Iran’s Proxies in Syria Move Toward Escalation With Israel

Foreign Policy, 10.11.2023
Kasra Aarabi y Jason M. Brodsky, ambos del United Against Nuclear Iran
As Israel advances in Gaza, the intensity of the response by Tehran’s so-called axis of resistance will increase

Since the conflict between Israel and Hamas broke out on Oct. 7, there has been concern that the regime in Iran might initiate a multiple front attack against Israel via its network of militias in the region—a threat that it has consistently made. Until now, much of the attention has focused on the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) oldest and deadliest proxy. Yet there is another dimension to Tehran’s arsenal that has garnered less attention: the myriad militia groups it controls in Syria and Iraq.

Following the Oct. 7 attack, Esmail Qaani, the IRGC Quds Force commander responsible for managing the Iranian regime’s militia network, has made multiple trips to Syria to coordinate with the IRGC’s proxies there and in neighboring Iraq. Qaani’s visits have been followed by more than 40 missile or drone strikes by Tehran’s proxies against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, with the objective of both testing U.S. redlines and controlling the path of escalation. These attacks have been coupled with multiple reports indicating that the IRGC’s proxies in Syria have begun mobilizing toward the Israeli border. Syrian media has also indicated that Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Unit had arrived in Syria in October and deployed close to Israel.

But perhaps the clearest indication about the integral role of the Syrian front to the IRGC’s multifront escalation against Israel came just a few days ago, on Oct. 22, when Qaani reportedly visited southern Syria and established a new “joint operation room” for the IRGC and its proxies alongside the Golan Heights.

The Iranians will likely carefully calibrate their use of proxies and partners with the progress that Israel makes in its campaign to destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As Israel advances, the intensity of the response by the IRGC’s so-called axis of resistance will increase. This will be especially true if Hamas appears on the verge of being defeated in Gaza. Militias in Iraq and Syria will figure heavily in this response.

Tehran sees the Hamas attacks on Israel as the beginning of a longer confrontation with the latter. In essence, the doctrine that the IRGC has built around this long war seeks to make Israel bleed slowly over a long period of time. As senior IRGC commanders have asserted, “the Palestinian operation is the beginning of the Resistance Axis’ movement to destroy Israel.”

In other words, even when this Hamas-Israel conflict eventually settles down, Tehran is preparing for more escalations, albeit from different fronts—and this is where Syria becomes particularly important.

While Tehran commands multiple militia assets across Syria, there are two particularly heavily armed and indoctrinated IRGC-manufactured proxies that have, since their inception, been specifically designed to target Israel: the IRGC’s Shiite Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Shiite Zainabiyoun militias.

To understand the nature, purpose, and capabilities of these two understudied and overlooked groups, it is essential to go back to their formation during the Syrian civil war.

The outbreak of the Syrian protests in 2011-12 against the Bashar al-Assad regime would prove to be the most consequential phase in the development of the IRGC’s militia doctrine. Syria had been the backbone of Tehran’s so-called axis of resistance, the main artery of support for Hezbollah, and was critical to the existence of the IRGC’s regional expansionist militancy project. Facing the likely prospect of the fall of the Assad regime, from 2013 onward, the IRGC was be forced to change track in Syria.

The first step toward achieving this would come when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iran’s supreme leader, would transform the IRGC’s involvement in Syria from preserving Assad to carrying out a Shiite jihad and “defending the holy Shia shrines” that he said were under attack by a “[Gulf] Arab-Zionist-Western” axis.

This call for a Shiite jihad, which was ignored in the West, would enable the regime in Iran to introduce an ideological element to the conflict, centered on extreme antisemitism and sectarianism, to draw on the regime’s ideological influence across the region. For Khamenei and senior IRGC commanders, such as Hossein Hamedani, the poor performance of the Syrian military and other pro-Assad groups was due to their lack of ideological commitment as a fighting force. These groups were viewed as mercenaries that lacked the necessary ideological devotion.

The call for a Shiite jihad was the pretext for the IRGC to construct ideologically compliant militias from scratch. On the spectrum of the IRGC’s proxy assets, IRGC-manufactured militias are the most deadly and are under its full command and control. These groups not only receive military, financial, and logistical support from Tehran, but the IRGC also spends significant time and resources to radicalize all of its recruits to ensure that they are ideologically driven militants rather than simply being paid mercenaries.

To operationalize this new plan, the IRGC made full use of the Iranian regime’s soft-power infrastructure across the Middle East and beyond to recruit and radicalize young Shiite men to manufacture new militia groups. Senior IRGC commanders directly tied to Khamenei’s office—such as Saeed Ghasemi—led these efforts.

Ghasemi, who had played a key role in official IRGC recruitment and indoctrination programs, immediately set his eyes on Iran’s significant Afghan Shiite refugee population, having long spoken of a desire to establish a Hezbollah of Afghanistan. Soon, thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shiite students studying at the IRGC-affiliated Al-Mustafa International University were being targeted for recruitment.

These students were used to form two IRGC cells in 2014-15: the Afghan Fatemiyoun cell, made up of around 1,000 militants, and the smaller Zainabiyoun cell, initially made up of no more than 24 militants. Yet Western policy toward Iran during this time inadvertently freed up resources that enabled the IRGC to upgrade them to full militias, both in terms of capabilities and size. With the lifting of some international sanctions on Tehran as part of the interim nuclear deal in 2013 and later the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the IRGC had the funds to grow these proxies and rapidly increase the number of IRGC-manufactured militias beyond these two groups.

