Iran and Hezbollah have significantly stepped up support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, Western intelligence reports have revealed.
The reports say that Iranian officers and Hezbollah militants have supplied arms to Syrian troops and trained them, to aid Assad in his months-long effort to crack down on anti-regime protests in the country. They also show that Hezbollah fighters were killed in clashes with rebel forces.
Israeli defense officials told Haaretz this week that the potential fall of the Assad regime prompted Iran and Hezbollah to increase their involvement in the Syrian crisis. According to the officials, even though the Iranians believe Assad will survive the uprising, they are still preparing for a scenario whereby he is toppled, in order to maximize their influence on a post-Assad Syria.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, backed by Military Intelligence information, said that Assad is past the point of no return and that his regime, which is enjoying less and less domestic and international legitimacy, is likely to implode. Barak did not specify a time frame. In late 2011, he incorrectly predicted that Assad’s fall would occur “within weeks.”
Analysts in Israel and the rest of the world were unimpressed with Assad’s declaration of victory in the flashpoint city of Homs earlier this week. Many say that Syria is sliding further into anarchy, and that it may meet the criteria of a “failed state” even before the regime collapses. Israeli officials are also skeptical about former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s recent efforts to put an end to the protracted crisis.
Recent data reveal that more than 10,000 people have been killed in clashes since the unrest began early last year. Some 20 percent of those killed were believed to be Assad loyalists; more than 80 percent were thought to belong to the opposition. The number of armed rebels is estimated at more than 10,000, but they suffer from chronic shortage of supply and interruptions in international support.
Iranian assistance to Syria, which has been ongoing for years and is dubbed “the shadow army” by Israel, consists of extensive arms shipments, which include rockets, mortars and anti-aircraft missiles that could be used against a potential air strike campaign by international forces, as well as riot dispersal means. The so-called shadow army was coordinated by Imad Mughniyeh and Mohammed Suleiman, who were killed in two separate incidents in 2008. Syria and Hezbollah claim the two were assassinated by Israel.
Iranian and Hezbollah assistance to Assad also includes the training of Syrian troops in urban warfare, as well as drone operations. Western intelligence reports reveal that Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials frequently make top-secret visits to Syria to advise the regime on how to deal with the rebels. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has beefed up the deployment of its troops along the Lebanon-Syria border, in an attempt to prevent arms spillover from Lebanon to Sunni opposition groups. Unlike Hamas, which ended its presence in Syria almost overnight after the crisis began, Hezbollah still maintains close ties with the Syrian regime and uses bases and ammunition reservoirs on Syrian territory.
The reports have also found traces of global jihad activity in Syria, mostly Al-Qaida and its ideological subsidiaries. The members of these organizations are mainly Sunni radicals, who arrived in Syria after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December last year. It is likely that these groups are behind the recent spate of car bomb attacks in Damascus and its vicinity.
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