Russia announced in early August that it had convinced Iranian forces in Syria to keep away from the Israeli border by about 85 kilometers (53 miles). The Russian mediation came in the backdrop of an escalation in Israeli military strikes against Iranian-led forces in Syria.
Syria Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev told Sputnik news on August 1 that Russia had taken into account Israeli concerns. “We managed to attain the pullout of Iranian units 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Israeli border,” he added. Since the June offensive by forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad in the southwest, Israel has insisted that no Iranian troops should be permitted anywhere in Syria. Tel Aviv and Tehran have been engaged in a tit for tat escalation in Syria, with Israel having targeted military targets inside Syria over 150 times since the onset of the civil war in 2011.
However, if Lebanese history has taught us anything, Iranian retreat from southwest Syria will be short lived. It will be more a tactical maneuver by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) to ease tension and consolidate its gains rather than a permanent retreat.
For now, Tehran is prioritizing Assad’s consolidation over Syrian territory. At the end of July, pro-Damascus news outlets reported that forces loyal to the regime were amassing in the north of the country, for the next offensive on Idlib. Concomitantly, Turkey is organizing a summit on Syria, including Russia, France and Germany. The Syrian regime appears to be also engaging the Kurdish opposition in the northeast, who met with government officials in a recent visit to Damascus.
The ongoing regional gesturing has resulted in de-prioritizing southwest Syria for now. Nonetheless, as Hezbollah expert Nicholas Blanford pointed out, “Iran will play the long game in southwest Syria by relying either on Hezbollah or Iraqi militant groups (there)”. While southwest Syria may not be Iran’s immediate concern, it is unlikely that it will forgo such an essential card.
A source close to Hezbollah militants deployed in Syria told the author in a previous interview that Hezbollah commanders had led operations in southwest Syria, despite Russian disapproval. In addition, the source had also implied that Hezbollah might ostenisbly heed to Moscow’s demands but could always infiltrate Syrian troops redeploying in southern Syria by having members dressed as Syrian soldiers embedded within regular troops.
Hezbollah expert Brahim Beyram says that the organization is not commenting on the recent Israeli Russian deal, adding it was unlikely that Russia would implement the deal in the long haul.
The events in Syria are in many ways similar to the Lebanese situation in the post-2006 war phase between Israel and Hezbollah. The July conflict which resulted in the death of over 1,200 people ended with the UN Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted in August 2006, which called for the delineation of the international borders of Lebanon, especially in those areas where the border is disputed or uncertain, on the Lebanese government to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related material. The resolution also ruled out the presence of any foreign forces other than the UN peacekeepers in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Lebanese army south of the Litani River. At the time, the UN had also called for all provisions of the Taif Agreement to be implemented, in particular, the disarming and disbanding of all militia including Hezbollah.
While peace has largely been maintained on the southern border since 2006, little of the 1701’s terms have been respected. In previous interviews, Hezbollah fighters who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity stated that the organization maintained a large presence and an underground infrastructure, and conducted regular reconnaissance work on the Lebanese border.
The IRGC also set up the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon (ICRL) after the 2006 war to rebuild Hezbollah-dominated areas in southern Lebanon. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated the ICRL as a terrorist organization because it “financed and facilitated” the activities of Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organization. Hassan Shateri, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, headed the ICRL under the pseudonym Hessam until he was killed in Syria in February 2013. It was also the ICRL that built Hezbollah’s secret fiber optics network that triggered a political and military crisis in Lebanon in 2008.
Furthermore, an illegal Hezbollah weapons stockpile exploded in southern Lebanon in 2009. UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy stated at the time that Hezbollah members dressed in civilian clothes tried preventing UNIFIL from investigating the site.
In 2015 Lebanese As-Safir newspaper reported Hezbollah’s had increased its battle readiness in south Lebanon. The article detailed the combat-ready bunkers and tunnels built by Hezbollah in south Lebanon that were lined with rocket launchers and emphasized that the organization had watched the border day and night and the enemy's movements constantly.
Last year, Israel accused Hezbollah of establishing observation posts under the guise of an NGO “Green Without Borders” near the Blue Line border between Lebanon and Israel presumably to gather intelligence. The UNIFIL replied nonetheless that it “had not observed any unauthorized armed persons at the locations.
In March 2017, Blanford noted in an article published in the Arab Weekly that Hezbollah was still focused on the front with Israel “with many of its top fighters, especially anti-tank missile teams and rocket units, remaining in Lebanon. For two months, plain-clothes Hezbollah units had been conducting a thorough but low-key survey of the Israeli border, taking extensive measurements of terrain, including slope gradients, and photographing Israel’s new defenses on the other side of the frontier fence,” he reported.
At the end of 2017, Hezbollah organized a tour for journalists along the border with Israel, which also featured dozen of uniformed Hezbollah fighters holding machine guns. The event was a deliberate violation of the 1701 Resolution.
Hezbollah’s activity has also extended north of the Litani, where sources have told the author it has built a wide defensive line where it houses medium- and long-range missiles. In addition, Hezbollah is still conducting military training in camps in the Bekaa Valley, east of Lebanon, ranging from basic weapon drills, to small unit tactics and ideological training.
The 1701 Resolution has thus failed to curb Hezbollah’s power, the organization is growing its military arsenal and manpower to over 25,000 fully-trained combatants, and more than 100,000 rockets and missiles. In 2017, the Economist reported that Israeli officials said that Hezbollah had 17 times more rockets than it did a decade ago and more sophisticated weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles.
It is likely that given its Lebanese success, Iran will apply a similar blueprint in Syria. “Tehran will also want to extend what Hezbollah has on its Lebanese frontier with Israel, to the Golan and leverage southwest Syria in its confrontation with Israel on the long run. Iran is trying to shape its strategic interests in Syria as time passes by, to maintain its land bridge there against Israel,” explains Blanford.
Iran has a vested interest in the southwest and will continue to expand its influence there. It may do so either covertly or use strategic patience until circumstances are ripe. South Syria, muchlike Lebanon, has become a useful strategic card in Tehran’s regional game.