By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Recent moves by Iranian-backed Liwa Fatemiyoun (لواء فاطمیون) and Liwa Zainebiyoun, two units of Afghan and Pakistani Shi'ites who serve in Syria with the IRGC, appear to correspond to new tensions between the US, Iran and Israel and may also involve moves by Russia in Syria. At the very least the recent reports indicate not only that the two units are growing more open about their presence between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor and that posturing between Tehran, Moscow, Damascus, Washington and Jerusalem tie into this presence and its ramification.
The two units sit astride a key strategic corridor for Iran and pro-Iranian groups in Syria, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq.
Sada AlSharqieh, a Syrian media "organization that is working to cover the situations in Eastern of Syria" put up a video of the units in Albukamal (البوكمال). It was posted on their Facebook page and on Twitter, with the description: "a video of a religious celebration for the militia of Zeinaboun in Albukamal In the open air during Ramadan days." This video circulated on May 15 but was likely taken earlier. It is one of several recent photos that have placed these Afghan and Pakistan units in and around the Imam Ali base and Albukamal.
The video comes amid numerous other reports of movement between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor and tensions there with these militias. Omar Abu Layla, CEO of Deir Ezzor24 wrote on May 24 "Russia continues to take bolder steps against Iran in Deir Ezzor. It opened up the door for volunteering as a first step towards disbanding the Shiite factions in Deir Ezzor, and indirectly support the sanctions on Iran, especially its external projects." Photos and reports about Hezbollah's role has also increased. He writes "Deir Ezzor 24 network correspondent said that today, members of Hezbollah militias have stolen shops’ fronts and roller shutters from the roofed market of Al-Mayadeen city, and that two Kia 4000 vehicles transported the stolen properties."
They may be increasing activities to help protect a key road that helps transport Iranian weapons to Hezbollah via Syria. Several Fatemiyun members were reported killed on May 4 near Mayadeen by an IED, and more may have been killed in a May 5 airstrike. They may also be present as part of Iran’s plan to create a network of units along the road.
There appears to be increased activity by pro-Iranian groups between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor in Syria, along the Euphrates river across from where US-led Coalition forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces partners are located. Hezbollah members have been photographed in the same area. Ostensibly some of the public activity of these groups is linked to religious events for Ramadan. These groups and their supporters have been more active on social media lately, revealing more details about their activities and their view of the conflict in Syria as part of a regional struggle that Iran is waging. They view their role as one of religious devotion to protecting Shi'ite shrines and also fighting Israel and other groups. Over the years other pro-Iranian groups have taken up root in the corridor between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor, including important towns such as Mayadeen.
The satellite images and the Imam Ali base
Iran began constructing a base at the border crossing between Syria and Iraq in 2019. Dubbed "Imam Ali" it was in the desert near the border. The border crossing was re-opened in September 2019. This area had been he site of an airstrike in the summer of 2018 that targeted a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters in a villa. ImageSat International, which has published satellite photos of the area, noted at the time "In November 2017, the Syrian army and its allies took complete control over Al-Bukamal area, Deir Ezzor province, which was the last stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) after it was ousted from Raqqa. Iran-led Iraqi Shiite militias, such as Kata’ib Hizballah and Harakat al-Nujaba, had participated in the capturing of the Iraqi border town of al-Qa’im."
The base has been hit by airstrikes in January and March. The US has carried out airstrikes against Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah in the wake of attacks by that group on US forces in Iraq. Syrian media has also blamed Israel for airstrikes. A new tunnel was revealed at the base on May 14 at a FoxNews report by Trey Yingst and Yonat Friling. Other images showing damage to the site inflicted by March 12 airstrikes.
US Statements: Pompeo and Jeffrey
Iran’s role in Syria was mentioned by the US State Department as part of discussions between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Israel. Reports in Israeli media in early May indicated that Iran might be withdrawing some of the 1,000 personnel it has in Syria in response to airstrikes that had hit Iranian sites in recent months. However other reports, by US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey, said Iran still sought a strategic corridor in Syria to use Syria as a base of attacks against Israel and to arm Hezbollah with precision guided munitions. Iranian backed militias have not left their posts near Albukamal.
On may 13 US State Department officials spoke to the press about Pompeo's trip to Israel.
QUESTION: Yeah. Have there been some incidents lately that kind of increase that urgency about the Iranian threat?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, let’s see, I mean, the most obvious thing is that you see things oftentimes blowing up in Syria.
