detachment of F-16s and US Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems dispatched to Jordan for the ongoing joint Eager Lion military exercise will remain in the country once the training drills conclude.
The same day, The Washington Post reported that clandestine bases in Jordan and Turkey would serve as conduits for arms being delivered to the rebel fighters.
US military support will thus far be limited to light arms and other munitions, although Washington’s shifting calculus has potentially given a green light to regional Sunni allies to provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the Assad opposition.
Just one day before the Pentagon announced its intention to leave Patriot missiles and F-16s in Jordan, senior Western diplomats in Turkey announced Washington was mulling the establishment of a no-fly zone, “possibly near the Jordanian border.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that any attempt to impose such a zone would be in clear violation of international law.
Syria vortex: Saudi Arabia, Al-Nusra, Hezbollah
The US, Israel and Iran are not the only actors to have “activated” recently.
On Sunday, the German daily Der Spiegel, citing the German foreign intelligence service, said Saudi Arabia is looking to provide European-made Mistral-class MANPADS – man-portable air-defense systems – to the Syrian opposition.
Notably, on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia condemned the role of another party to the conflict – Hezbollah – announcing that measures would be taken against those loyal to the group who lived in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group based out of Lebanon, played an integral part in the recapture of the strategic city of Qusayr last week. Damascus announced its intentions to use the Qusayr victory as a stepping stone to retaking large swaths of the northern city of Aleppo and surrounding provinces.
Some 2,000 of Hezbollah’s 65,000 strong force has reportedly been operating in the city since early June. Shortly after these reports emerged, the New York Times rolled out an article saying Israel accelerated planning for a “shock and awe” campaign to wipe out Hezbollah forces out of Syria.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of Hezbollah’s “blatant interference” in the Syrian conflict, a report issued by Intelligence Online in January said that Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for the radical al-Nusra Front’s very existence and operational superiority within the country.
“The Saudi General Intelligence, controlled by Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, exploited its broad calls with Takfiri [atoning] movements in Iraq to help establish al-Nusra Front, a low-profile Takfiri movement,” the report stated.
“Thanks to funding from the General Intelligence Department and support from the Saudi Intelligence in Lebanon, al-Nusra was able to swiftly arm its forces, and make the Syrian regime suffer painful blows through its expertise in Iraqi bombings,” it continued.
The Al-Nusra Front, with its alleged Saudi connections, is incidentally the Syrian branch of the Islamic State of Iraq, which aims to establish a caliphate in the Sunni dominated regions of Iraq. This brings a strong sectarian smell to the two-year conflict and lifts far above local “anti-government” sentiments.
The increased effectiveness of pro-Assad forces has been met with frustration by prominent Sunni clerics. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian theologian, called on Sunnis in the region to join the battle against Damascus, asking: “How could 100m Shia [worldwide] defeat 1.7bn [Sunni]?”
With the United States, its Sunni allies in the region and Israel all preparing to step up involvement in the Syrian conflict, Iran’s commitment to defend the Assad government is likely just as motivated by self-preservation as Shiite solidarity.