Iran bolsters militias in Syria
WASHINGTON — Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, are building a network of militias inside Syria to preserve and protect their interests in the event that President Bashar Assad's government falls or is forced to retreat from Damascus, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
The militias are fighting alongside Syrian government forces to keep Assad in power. But officials believe Iran's long-term goal is to have reliable operatives in place should Syria fractures into separate ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
A senior Obama administration official cited Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria.
“It's a big operation,” the official said. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it's important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”
Iran's strategy, a senior Arab official agreed, has two tracks. “One is to support Assad to the hilt; the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses.”
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Syrian fragmentation along religious and tribal lines is a growing concern for neighboring governments and the Obama administration as the civil war approaches its third year with little sign of a political solution or military victory for either Assad's forces or the rebels.
Rebel forces, drawn largely from Syria's Sunni majority, are far from united, with schisms along religious, geographic, political and economic lines. Militant Islamists, including many from other countries and with ties to al-Qaida, are growing in power.
Kurdish nationalists have their own militias, with control over major swaths of the northeast part of the country and in parts of Aleppo, and far greater interest in autonomy than alliance with either side of the conflict.
Minority Christians have largely sided with Assad, fearing the outcome of an Islamist victory.