Aleppo’s Fall Cements the Radical Shiite Axis
Recent gains by the pro-Assad alliance in Aleppo signal the rise of an emboldened, Iranian-led radical Shiite axis. And the more that this axis gains strength, territory, weapons and influence, the more likely it will be to threaten regional and global security.
Ideologues in Iran have formulated a Shiite jihadist vision, which holds that the Iranian Islamic revolution should take control of the entire Muslim world. Losing the Assad regime to Sunni rebels would have represented a major setback for Iran’s agenda.
This same agenda also calls for annihilating Israel, toppling the Sunni governments and intimidating the West into complying with Iran’s actions.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Tehran’s military elites, in the form of the Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC), are using the current regional chaos to promote these goals.
In Syria, Iran has mobilized tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters from all over the Middle East — as well as those from Hezbollah in Lebanon — to save the Assad regime.
As the Shiite axis wages a sectarian war against the Sunnis, it mobilizes and arms its proxies, and moves military assets into Syria. And its growing influence can be used for bellicose purposes in the not too distant future.
The conquest of east Aleppo is a victory for the wider, transnational Iranian-led alliance, of which the Assad regime is just one component.
A look at the order of battle assembled in Aleppo reveals that the war in Syria is not a civil conflict by any measure. In addition to Assad regime forces sent to fight Sunni rebels, there is also the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Shiite Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, Afghan Shiite militia groups and Iranian military personnel — all of whom receive the assistance of massive Russian air power.
The large-scale, indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling in places like Aleppo resulted in mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing of many Sunni civilians, producing the largest humanitarian catastrophe and refugee crisis in the 21st century. Such extreme war crimes will be sure to produce a new generation of radical recruits for ISIS and Al Qaeda.
The Iranian Quds Force, under the command of Qassem Suleimani, orchestrates the entire ground war effort. Suleimani is very close to Iran’s supreme leader.
The Quds Force also uses Syria as a transit zone to traffic advanced weapons from Iranian and Syrian arms factories to the Hezbollah storehouses that pepper neighboring Lebanon.
Hezbollah has amassed one of the largest surface to surface rocket and missile arsenals in the world, composed of over 100,000 projectiles, all of which are aimed at Israeli cities.
According to international media reports, Israel recently launched two strikes targeting attempts to smuggle game-changing weapons into Lebanon.
Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad owes his survival to Iran and Hezbollah, and their military presence in Syria continue to expand. Assad regime and Hezbollah representatives boasted of this fact in recent statements that were highlighted by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
The Shiite victors will likely turn their sights on seizing southern Syria, near the Israeli border. To accomplish that, they will need to do battle with an array of Sunni rebels that now control that area (groups that include ISIS-affiliates). If successful, the axis could be tempted to build bases that could be used to attack Israel.
The same pattern repeats itself in Iraq, where Iran-backed militias are moving in on Mosul, and could later threaten Iraq’s Sunnis — and Sunnis in Yemen, where Iranian-armed Houthi rebels control large swaths of the country, and are currently at war with a Saudi-led military coalition. The Houthis also threaten international oil shipping lanes and have fired on the US Navy using Iranian-smuggled missiles.
In this way, the fundamentalist Iranian coalition is gaining a growing foothold.
Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is developing long-range strike capabilities that could place Europe in range, and its temporarily dormant nuclear program, make the Shiite axis more powerful than any Sunni Islamist camp.
The Iranian coalition can also lure armed Sunni groups into its orbit, as it has done in the past with the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza.
While the Israeli defense establishment has no desire to be dragged into Syria’s conflict, Jerusalem has indicated that it will act to remove any Iranian-Hezbollah base that it detects in Syria.
Few events illustrate more clearly how an ascendant Shiite jihadist axis is redrawing the map of the region than a recent military parade held by Hezbollah in the western Syrian town of Al-Qusay.
According to an assessment by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, that parade featured Soviet-made tanks, American armored personnel carriers, artillery guns, anti-aircraft guns and powerful truck-mounted rocket launchers with an estimated range of between 90 to 180 kilometers. “It is clear that state-owned capabilities, some of them advanced, were delivered to Hezbollah,” the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said in its report.
Hezbollah, like the Assad regime and armed groups in Iraq and Yemen, is a component of an international axis whose battles against ISIS have managed to dupe some decision makers into believing that they are stabilizing forces. In actuality, the Shiite jihadists are just as radical as their Sunni jihadist counterparts — albeit more tactically prudent — and are far better armed and better organized.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.