It is then that Tehran will try to move a special Russian-backed Iraqi Shiite force from southern Iraq into Syria and so expand its anti-Israel war front.
Since the Israeli Air Force hit a dozen Syrian and Iranian military targets on Saturday, Feb. 10, certain Israeli leaders have been vying for the most belligerent anti-Iran speeches (“They will never forget their next lesson” – Transport Minister Yisrael Katz; “We won’t let Iran set up a forward command” OC IDF’s Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick”). However, the plans Iran has in store for the next round may tax them with making good on their warnings, although one at least comes after the fact. Iran is already running three forward commands in Syria – one in Damascus, one at Abu Kamal in the east and a third outside Aleppo.
Iran’s next challenge to Israel is likely to be more extensive than a lone Iranian drone intrusion and may start far from Israel’s northern border. Russia and Iran are trying to run a two-way, cross-border military movement between Iraq and Syria, which US forces in Syria have so far frustrated.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the United States is in the process of establishing a new “Border Security Force” in Syria, which is composed mainly of Kurdish fighters.
Iran and Russia are meanwhile building and training an elite “rapid deployment force” based on Iraqi Shiites. One of its functions will be to expand the front against Israel in both Syria and Lebanon. It is expected that the coming crossing into Syria of the Iraqi Shiite force may be used to detach a section for service on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Last month, an Iraqi Shiite militia chief traveled to Lebanon to inspect Israeli positions on that border. .
The Iraqi group is composed of 5,000 Shiite fighters, who are undergoing special training course for combat in Syria. They were handpicked from two high-performance Iraqi Shiite militias: One is the Nujaba of Kaabil (Movement of the Part of God), which is the Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hizballah and is headed by Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi. It has four sub-units, the Ammar Ibn Yasir Brigade, the Liwa al-Hamad – Praise Brigade, the Liwa al-Imam al Hassan al-Mujtaba – Imam Hssan the Chosen, and the Golan Liberation Brigade. The other militia is the Abud al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces.
This big difference between this elite Iraqi force and the other Shiite militias Tehran deploys in Syria is that it will be equipped with an air force, according to DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources. Russian and Iranian air force officers are setting up an aviation unit called the Combat Helicopters Directorates, to consist of dozens of Russian Mil Mi-17 assault and freight choppers as well as Iranian Shaed 285 attack choppers.
The bulk of the new force is expected to be ready to start moving west in the course of April and cross over into southeast Syria in the regions of Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zour by early May at the latest. So far, the American forces deployed in western Iraq and southeastern Syria, centering in Al Tanf, have used live air force and artillery fire to push the vanguard back from the Syrian border.
A US special operations contingent also frustrated a move in the opposite direction by Syrian and Hizballah forces trying to cross the Euphrates to the eastern bank across a floating bridge laid by the Russians. They were heading to link up with the incoming Iraqi militias. (Read DEBKAfile’s exclusive report on Feb. 8). This major US operation that involved air force, artillery and commandos was somehow missed by the Israeli politicians and analysts who commented on how the US had abandoned the Syrian arena when they discussed the Israeli air offensive of last Saturday.
Despite every effort to block the Iraqi force from reaching Syria, it may find a small gap in the 1,000km long Iraqi-Syrian border and manage to slip through. Israel’s government and military leaders will then face a decision that is much harder than whether to destroy the command vehicle controlling an Iranian drone. Part of the difficulty will be that before actin, Israel will have to keep an eye on the state of relations between the US and Russia which are at a low ebb at this time and how this plays out on the ground.