Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias are increasingly in the spotlight after Israel said they were responsible for firing rockets toward Israel from near Damascus. IDF statements have pinpointed both Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Shi'ite militias, accusing them of involvement in killer drone threats, precision guided missile networks and firing rockets.
The increasing light being shown on Iran's "land bridge" or "path to the sea" stretching from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon is part of Israel's careful calculations aimed at sending a message to Tehran and its allies. For many years, this issue was not raised with the same level of concern, and Israel did not speak often about the nature of Iran's entrenchment in Syria or the specific groups involved. However, since 2017, Israel has been more open about airstrikes in Syria, eventually claiming more than 1,000 strikes on Iranian targets.
At the same time, recent tensions with Hezbollah after an airstrike hit a drone team south of Damascus, and Hezbollah accused Israeli drones of crashing in Beirut, leading to another round of statements about Hezbollah's precision guidance program for its missiles. Hezbollah is accused of working with Iran to build a factory in the Bekaa Valley to convert rockets to precision guidance.
Connect that with reports in August 2018 that rockets were transported from Iran to Iraq, and the increased rhetoric by Iraqi-based pro-Iranian groups who have excoriated Israel and the US, and it is clear that a network of Iranian-backed groups is slowly subverting the Syrian regimes weakened authority along the axis of Iran's land-bridge. It's not clear the degree to which the regime feels its authority is being weakened, but satellite images of an alleged new Iranian base near Al-Bukamal in Syria near the Iraqi border show a long-term investment by Tehran. Reports indicated that the border crossing was supposed to be opened this week. Satellite images of elements of Iran's entrenchment across Syria and Iraq are now more common.
That Shi'ite militias are now in the spotlight shows that concerns have increased from Hezbollah and the IRGC to its network of groups. These groups are a wide spectrum, from the least-capable recruits that come from Afghanistan or Pakistan, to hardened operatives who worked alongside the IRGC since the 1980s. Unlike Hezbollah's expertise in missiles and rockets, or tunnels and bunkers, many of these groups in Iraq never felt a need to be so clandestine. After 2017, they became part of Iraq's official security forces. They have bases, munition warehouses and armored vehicles.
Recent reports even indicated that the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, called Popular Mobilization Forces, want to acquire air defense and an air force. It appears that they are becoming stronger every day, more like the IRGC is to Iran than Hezbollah is to Lebanon. However, the focus on them now must lead Iran to decide more carefully how it wants to operate in Syria.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.