JERUSALEM – For the first time in the four-year-old civil war raging in Syria, an Iranian combat unit has deployed in defense of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Several hundred members of the elite Revolutionary Guard have taken position on high ground close to the Lebanese border near the village of Zabadani northwest of Damascus, according to Israeli defense sources.
Briefing Israeli reporters Thursday, the sources said the Iranian move is coordinated with the Russians who have also been beefing up their presence in Syria in recent weeks although not yet with combat troops.
Asked last week by reporters whether Russia had sent troops to Syria, President Vladimir Putin termed the question "premature." Said Putin: "We are looking at various options but so far what you are asking is not on the agenda." A senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Gen. Qassem Soleimani, visited Moscow last month and met with Putin in what is seen as an effort to coordinate moves to prevent the downfall of the Assad regime.
The influx of outside troops shows the desperate situation of the Syrian army, which has been unable to suppress the uprising in more than four years. It has been plagued by desertions, and many young men eligible for the draft have fled the country. Many are presumably part of the surge of Syrian refugees flooding Europe.
Until now, the Hezbollah militia from Lebanon has been serving as a prime strike force for Assad and suffering heavy losses. The direct intervention of Iranian troops suggests that this has not been enough.
Iran was a principal backer of the Assad regime even before the outbreak of the civil war. It was through the Damascus Airport that Tehran was able to funnel tens of thousands of rockets to its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. Those rockets, and other armaments provided Hezbollah, are aimed at deterring Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.
During the fighting between the Syrian army and rebel groups, Iranian involvement increased steadily, from strategic guidance to tactical input. Tehran has been a key financial backer of the Syrian regime and, together with Russia, has supplied it with weapons.
IRGC officers served as military advisers to Syrian units and, as such, had an active role in the fighting. Six Iranian generals have reportedly been killed in Syria. At least one was killed in an Israeli airstrike last January along with five other members of the Revolutionary Guard when they were reconnoitering the Golan border from inside Syria.
Iran also recruited thousands of fighters of Afghan origin and other "volunteers" to fight alongside Syrian troops and Hezbollah units in Syria. Despite these efforts, the Damascus regime has been hard pressed to withstand the rebels, which includes jihadists and members of the Islamic State (IS).
For decades, Syria has been Moscow’s principal foothold in the Middle East as a customer for its weapons and a strategic asset. American officials said last week that Moscow has sent a military advance team to Syria along with pre-fabricated housing units that may portend a large-scale buildup and the establishment of a Russian base. The build-up is occurring along the northern Syrian coast near the port of Latakia, an area which is an enclave controlled by the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs.
The Israeli news website, Ynet, reported last week that the Russians have begun to rehabilitate a Syrian airbase from which Russian warplanes will launch strikes against IS. There has been no confirmation of this report. Analysts say that Russia regards it as a supreme interest to reduce the influence of IS on radical jihadists in Islamic regions of the former Soviet Union
Israel is not particularly concerned by the increased Russian presence in Syria, given the good relations between the two countries.
"Russia’s policy in Syria does not pose any threat to Israel," says Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow.
The presence of Iranian troops is another matter. Should they become involved in fighting rebel groups near Israel’s Golan border the situation could become explosive.