By Sam Dagher, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, 17 February 2016
BEIRUT—In a mausoleum here for slain members of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militant group, a woman prayed next to the tomb of her son’s best friend who was killed three years ago in Damascus, she said, in an attack in which her own son was wounded.
But she isn’t consumed by fear for her family as fighting in Syria’s north rages on.
“He went back to Aleppo this morning,” the woman said of her son, now 25 years old. “I have another son who is 14 and I told him: Finish 10th grade and follow your brother’s footsteps.”
Her older son is part of what is now Iran’s de facto foreign legion.
Hezbollah along with members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard unit and thousands of Iran-funded and trained Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere are leading the current ground assault in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, pressing an offensive just before a cease-fire is supposed to take hold to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the start of peace negotiations.
After meeting Tuesday with Syrian regime officials in Damascus, the United Nations envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said the regime was required to allow the U.N. to supply aid as soon as possible, and he suggested that obligation would be tested on Wednesday.
The meeting came a day after Iranian and Russian officials said there would be no cease-fire with “terrorists,” while an escalation of violence, especially in the north, cast doubt on the future of the whole peace process.
President Barack Obama, in a news conference Tuesday, gave no indication the U.S. has a Plan B should the cease-fire fail, beyond continuing to try to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a political resolution to the conflict.
Tehran’s commitment to the cause is reflected in the deployment of the Shiite foreign fighters, and shows how intent it is to maintain the momentum that has allowed the regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, to reclaim swaths of territory from the rebels.
“These allies are together in the same command center, working, planning and coordinating their operations in the battlefield,” said a senior official in the Iran-Russia-Syrian regime military alliance. “Retaking Aleppo will restore the regime’s strength and control over Syria; toppling the regime is now a thing of the past.”
"Hezbollah along with members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard unit and thousands of Iran-funded and trained Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere are leading the current ground assault in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo"
A cease-fire as proposed by world powers in Munich last week, he said, would simply be a pause for the Iran-led ground forces to consolidate recent territorial gains.
The projection of power in northern Syria is the strongest signal by Shiite-led Iran that it intends both directly and via its Shiite proxies to bolster its reach and influence throughout the region. Already, Iran’s rivals—Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Turkey—have signaled they might get involved militarily to prevent Iran and Russia from crushing opposition rebels in and around Aleppo.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and expert on Shiite groups in Syria, said Iran has worked for decades to assemble and synthesize this network of proxies starting in the 1980s.
The centerpiece of this force was initially Hezbollah. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iran began creating new proxy Shiite militias there to fight the Americans. In Syria, Hezbollah and some members of the Iraqi Shiite militias were brought together with newer homegrown Syrian militias and a contingent of Afghan Shiites.
“Iran has now fully developed this foreign legion of sorts,” Mr. Smyth said. “Saudis are left in the dust by this Iranian effort.”
Since the start of the uprising against the regime in 2011, Saudi Arabia has backed a spectrum of armed groups and opposition figures and continues to insist there is no lasting solution in the country, including the defeat of extremists like Islamic State, without the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Smyth said the core of the Iran-led forces in Syria include several thousand Iranian fighters, up to 8,000 from Hezbollah, an estimated 6,000 Iraqis and about 3,500 Afghans. The numbers were corroborated by the senior official in the Iran-Russia-Syria alliance.
The operation to recapture Aleppo marks the boldest role for Iran and its proxies since the start of the conflict in Syria nearly five years ago. Tehran has already spent billions of dollars and dispatched thousands of its proxy militiamen to the country to prop up its ally, Mr. Assad.
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Tehran this month carried the coffins of fighters who were reportedly killed in the northern province of Aleppo. ENLARGE
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Tehran this month carried the coffins of fighters who were reportedly killed in the northern province of Aleppo. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Units of Syria’s army are with them on the ground while Russian airstrikes aid their advance. So far, the alliance has captured close to a dozen towns and villages around Aleppo and is poised to lay siege to rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo.
While these foreign forces have largely been on the front lines of battles in Aleppo in terms of storming and capturing areas held by rebels, reconstituted units of the Syrian army as well as local Syrian militias trained by Hezbollah and Iran have played a critical support role, the senior alliance official said. He said these Syrian forces will be the ones holding and securing areas won over from rebels.
Hezbollah and Iran refuse to discuss specifics of their involvement in Syria, but both are much more open about it than they were at the start of the conflict, when their role was portrayed as strictly limited to protect a revered Shiite shrine in the town of Seyda Zeinab near Damascus.
Today, funerals for Shiite fighters killed in Syria are held openly in Baghdad, Beirut and Tehran.
“The alliance of Iran, Russia, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon is marching toward victory and the Americans must realize that the region’s future will be decided by the Islamic Revolution’s strength,” said Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, during a ceremony on Thursday marking the 37th anniversary of the revolution that put the clergy at the helm of power.
Despite the war’s toll, many Shiites in the region have come to accept the idea promulgated by Hezbollah and Iranian officials that they are in an existential battle in Syria against Sunni extremists and it is best to be there to stop the threat from spreading.
“Our boys are going to Aleppo for the sake of our children’s future,” said Mohammad Al-Hajj, a 50-year-old grocery shop owner in Beir Al-Abed, a neighborhood in the predominantly Shiite and Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut. His friends and neighbors, who were gathered for coffee outside the shop, nodded in agreement. “They want the head of every Shiite,” said 64-year-old Ali Nahle, referring to Sunni extremists.
Nearby, members of a local security force linked to Hezbollah were putting up barriers along some of the roads leading to the neighborhood. Everyone fears Sunni militants will retaliate for the Aleppo offensive by bombing pro-Hezbollah areas as they have done since July 2013. Beir Al-Abed was struck twice already.