A new report released Tuesday on the presence of foreign Shi’ite fighters entering Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime has put their numbers at 7,000 to 8,000.
The study was released by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a part of the Israeli Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center. The Center was founded in the 1980s by leading members of the Israeli intelligence community.
“In our assessment, Iran might profit from the involvement of Shi’ite foreign fighters in Syria when they return to their countries of origin, especially Iraq.
Their return is liable to create for the Iranians, especially the Quds Force, ready-made networks of trained, battle-experienced fighters that can be leveraged by Iran for its terrorism and subversive activities,” the report said.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Reuven Erlich, head of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, said the Shi’ite fighters could easily become “Iranian agents, with motivation and military experience,” which could spread out across the region.
“Their numbers are increasing, and in our assessment today there are at least 7,000-8,000, including several thousand Hezbollah fighters (whose numbers change from time to time),” the report said discussing the amount of Shi’ite militia volunteers in Syria.
That estimate included several thousand Shi’ite Iraqis organized into military units, the most prominent of which is the Abu al-Fadhel al-Abbas Brigade. “In addition to the hard core of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite fighters, there are several hundred Shi’ite foreign fighters from the Shi’ite communities in Arab and Muslim countries such as Bahrain, Yemen (Houthi rebels), Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” the report continued.
The arrival of Shi’ite volunteers from the Arab-Muslim world is being orchestrated by Iran, it said.
“Iran supports them not only by providing religious justification, but money and equipment as well. In addition, in our assessment Iran is involved in operating the Shi’ite military units in collaboration and close coordination with the Syrian army and the Assad regime’s security forces.
Handling Hezbollah, and the other Shi’ite foreign fighters in Syria, follows Iran’s strategy of supporting the Syrian regime through proxies, limiting its own direct military intervention in the fighting,” the report’s authors said.
Iran itself has sent several hundred soldiers to Syria, most of them members of Quds Force, a part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the research.
The Quds Force (which was also behind the recent attempt to smuggle Syrian arms to Gaza) has established militia units comprised of Shi’ites and Alawites across Syria. The units are nourished with weapons, military advice, guidance and training, funds and propaganda, the study said.
“The Quds Force, which has strong contacts with the Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias, recruits and handles Shi’ite foreign fighters in Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. Thus Iran’s extensive support (alongside Russia’s) is a strategic prop, enabling the Syrian regime to survive in the civil war whose end is not in sight and whose outcome is not clear,” it said.
Hezbollah’s highly trained military units in Syria are fighting in close collaboration with Syrian security forces, and have played a vital role in strategic battles, such as the recapture of Al-Qusayr in 2013.
“Over the past few months Hezbollah operatives have been integrated into the supporting units of the Syrian army’s campaigns in the rural areas east of Damascus, the areas around Aleppo and the ongoing campaign along the Syria- Lebanon border [the Al-Qalamoun mountains, especially the city of Yabrud], which, according to the media, is about to be taken over by the Syrian forces with Hezbollah backup,” the authors said.
Many Iraqi foreign fighters come with rich experience in guerilla warfare, the report said, but “in our assessment they are less proficient as fighters than Hezbollah.
However, the Shi’ite foreign fighters play an important role in defending the religious sites sacred to Shi’a, especially the grave of Al-Set Zaynab, south of Damascus.”
To a certain extent, the Shi’ite forces balance the involvement of foreign Sunni jihadists in Syria, and at the same time greatly complicate the civil war and intensify its religious-sectarian nature, the study found.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria provoked a counter-response in the form of al-Qaida attacks in Lebanon, a development that threatens “to undermine Lebanon’s already fragile internal stability and possibly eroding Hezbollah’s status. It might also aggravate the Arab-Muslim Sunni- Shi’ite rift.”
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center released a series of detailed studies on the Syrian civil wars, which are available on its website.
In January, it released a report estimating that some 6,000 to 7000 foreign Sunni fighters arrived in Syria to fight with the rebels, with the big majority of them joining jihadi organizations, foremost among them, the Al-Nusra Front.
The two central jihadi organizations in Syria, the Al Nusra Front, headed by al-Qaida’s central leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, have a combined membership of 9,000 members, of which an estimated 6,000 are foreign volunteers, according to the study.