Iran is quietly working with the terror group Hezbollah to ensure that Syria remains aligned with Tehran if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is deposed by rebel forces, according to an Israeli research organization.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah secretly traveled to Tehran in mid-April to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, according to a report authored by Israeli Brigadier-General (ret.) Shimon Shapira, a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).
Nasrallah and Khamenei have devised a plan to establish a "150,000-man force for Syria, the majority of whom will come from Iran, Iraq, and a smaller number from Hezbollah and the Gulf states," the report states.
The Israeli report was released as the Pentagon issued its own report that Iran is expanding its use of terrorist proxies across the world in a bid to extend its influence.
Iran has positioned itself as one of Assad’s top backers, providing him with public support and other resources as he battles Sunni rebels.
The April meeting between Hezbollah and Iran "was clandestine and no details were divulged on an official level—except for the exclusive posting on Hezbollah’s official website of a photograph of Khamenei with Nasrallah beside him in the former’s private library, with a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini above them," the report notes.
The joint Iranian-Hezbollah plan is believed to be three-pronged.
Iran aims to build "a popular sectarian army" comprised of ethnic Arab Shiites and Alawites that would "be backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf," the report states.
Once a force of 150,000 fighters is built, it "will be integrated with the Syrian army," the report concludes.
Senior Iranian military leaders are believed to have "visited Syria in late February-early March to prepare the implementation of this plan."
Nasrallah delivered a speech in Lebanon following the meeting in which he claimed "Syria ‘has real friends’ that wouldn’t let it fall, implying that, if necessary, he would redouble his efforts to defend Iranian interests, which has always been one of the missions of Hezbollah," according to the report.
The development of an Iranian contingency plan may signal the importance Tehran puts on its strategic relationship with Syria.
"An important expression of Syria’s centrality in Iranian strategy was voiced by Mehdi Taaib, who heads Khamenei’s think tank," the report states. "He recently stated that ‘Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside Iran].’"
The presence of Iranian Gen. Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, is a clear sign Tehran is contemplating military involvement in Syria, Shapira notes in the report.
"Suleimani’s involvement in the meeting with Nasrallah was significant. He has been the spearhead of Iranian military activism in the Middle East," according to the report. "In January 2012, he declared that the Islamic Republic controlled ‘one way or another’ Iraq and South Lebanon. He now appeared to be prepared to extend Iran’s control to all of Syria."
Iran is tapping into a pool of Iraqi extremists as the United States pulls its forces from the country.
"Iran is also recruiting Shiite forces in Iraq for the warfare in Syria," the report states. "These are organized in a sister framework of Lebanese Hezbollah."
"Known as the League of the Righteous People and Kateeb Hezbollah, its mission is to defend the Shiite centers in Damascus," according to the report. "It is likely that Tehran will make every effort to recruit additional Shiite elements from Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and even from Pakistan."
The White House continues to grapple over the issue of whether the United States will arm Syrian rebels or intervene militarily.
The head of U.S. Special Operations warned against military intervention in Syria during a rare public address on Thursday afternoon.
Syrian intervention "isn’t as easy as it may appear," Admiral William H. McRaven said.