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Source: Newsweek

Jul 21, 2023

Iran's Most Powerful Unit Yet in Syria Targets U.S. and Israel, Intel Finds


Iran has assembled a heavily armed unit comprised of thousands of fighters from across the region capable of conducting attacks on U.S. troops in Syria as well as against neighboring Israel, according to a document shared with Newsweek by a member of an intelligence agency of a nation allied with the United States.

The intelligence official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information, told Newsweek that U.S. officials had been briefed on the contents of the document, which covered the existence of the "Imam Hossein Division," said to be linked to the expeditionary Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Armed with precision-guided munitions and both attack and spy drones, along with a broad array of lighter weaponry, the division conducted an intensive barrage of drone and rocket attacks that hit the U.S. military garrison in southeastern Al-Tanf in October 2021, according to the intelligence official.

The intelligence official also pointed to Imam Hossein Division operations launched against Israel, including a surface-to-surface missile attack in January 2019, a rocket attack in June 2019 and an attempted drone attack on August 2019 that was said to have been intercepted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

More attacks against the two allies were said to be in the works.

"They are preparing and gathering capabilities in order to be able to cause a threat to American forces in Syria and to Israel," the official said.

The document shared with Newsweek stated that the Imam Hossein Division was founded in 2016 under longtime Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. strike in Iraq in January 2020.

The secretive outfit was described as having played a major role in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government against rebels and jihadis, including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), in the midst of the country's civil war.

"The Division represents a multi-national combat force made up of thousands of fighters from around the Middle East," the document stated. "Today, the Division's structure maintains thousands of fighters in the Syrian arena. Most of the operatives are Syrian, although some are from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, and other countries."

"These operatives arrived in Syria as part of the 'Holy War' against 'distorted' Islam and ISIS, and remained in the area under the Quds force after the conclusion of intense fighting in the area," it continued.

The group was also said in the document to be made up of several components, including "combat fighters, special forces equipped with advanced weapons, and headquarters and logistics sections." Its arsenal was described as having been directly supplied by Iran via cargo jets landing in Syrian airports, freighter ships arriving in the west coast port of Latakia and container trucks traveling to Syria through Iraq.

Reached for comment regarding the existence of the Imam Hossein Division and Iran's relationship with resistance groups in Syria, the Iranian Mission to the United Nations told Newsweek that, "following the formation of ISIS and their occupation of territories in Iraq and Syria, Iran organized Shia volunteers from different countries to fight against the terrorist group."

"The volunteers ultimately eliminated ISIS' self-proclaimed government," the Iranian Mission added. "The sole agenda behind the formation of the volunteers from Syria was to fight terrorism under the auspices of the Syrian government."

Newsweek has also reached out to the Hezbollah Media Relations Unit, the Syrian Mission to the United Nations, U.S. Central Command and the White House National Security Council for comment.

The battle against ISIS in Syria played out primarily in two campaigns, one waged by the Syrian government and supported by Iran, Russia and allied militias, and another fought by a U.S.-led coalition partnered with the largely Kurdish unit known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Washington and Tehran also both backed efforts in neighboring Iraq to defeat ISIS, whose ultraconservative ideology condemns Shiite Muslims to death.

Iran's campaign led to the rise of the "Axis of Resistance," a term used to refer to a wide coalition of predominantly Shiite Muslim militias with roots across the Middle East and beyond. These include the largely Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, the mostly Pakistani Zaynebiyoun Division, many formations comprising Iraq's state-backed Popular Mobilization Forces as well as the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemeni Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movements, both of which far predate the fight against ISIS.

The intelligence official with whom Newsweek spoke referred to the Imam Hossein Division as the "umbrella" under which all Iran-related activities in Syria are coordinated, and asserted that "whatever happens in Syria is now under the jurisdiction of the Iranians and this division of the Quds Force." Hezbollah, in particular, was said to have played a critical role in the formation of the Imam Hossein Division.

"This is the Hezbollah 2.0," the official said.

Mostafa Najafi, an Iranian researcher specializing in Middle East conflicts and Iran's foreign policy, further explained to Newsweek the inner workings of the Imam Hossein Division and its ties to both Damascus and Tehran, calling the division "one of the most important entities related to Iran and the resistance axis in Syria, which is known as 'Syrian Hezbollah.'"