The US also believes that Russia is frustrated with Assad. US anti-ISIS and Syria envoy James Jeffrey said on May 7: "There’s obviously growing Russian frustration with Assad because he will not bend. Compare the way the Iranians try to sell themselves with people like Zarif and Rouhani. You find Assad has nothing but thugs around him, and they don’t sell well either in the Arab world or in Europe."
He also remarked about Israel-Iran tensions. "In terms of the reports, and we saw them, out of Jerusalem on the Iranians withdrawing, we see some Iranian movement around Syria pulling back from areas where the Israelis have struck them. We’ve also seen a withdrawal of Iranian-backed militias – some Hizballah, some from other countries. But this may be chalked up to a relative lull in the fighting. These are frontline combat forces. What we have not seen – and I want to underline this – is any strategic Iranian commitment not to try to use Syria both as a second launching pad for long-range weapons against Israel and as a conduit – the famous Shia Crescent – on to provide Hizballah more lethal and more modern precision-guided missiles, again, to threaten Israel. That would be the big change. That is central to our goals in Syria. Mike Pompeo talked about that at length, the withdrawal of all Syrian-commanded forces yesterday. That remains at the center of our policy there and we’re pressing all sides to achieve that."
Jeffrey said on March 12 that the US wanted to make Syria a "quagmire" for Russia. Russia has sought to prevent the UN from supplying eastern Syria, and Russian media regularly critique the US role in Syria, including its role at the Tanf base near Jordan. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah also recently rejected theories that Iran and Russia are competing in Syria. He blamed Israel for strikes on missile production facilities in Syria. Russia also asserted in November 2019 that Israel has conducted numerous strikes in Syria, claiming Israel flew over Jordanian airspace to conduct at least one of those strikes. Moscow has been more quiet in its criticism since January.
Russia, the US, Khmeimim and Iran
Asharq al-Awsat, the London-based publication, put out a report on may 14 asserting that “the US, Russia and Israel are pushing to block a strategic road corridor between Tehran and Beirut.” According to this narrative the attempt to interdict the Iranians and their militias also involves the US-backed SDF who are located in eastern Syria and also the Maghawir al-Thawra, or MaT unit of US-backed Syrian rebels located in Tanf base near Jordan.
The Iranian corridor runs between these two US-backed partners, with Tanf on one side and the SDF in Baghouz on the other. But the Russians, who back the Assad regime, have in the past wanted the US to leave Syria. Recent reports say that Moscow and Damascus are trying to stir up discontent in eastern Syria at the same time they prevent aid from reaching US-influenced areas.
Iran also wants the US removed from Iraq and Syria. Stories of Russia confronting Iran in Syria are in contrast to stories arguing Iran is now flying into Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria. There were May 15 indications of Russian air force planes flying via Iran to Syria. There appears to be more activity at Khmeimim as Cham Wings flights keep flying from there to Libya where Russia backs one side in the civil war.
The claims of a dispute between Assad and Russia have been pushed by Turkish media and other outlets. There is no conclusive evidence that Russia is working against Iran in Syria, but there are lingering questions about why Syria has not activated the S-300s it received from Russia in the fall of 2018. A media campaign to portray Russia's radars in Syria as incapable of detecting Israeli strikes has also been circulated in early May.
The corridor in 2020
The recent moves by Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun illustrate their increasing role in a key strategic corridor. The instability in neighboring Iraq, the role of the Hashd al-Shaabi on the other side of the border, ISIS activity, and possible Russia-Iran tensions or misinformation campaigns all point to a tense situation between Albukamal, Dier Ezzor and Palmyra. These areas where the T-4, and other bases are located, which were used to transit Iranian munitions and even Iranian air defense, are the subject of intense scrutiny by the US, Israel and others.
The Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyou were previously portrayed as "cannon fodder," sent to Syria by Iran with low pay and few options. Many have died in the Syrian civil war. However, their entrenchment may be a new phenomenon. As Hezbollah plays a larger role in Iraq (In April the US put a $10 million bounty on Hezbollah's Mohammad al-Kawtharani, who plays a key role in Iraq) and as Iran searches for a replacement capable of extending Qasem Soleimani's role, there are questions about how over-stretched groups like Hezbollah may be. The role of the Afghan and Pakistani units may indicate these looming question marks for Iran and its allies.
* update *
On Sunday reports emerged that some militias reported casualties in the area of Albukamal on May 17. It was not clear if they were linked to the Afghan or Pakistani units but their presence in Albukamal was mentioned and the attack reportedly killed seven members of the "Iran-backed paramilitary.'