Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group fighting in Iraq and Syria, announced that it stands with Syria against the Israeli “aggression and cowardly massacre” in the Arab country. Hashem al-Mousawi, the group’s spokesman, said Israel is unable to attack Syria and the “axis of resistance” – a term used for the alliance of Iran and its regional proxies. He further warned that Israel will encounter more “surprises” in coming days, the official website of the group reported. Mousawi did not elaborate, but emphasized that the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies reserve the right to defend Syria’s sovereignty by all means. The Nujaba spokesman also warned that the “Zionist entity” should realize that “the rules of the game have changed.”

Comment: With the fall of ISIS, tension between Middle Eastern powers over the future of Syria has escalated to a new level. Over the weekend, Syrian and Iranian-led military forces engaged in a series of dangerous cross-border clashes with Israel. After Israel destroyed an Iranian drone that had entered the Israeli airspace from southern Syria, the Israeli forces conducted air strikes reportedly destroying the command-and-control center of the Iranian-led drone operation center near Palmyra. After the bombardment, one of Israeli F-16 fighter jets was shot down by a Syrian surface-to-air missile. Israel responded to the incident by carrying out more extensive air strikes against Syrian and Iranian military targets inside Syria.

The clashes over the weekend prompted concerns about the danger of direct conflict between Iran and Israel. The shooting down of the Israeli F-16 also called into question the invincibility of the Israeli air force that has targeted Syrian and Hezbollah military installations in Syria at will over the past years.

While the Syrian civil war is not over yet, Iran and its regional proxies have made it clear that they will maintain a long-term presence in southern Syria. Iran’s militia allies have also indicated that they will use southern Syria as a second front against Israel in any potential war between Israel and Hezbollah in the future.

In March, the Nujaba movement announced the creation of a new brigade to seize the Golan Heights – claiming that “latest victories” against the Islamic State and Sunni rebels in Iraq and Syria have 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,” Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of the group, told Lebanon-based Arabic-language al-Mayadeen news network.

Harakat al-Nujaba – also known as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba – is a militia unit within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force. The group operates both in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force. Kaabi makes no secret of his allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or his close relationship with Soleimani. Kaabi once famously stated that his forces would topple the Baghdad government if ordered by Khamenei.