Written by Brian Schrauge
Last week, Russia began bombing raids in southern Syria. According to one Israeli intelligence news service, those sortees are a deliberate message to Jerusalem. The content of that message? The Russian-Iranian-Chinese military coalition fighting Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS and Daesh) is coming your way.
As Russia’s pummeling of Aleppo begins to show results, there is a sense that the stage is being set for what comes next. What will be tomorrow’s move by pro-Assad forces, a combination of Syrian, Lebanese, and Iraqi forces?
Playing with big boys from the North and East, Tehran’s latest contribution the Syria campaign is development of a Shiite foreign legion.
Mocking an coalition of rebels forces against Assad who had the same name, Tehran’s name for the legion is the Fifth Corps. Its fighting force expected to swell to as many as 70,000 soldiers.
On the one hand, the new Fifth Corps is a clever re-branding of disparate groups already fighting as a loose coalition defending the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. On the other hand, however, its unification of those troops around a single religious identity is new.
Until this point, various groups fighting in Syria — Hezbollah from Lebanon, Syrian militia, Iraqi soldiers, mercenaries, and more — have fought in battalions of their own kind. The newly organized Fifth Corps is an emphatic shift from fractured geopolitical allegiances to a single, unified religious identity: Shia Islam.
Shia is the branch of Islam represented by the Imams of Iran and their theocratic republic. Sunni, the other branch of Islam, is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. And ISIS.
The newly formed Fifth Corps in Syria is a deliberate juxtaposition of these two global brands of the Muslim religion. As such, it reinforces and emphasizes the nature of war with ISIS as a matter of religious allegiance instead of political, social or ethnic allegiances.
The method for achieving this re-alliance and re-focus is by mixing up the troops. All the units in the Fifth Corps will be a potpourri of Iranian, Syrian, Hezbollah and others who share the Shia creed. So too, officers commanding the units will come from various backgrounds. But they will no longer command forces made up of their own kind, at least their own tribal, political and geographic kind.
According to DEBKAfile, the primary source for factual components of this report, “there is no hint of the Russians joining the new Shiite legion.” Moscow is hardly out of the game, however. After all, it is the military powerhouse fueling, at last, some progress in defeating ISIS, albeit at a bloody and countless cost of civilian lives.
In short, the Fifth Corps is all but fully dependent on Russian military might. Tehran is unlikely to make any move in Syria without Moscow’s approval.
Hence, Russia’s recent bombing campaign in southern Syria, paving the way for thousands of ground troops to attack ISIS there, is a message to Israel: we are coming your way.
It is also, at best, a headache for Israel. According to DEBKAfile, the newly organized Fifth Column “provides cover for Iran and Hezbollah to sneak troops right up to [its] border.” Because those personnel will be members of mixed units, they will be almost impossible for Israel to identify – and to thwart by way of secret missions in, and over, Syria’s borders.
The war in Syria is moving south, toward Jerusalem, and with an international coalition of stunning strength.