March 14, 2013 5:28 pm

Israel says Iran setting up army in Syria

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Israel’s military intelligence chief has accused Iran and Hizbollah of establishing a popular army inside Syria in a bid to maintain a strategic foothold in the country after Bashar al-Assad’s fall.

In a detailed assessment of Iranian strategy towards Syria, Major General Aviv Kochavi, head of military intelligence in the Israel Defence Forces, said on Thursday that Iran and Hizbollah were determined not to lose their strategic grip once Mr Assad is toppled.

In a speech to the annual Herzliya security conference in Israel, General Kochavi said the damage to Iran and Hizbollah from Mr Assad’s fall would be huge.

“Iran is losing its sole ally in the region surrounding Israel,” he said. “It will lose the ability to transfer weaponry through Syria to Hizbollah.”

As a result, he said Iran and its Hizbollah allies in Lebanon were doing all in their power to assist the Assad regime by setting up a popular force operating alongside the Syrian Army.

General Kochavi’s comments are an indication of Israel’s concern about Iran’s role in the war in Syria and the possibility that it could spill over into neighbouring countries.

Referring to the Iranian and Hizbollah operations, he said: “They support Assad operationally on the ground, with strategic consultation, intelligence, weapons. Most recently, they have begun establishing a popular army trained by Hizbollah and financed by Iran, currently consisting of 50,000 men, with plans to increase to 100,000.”

He added: “Iran and Hizbollah are also preparing for the day after Assad’s fall, when they will use this army to protect their assets and interest in Syria.”

He warned that it would be a mistake for western governments to assume that Iran would dismantle and withdraw these forces once the Assad regime is toppled.

Another senior Israeli went further in his assessment of the role being played by Iran in the Syrian conflict, suggesting Tehran is playing a major role directing military manoeuvres by Assad forces.

“Assad and [Hassan] Nasrallah [Hizbollah leader] are not free players,” the official told the Financial Times, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are taking orders from Iran.”

General Kochavi assessed that two years after the Syrian civil war began, the country is now “falling apart” and that the Assad regime is losing the ability to impose its authority.

He said that 11 out of the country’s 17 border posts were in rebel hands; 19 power stations have gone across to the rebels; and the Assad regime has failed to recruit new troops despite at least seven attempts at mobilisation.

On the rebel side, he suggested that jihadist forces inside Syria are growing in strength, most notably the jihadist group, Jabhat al Nusra.

General Kochavi said that, as well as having around 5,000 fighters in Syria, the group is working with Ansar al-Maqdas, another jihadist organisation, and sending units into Lebanon.

The general’s comments came as the london-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, said the rebels in Syria would probably prevail in the civil war.

“It is likely that, over time, the balance of forces would shift to the rebels, given that their capability and external support would rise,” the IISS said in its annual report, The Military Balance.

“Short of using chemical weapons against rebels, with attendant risk of international intervention, it was difficult to see how Assad could reverse this trend.”

But the report warned that regime forces “could still tactically defeat the rebels if the latter abandoned their guerrilla approach and tried to hold urban areas.

“If President Bashar al-Assad could not win, the rebels could still lose.”

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