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 al-Assads government falls or is forced to retreat from Damascus, according to U.S. and Mideastern officials.
The militias are fighting alongside Syrian government forces to keep Assad in power. But officials believe Irans long-term goal is to have reliable operatives in place in the event that 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.
Its a big operation, the official said.
The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But its important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.
Irans 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 administration, as the civil war approaches its third year with little sign of a political solution or military victory for either Assads forces or the rebels.
Rebel forces, drawn largely from Syrias 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. Syrias 700,000 Druze, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are increasingly leaning toward the rebels.
Despite U.S. efforts to persuade members of Assads Alawite sect, itself a minority within Islams Shiite branch, that their interests lay in abandoning him, Alawite support remains fairly solid.
Each of Syrias internal actors has external backers.
Syria is basically disintegrating as a nation, similar to how Lebanon disintegrated in the 70s to ethnic components, and as Iraq did, said Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Mideast Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Its going to be very hard to put Syria the nation back together.
Were looking at a place which is sort of a zone, an area called Syria, with different powers, Salem said.
Iran has a history of profiting from chaos, even without control of the government ostensibly in power. Hezbollah arose out of the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, when Iran was able to exploit the legitimate grievances of that countrys Shiite population, a pattern it also followed in Iraq during the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion.
In a divided Syria, Irans natural allies would include Shiites and Alawites concentrated in provinces near Syrias border with Lebanon and in the key port city of Latakia.
Under the most likely scenarios, analysts say, remnants of Assads government – with or without Assad himself – would seek to establish a coastal enclave closely tied to Tehran, dependent on the Iranians for survival while helping Iran to retain its link to Hezbollah and leverage against Israel.
Experts said that Iran is less interested in preserving Assad in power than in maintaining levers of power, including transport hubs inside Syria.
As long as Tehran could maintain control of an air- or seaport, it could also maintain a Hezbollah-controlled supply route into Lebanon and continue to manipulate Lebanese politics.
Preservation of an Iranian-supported area on the coast has always been Plan C or Plan D for core regime supporters, Salem said.
If everything fails and they lose, they have always prepared for the fortress region with everything they can cart away, even if they lose Damascus, Salem said.
Thats not necessarily what they want, he said. They want to hold on to the whole thing. But the worst-case scenario is that the whole regime relocates to the northwest, and they still have the most powerful (armed) unit inside Syria, with a lot of the current structure.
Newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry expressed during his confirmation hearing last month the administrations concern that Syria could break apart.