Syria & Iran Follow-Up: The Real Story of "Syria's Iran-Hezbollah 50,000-Man Militia" in 3 Easy Steps
Hat tip to Joanna Paraszczuk and to an EA correspondent in Iran for contributions to this article
On Monday I posted an analysis dissecting a sensational story in The Washington Post, "Iran and Hezbollah Build Militia Networks in Syria in Event that Assad Falls". I was not very impressed with the reporting:
The Post has no evidence --- none --- beyond the statements from an unnamed US and unnamed Arab official 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?
Since The Post is unlikely to follow up that question, I did some fact-checking. The source for the "50,000" --- unrecognised by the Post's reporters --- is a news conference by the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, on 16 September.
Members of the Quds Force [a branch of the Guards] are presents in both Lebanon and Syria. This does not mean a military presence, but we are giving advices and sharing our experience....
There is a security and military agreement between Iran and Syria, but this does not mean that if they [foreign forces] attack Syria, Iran will get directly involved.
It is an honour for Iran that it is helping to defend Syria.
Currently, 50,000 people are being prepared and trained for Jaish Al Sha'abi (People’s Army).
An EA correspondent in Iran asserts, "The Quds Force was training some Syrian militia --- just like they did for [the Iranian paramilitary] Basij after the [disputed 2009 Presidential] election."
So DeYoung and Warrick, albeit without knowing the full story, are right --- right?
Not quite. In late November, Sam Dagher of the Wall Street Journal posted a lengthy report on a trip to Syria. While there, he met members of "Jaish Al Sha'abi" militia as well as the Leejan Mahaliya (Local Committees) and Leejan Shaabiya (Popular Committees), drawn largely from regime loyalists in minority groups like the Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiites.
Dagher reports that "only a fraction" of the men appeared to be linked to Iran and Hezbollah. Some of those south of Damascus said they were getting some training and weapons from Hezbollah, but those in mainly Alawite and Druze sections of the capital were directly linked to the regime's security and intelligence agencies.
Members of the Popular Committees are armed by the government, paid monthly salaries and given food rations. Using these well-armed militias, the regime has carved Damascus and its suburbs into contained security areas.
Another correspondent who has traveled extensively in Syria confirms that the "Jaish Al Sha'abi", which was launched before the uprising, has little in common with the politics of Hezbollah and the Iranian Basij --- beyond, presumably, keeping President Assad in power --- and that most do not get training. Some Shi'ite militia have received a few days of basic training by Hezbollah, while some in the umbrella "National Defense Forces" have received advanced training by Iranian advisors, for example, in sniper fire.
So the issue moves beyond the highly-trained, Iran-Hezbollah militia --- which does not exist --- and to the politics, beginning not in Washington but in Tehran. The assessment starts with a full appreciation of Jafari's statement.
1. THE SYRIAN BATTLE STARTS AT (THE IRANIAN) HOME
The essential context for Jafari's appearance was the emerging debate within the Iranian regime over the Syrian conflict. Days earlier, the Foreign Ministry had launched a high-profile initiative, claiming a nine-point proposal to resolve the dispute in Syria. What's more, Iran was going to co-ordinate this with Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Not everyone in the Iranian regime was happy with the move. Elements of the Revolutionary Guards worried that Tehran would appear weak, giving way to the pressure of the insurgency and its foreign backers.
So Jafari --- possibly with backing from the Supreme Leader's office --- took a gamble, both with those within the regime and with foreign opinion ready to condemn any Iranian "intervention" on behalf of Assad. He would make clear that Tehran's military was invested in the Damascus regime.
Doing so, Jafari was not making an unprecedented announcement. On 30 July, MP Sayyed Bagher Hosseini, a member of Parliament's National Security Committee, boasting that "Basiji thought had been exported around the globe", declared:
The activities of Jaish al-Shaabi in Syria will lead to the eventual failure of the terrorists and to Western plans to infiltrate the ranks of Muslims in support of the Zionist regime.
This "Syrian Basij", Hosseini said, would be able to defeat the enemy "with assistance from security organizations".
The Guards have long put out the message Iran is "exporting" its Revolution beyond its borders. A Syrian Basij touted as a popular, spontaneous paramilitary movement in support of Assad, is an exemplar of that. It also would be a marker that Iran's cultural influence as the proponent of Islamic Revolution is felt in the region --- whether or not that is true.
Jafari, albeit with a higher-profile declaration, was re-asserting a line that was already in Iranian political discussion. The "50,000" number --- much like any number put forth for spin, rather than a measured assessment --- appears to have been plucked from the air.
2. ...BUT BEING TOUGH IS A BALANCING ACT
At the same time, Jafari had to be careful. Any declaration of Iran's involvement might pull Tehran into an expanding conflict, especially if outside powers decided to ramp up their interventions. At the least, it might enable those powers and the Syrian opposition to play the valiant defenders of the country against the Islamic Republic's meddling.
Note that Jafari --- whatever the truth of the involvement of the Quds Force --- never said that the Guards were training the Jaish al-Sha'abi. He only used the passive, "50,000 people are being trained and prepared" by someone.
Indeed, in the context of Jafari's full statement, he was drawing a line across Tehran's involvement. His emphasis was that, with the training of the militias and the logistical and advisory assistance of the Quds Forces, there was "no need for foreign assistance" --- in other words, direct involvement by Iranian forces in the Syrian fighting.
3. FROM JAFARI'S LINE TO US PROPAGANDA, SANCTIONS...AND "NEWS"
So Jafari, far from putting out a declaration of a massive Syrian militia created, armed, and trained by Tehran for a post-Assad fight, was carefully defining --- versus others in the regime and versus Iran's rivals abroad --- both the extent and the limit of Iran's involvement in the conflict.
"Limits" do not necessarily serve US political ends, however. With the 50,000 figure, the Guards commanders had handed Washington a card to be played at any date when it wanted to step up pressure on both Assad and the Islamic Republic. That moment came in December, when the US Treasury announced that not only was it sanctioning the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra --- just declared "terrorist" by Washington --- but also the regime's Jaish al-Sha'abi.
By citing the 50,000-man militia as a "fact" --- without any reference to Jafari, let alone context for his statement --- and asserting that Iran was spending "millions" in the effort, Washington could reap a bonus: not only could it jab at the Assad regime, it could maintain the pressure for sanctions on Tehran.
And so on Sunday, only four days after the US Government implemented more measures to choke off Iran's financial transactions and hinder its energy sector and other industries, DeYoung and Warrick presented dramatic "news" which had been circulating in Iran since the previous summer.
DeYoung and Warrick never referred to the Iranian statements. Indeed, they showed no awareness of Jafari's press conference and the US Government's exploitation of it in December.
But they did not need this knowledge. All they had to do, for their headline and for the purpose of the "US official" who fed them their line, was to make the claim. Because it is unlikely that a fellow high-profile journalist will check the story, it will now be established as the likely story of an Iran-Hezbollah-Assad connection.
In the closing words of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."