In just a couple of years, the Fatemiyoun had increased its fighting force to more 15,000 militants and the Zainabiyoun to approximately 5,000 fighters.

Tehran spent significant time and resources on radicalizing these militants, mimicking the IRGC program of indoctrination that makes up more than 50 percent of the training for its own members. It is the tailor-made Islamist extremist views with which these Afghan and Pakistani recruits were trained that make them specifically designed to target Israel. These recruits have been indoctrinated under the IRGC’s militaristic doctrine of Mahdism, which claims that the biggest barrier to the return of Shiite Islam’s messianic Hidden Imam (Imam Mahdi) is the existence of the state of Israel.

Prior to the Mahdi’s arrival—according to some historic Shiite narrations—there will be an apocalyptic war that will destroy Israel and Jews worldwide. As part of the IRGC’s indoctrination program, militants are radicalized to believe that the IRGC and its proxy fighters are the military vehicle to speed up and prepare the foundations for the Mahdi’s return. As one IRGC cleric responsible for ideological activities of the Fatemiyoun asserted: “the Fatemiyoun is an example of the movement to prepare the foundations for [the Hidden Imam’s] reappearance.”

This doctrine was at the forefront of the IRGC’s efforts to recruit, radicalize, and train members of the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun, with the fight in Syria described as the prelude to a final battle to eradicate Israel. As the Farsi memoirs written by a late Fatemiyoun commander in 2015 state: “The wish of our Fatemiyoun is face-to-face confrontation with the usurping Israeli regime. The Fatemiyoun is training in Syria, and then we will fulfill the divine promise of [former Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah] Khomeini. Israel must be wiped from the face of the Earth.” Multiple firsthand accounts by Fatemiyoun recruits echo the same message: The so-called “final battle” against Israel is what motivates them.

In many ways, the IRGC stayed true to its words and mission. Having used these proxy groups to brutally suppress the Syrian revolution, it did not take long for the IRGC to establish military positions alongside the border with Israel to open a new front—all of which took place right under the West’s nose.

Israel has, of course, been well aware of this threat, which is why it has undertaken an aggressive air campaign targeting those assets. Yet these strikes have failed to deter the IRGC.

Since then, Khamenei’s regime in Iran has been focused on consolidating the IRGC’s positions in Syria and expanding the fighting forces of the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun proxies. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, which resulted in a mass exodus of Shiite Afghan refugees to Iran, has provided the IRGC with the perfect storm to exploit and beef up the number of Fatemiyoun recruits.

Militants from these proxy groups have also started playing a more active role in IRGC-Quds Force terrorist operations abroad, which have targeted Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish community. In October 2021, counterterrorism police in Cyprus foiled an IRGC-linked terrorist plot against an Israeli citizen, which was orchestrated by a Pakistani cell affiliated with the Zainabiyoun. Israel has also downed drones that it concluded had been launched by the IRGC from Syria.

Iraq is another theater that the Iranian regime can draw from instead of using Hezbollah to fully open a northern front against Israel. Like Syria, the U.S. military has also downed drones over Iraq that were set to attack Israel, including two that were shot down in early 2022.

Already, there have been reports that militiamen from Iraq have arrived in Lebanon. This dynamic displays the flexibility and portability of some elements of the Iranian regime’s axis of resistance. With Hezbollah playing a larger role in managing that axis in the aftermath of the death of the late Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani, this can be a way for its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to reduce the burden on Hezbollah of responding and instead diffuse responsibility to other elements of the axis of resistance.

For both the IRGC and Hezbollah, an attack against Israel from the Syrian or Iraqi fronts might be preferable right now given that any Hezbollah intervention would risk the group’s standing domestically in Lebanon. Stationed in Assad’s Syria, neither the Fatemiyoun nor the Zainabiyoun come with the same domestic baggage, making their intervention much lower in risk for Tehran. Ditto for the Iraqi militias, although they are less expendable than their Syrian counterparts given the sensitive political situation in Iraq, with Washington having more leverage over Baghdad than Damascus.

From a military standpoint, there is also much less to lose than intervention from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah remains the IRGC’s most valuable asset in the region, and it has armed the group with a highly sophisticated infrastructure of weapons. The IRGC would find it much easier to digest using Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun militants as cannon fodder than risk harming its gold standard terror group in Lebanon.

The journey through which the IRGC has taken militias such as the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun has mimicked that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The IRGC has been able to manufacture two highly armed and indoctrinated Islamist terrorist organizations made up of deeply antisemitic militants motivated by the goal of eradicating the world’s only Jewish-majority country—and station them mere kilometers away from Israel’s border.

It is precisely for this reason that the Syrian and Iraqi fronts should not be overlooked in assessments on the threat of the multifront attack on Israel. Since Oct. 7, the IRGC has doubled down on its Mahdist doctrine messaging to communicate the terrorist attacks on Israel as the prelude to its destruction and return of the Hidden Imam. This should set off alarm bells. Governments and policymakers have consistently overlooked and underestimated the ideological aspect to the IRGC and its proxy network. This has in part been ignored because of its complexity, in part because it did not suit the policy agenda.

However, especially as Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun militants mobilize toward the Israeli border against the beat of the IRGC’s Mahdist drum, it would be a fatal error to underestimate this threat from Syria and beyond. The IRGC recruited, radicalized, and designed these militias with the stated objective of fighting Israel. What might have seemed like mere propaganda almost a decade ago is perhaps much closer to reality today.

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