At the beginning of this year, southwestern Syria—which played a pivotal role at the start of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s rule—remained a major rebel stronghold. But that changed this summer, when Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces successfully gained control of the area. The Assad regime is now arresting, kidnapping, and killing remaining resistance leaders—including several who had worked closely with Israel. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, don’t expect a return to the status quo ante:
[A] new dispensation in southwestern Syria is emerging. [Iran’s] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxy militias—including Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq—are an integral part of it. A recent report on the Syrian Observer website provided details of a large Iranian base under construction in the Lajat area of Deraa province. . . . The report went on to describe the route taken by Iran-associated fighters from the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Abu Kamal to Lajat, under the supervision of IRGC personnel.
Evidence is also emerging of the presence of Hizballah personnel and other pro-Iranian Shiite militiamen in Syrian Arab Army uniforms among the regime forces returning to the border area with the Golan Heights. This is despite the nominal Russian commitment to keep such elements at least 85 kilometers from the border. This Iranian activity close to the border goes hand in hand with Tehran’s activity further afield, including the transfer of Shiites from southern Iraq to deserted Sunni neighborhoods.
Those who hoped for one kind of new Syria are being rounded up. . . . Iran, meanwhile, is busy creating a very different kind of new order. In it, an independent Iranian presence is intertwined with, and largely indistinguishable from, the body of the Syrian state itself, in a way not coincidentally analogous to the situation in Lebanon and Iraq (minus the nominal institutions of representative government).