Najafi referred to the Imam Hossein Division as "the military, operations and intelligence link between the Quds Force and the most influential Syrian army [division]," which he named as the 4th Armored Division, led by Assad's brother, Major General Maher al-Assad. The proximity of the Imam Hossein Division to the Fourth Armored Division "has significantly improved and increased Maher Assad's position in the Syrian army, especially against the dependence to Russia."

"It should be noted that these forces are trained by the Quds Force and the elite forces of Lebanese Hezbollah," he said. "The financing and logistics of this division are provided directly by the 4th Division of the Syrian Army. Another important point is that the operational area of this division was near Damascus, south and southwest of Syria, as well as Syria's borders with the Israeli regime."

"Syrian Shiites, especially Alawites, form the leadership personnel and majority of forces in this division," he added. "This division has a vital role in advancing Iran's operational and field coordination with Syrian army forces, especially in the fight against terrorism, as well as stabilizing the positions of the resistance axis in the western and southern borders of Syria."

Najafi also directly credited "the innovation of and creativity of General Qassem Soleimani" with the formation of the Imam Hossein Division, saying the late commando's "purpose in forming this division was to establish the Quds Force's influence in the structure of the Syrian army while strengthening the Syrian army against terrorist groups, including ISIS."

Out of what Najafi described as "the dozens of resistance forces in Syria that were created by Iran in the framework of security strategy and networking non-governmental forces," he said the Imam Hossein Division "is the most important military and operational layer of Iran to infiltrate the Syrian army's structure."

"Iran has created a broad infiltration layer of resistance-oriented forces in Syria," Najafi said. "The geographical dispersion of these networks is defined on a wide scale throughout Syria. Based on this, it can be said that compared to Iran, no other players, including Russia, have the same power and will to mobilize forces in Syria."

While the official mission behind this mobilization remains the fight against ISIS and other jihadi groups, both Israel and the U.S. have often accused Iran of mobilizing a number of the contingents it supports with the ulterior goals of cultivating local influence, establishing forward operating bases and moving weapons across borders.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), for its part, has conducted hundreds of strikes in recent years on suspected Iran-linked positions in Syria. One such air raid that occurred earlier this month in the central western city of Homs was identified by the intelligence official with whom Newsweek spoke as targeting an asset of the Imam Hossein Division.

The official described Homs as a "major hub for the operation and command of the Division," though it remains active across the country and "most of the Division's forces are deployed and where most of its functions are based" is the northwestern city of Aleppo, located on the frontlines of clashes between the Syrian military, Turkey-backed rebels and jihadi insurgents.

An official IDF statement released shortly after the strike in Homs said that Israeli jets "struck an anti-aircraft battery in Syria as a response to the launch of an anti-aircraft rocket from Syria into Israeli territory earlier tonight" and that the aircraft also "struck additional targets in the area."

The U.S. has also occasionally conducted strikes against alleged Iran-linked units in response to attacks on U.S. positions in Syria. U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the most recent strike on forces said to be tied to the IRGC in March after a Pentagon contractor was killed and several U.S. military personnel injured by a drone attack against a U.S.-led coalition base near the northeastern Syrian city of Al-Hasakah.

Newsweek reported in January on a U.S. ally's intelligence purporting to demonstrate Iranian efforts to establish an air defense network in Syria. Then, U.S. Central Command spokesperson Major John Moore identified "a rise in attacks in Syria from Iran or Iranian-backed organizations, some of which have occurred near locations where U.S. forces are."

Iranian leadership has long called for the expulsion of U.S. troops from the Middle East, especially after the slaying of Soleimani, but has denied any direct links to attacks on U.S. forces. Both Damascus and Moscow have also repeatedly issued calls for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Syria, where Assad, once isolated by fellow Arab leaders, has mended relations across the region despite continued condemnation and sanctions from Washington over alleged human rights abuses.

As tensions between U.S. forces and suspected Iran-linked militias linger, U.S. officials have increasingly accused Russia of conducting "unprofessional" actions to harass U.S. operations in Syria. Speaking during a press briefing late last month, U.S. Ninth Air Force commander Lieutenant Colonel Alexus Grynkewich told reporters that tightening ties between Moscow and Tehran may have an impact on the situation in Syria.

"The Iranians certainly want the coalition to depart from Syria and they want that so they can have freedom of action to have Iranian-aligned groups move advanced conventional weapons and lethal capabilities across Syria for their own purposes: to threaten Israel or to threaten other interests with whom they disagree," Grynkewich said at the time.

"And so, to me," he added, "the growing relationship between Iran and Russia will have a big impact on exactly how Iran moderates or does not moderate its behavior in Syria."

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