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Syria Analysis: Dissecting The Washington Post's Scary "Iran-Hezbollah 50,000 Militiamen in Syria " Story

Later article --- Syria & Iran Follow-Up: The Real Story of "Syria's Iran-Hezbollah 50,000-Man Militia" in 3 Easy Steps

Head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Mohammad Ali Jafari announces Tehran's military support for Assad regime, 16 September 2012

A prominent Washington Post story claiming, "Iran and Hezbollah Build Militia Networks in Syria in Event that Assad Falls" --- and an explanation of why we did not report it as news on Sunday....

First, the sensational article from US-based reporters Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick:

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- 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 think Iran’s long-term goal is to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into 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.”

Now the dissection....

Iran has military officers inside Syria. We have reported for months on Tehran's logistical and advisory support for the Syrian military, a presence confirmed last autumn by the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards.

We also have reported on evidence of Hezbollah fighters in the country, including a number of whom have died in combat with insurgents.

This is a far cry, however, from "50,000 militiamen". And the Post has no evidence --- none --- beyond the statements from the two officials above and a declaration from the US Treasury that "Jaysh al-Sha’bi, an alliance of local Shiite and Alawite militias...receives weapons and cash from Iran".

There is not a single piece of information from inside Syria that could establish if the US and Arab officials are revealing a major development or putting out an exaggerated story. The Post does not appear to have a correspondent in the country at the moment, and DeYoung and Warrick do not seem aware of the reporting of journalists from other outlets who are on the ground.

Given that, where does the 50,000 figure come from? The answer is not in any investigative reporting, but in the US designation of the Syrian Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation, sanctioning two of its leaders on 11 December.

Tucked away in the order was the paragraph:

On December 11, the Treasury Department also took action against Jaysh al-Sha'bi and the Shabiha. These militias have been instrumental in the Assad regime’s campaign of terror and violence against the citizens of Syria. Jaysh al-Sha’bi was created, and continues to be maintained, with support from Iran and Hizballah and is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven itself effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent within Iran.

This was the sole piece of evidence presented for the claim: "Iran's IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] Commander Mohamad Ali Jafari also claimed that the militia, which he claimed has 50,000 members, was modeled after Iran's own Basij, a paramilitary force subordinate to the IRGC that has been heavily involved in the violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuses occurring in Iran since the June 2009 contested presidential election.

On 16 September, Jafari gave his press conference in which he declared the Iranian military support for Damascus. During his outline of logistical and advisory support, he said the Revolutionary Guards, through its elite Quds Force, were supporting President Assad's militia.

However, there are conflicting claims over the exact nature of that support in reports in American papers. The Wall Street Journal has Jafari declaring direct Iranian involvement: "He said a 50,000-strong volunteer plainclothes militia had been trained called Jish Shaabi, or People's Army, modeled after the Basij, Iran's network of militias and paramilitary organizations."

However, the exact quote from Jafari, in The Washington Post, only acknowleged that a militia exists, not that it has been fostered and trained by Tehran:

There are more than 50,000 Syrian people who have organized as a people’s army, or a force of Syrian Basij, who are standing beside the army in the face of the unfair attacks from the countries of the region and outside the region.

The Wall Street Journal account also has a later sentence pulling back somewhat from the portrayal of an Iranian-directed militia: "Mr. Jafari said a unit of the elite Quds Forces known as Islamic Uprising had been in Syria and Lebanon for years to help poor people and propagate Islamic awakening, but that this presence didn't mean 'we have military involvement'."

So the real question beyond "50,000 militiamen": why is the US Government, backed by an Arab ally, feeding this story to the Post --- whose reporters do not appear to have noticed the December announcement --- now?

Is this laying the ground for the revelation that the Obama Administration --- contrary to its recent denials --- has been involved in provision of arms to the insurgency, supposedly ensuring that it can block any rise of an Iran-Hezbollah-Assad force after the fall of the regime? Is it another volley in the campaign to separate "good" insurgents from "bad" insurgents such as Jabhat al-Nusra? Is it justification for the ever-increasing US sanctions on Iran, including the measures put in place last Wednesday? All three?

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