Iran-Backed Iraqi Group Seizes “Large” Areas in Southeastern Syria

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jul 14, 2017
Iran-Backed Iraqi Group Seizes “Large” Areas in Southeastern Syria

The leadership of Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iranian-supported militia group fighting in Syria and Iraq, has announced that its forces have launched an operation to seize territory from the the Islamic State in southeast Syria near the shared border point with Iraq and Jordan. The statement released by the group said the paramilitary forces had captured “large parts” of southeastern desert in Syria, including “important” villages of Um al-Raheel, Abu Khashaba, and Berket al-Miyah. According to Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), the paramilitary group will be in charge of security in parts of shared Syrian-Iraqi border. “Since the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) reached the Iraqi-Syrian border, the Islamic resistance combatants of Nujaba have been tasked to take control of part of the border security belt between the two countries. This is because they have been present in Syria for many years to carry out jihadi operations with the consent of the Syrian government.”

Comment: Harakat al-Nujaba – also known as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba – is a prominent Iraqi Shiite group that operates under the leadership of I.R.G.C. Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. It has been fighting in Syria since 2013. The leader of the group, Akram al-Kaabi, makes no secret of his allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or his close relationship with Soleimani. The I.R.G.C. uses the Nujaba group and other powerful Shiite units within Iraq’s P.M.F. not just to fight the Islamic State, but also as a pressure tool against the Baghdad government, regional Sunni states, and the United States. Kaabi once famously stated that his forces would topple the Baghdad government if ordered by Khamenei. Unlike some other P.M.F. units that receive their political and religious guidance from Iraq's top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Kaabi has repeatedly made it clear that he only emulates Khamenei. Kaabi has recently declared that he will deploy more forces Syria to fight alongside the I.R.G.C. forces and Syrian Army once the Islamic State is defeated in Mosul.

In March, the Nujaba movement announced that it had established a new brigade to seize the Golan Heights – claiming that “latest victories” against the Islamic State and Sunni rebels in Iraq and Syria had allowed the group and its allies to focus on Israel. Leaders of the group claimed that members of the new brigade are highly-trained, well-equipped and capable of fighting the Jewish state. “Israel is weaker than a spider web. Islamic resistance is capable of confronting the axis of evil and annihilating the occupying Zionist regime,” Nujaba’s Secretary-General Akram al-Kaabi told Lebanon-based Arabic-language al-Mayadeen news network. 

Later that month, the group said that Israel, not Sunni militants, is the real enemy and sought Damascus’s permission to fight Israeli forces stationed in the Golan region. “The Golan Liberation Brigade will fight shoulder to shoulder with its brothers in the Syrian Army. The axis of resistance is working on the main goal, which is the Palestinian issue. And these efforts have a great impact on reshaping the regional map by annihilating the occupying Zionist regime,” Nasr al-Shammari, the Nujaba’s deputy military chief said in an interview with Iran’s Mehr News Agency. “The weapons of the resistance and Islamic and Arab armies should target this regime. With this in mind, the Harakat al-Nujaba announced that a brigade should be set up to liberate Golan,” he added. “If this regime is destroyed, regional problems will be resolved completely.” 

The creation of the Golan Liberation Brigade has further alarmed Israeli leaders about the increasing presence and influence of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other I.R.G.C.-supported groups in southern Syria. 

Furthermore, the regions where the Nujaba group claims to be operating in southeastern Syria are within a close proximity to the al-Tanf region, where the U.S. military is trainign Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic States. The U.S. military recently conducted two separate air strikes against Iranian-controlled and pro-Syrian regime forces in southeastern Syria after they tried to reach close to the de-confliction zone near al-Tanf. Therefore, the continuing military operations of al-Nujaba group in the region increases the potential for further direct confrontation between the U.S. military and Iranian-linked forces in the region. 

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