The Iranian-controlled, Iraqi militia Harakat al Nujaba this week announced the formation of its “Golan Liberation Brigade.” While it is not uncommon for entities to name themselves after areas they aim to “liberate,” the militia’s spokesman has said that the unit could assist the Syrian regime in taking the Golan Heights, a region in the Levant that has been controlled by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War.
If true, the unit would likely participate in a future offensive to capture territory from Syrian opposition in the part of the Golan Heights still controlled by Syria, before moving on to the much taller order of dislodging the Israelis across the border. This week’s announcement reflects Tehran’s priorities in southern Syria since finally taking the fiercely contested city of Aleppo late last year: crush the Syrian opposition, and pose military threat to Israel from the Golan Heights. While the Islamic Republic is incapable of credibly challenging the Jewish state’s fortress in the Golan, reaffirming ideological commitment to fighting Israel signals defiance to a global audience amid a reportedly converging American-Arab-Israeli military alliance against Tehran.
Harakat al Nujaba, or Movement of the Noble, has sustained operations in the Syrian and Iraqi combat zones. An offshoot of the Iranian-backed militias Asaib Ahl al Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades, Harakat al Nujaba was formed in 2013 to fight in the Syrian Civil War as part of Iranian-led, Iraqi expeditionary forces. The militia joined the Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella organization of Iraqi militia, the following year, after the Islamic State incursion into Iraq. Operating as one of the largest Iraqi-Shiite militia contingents in Syria, the militia has claimed to field 10,000 forces. Harakat al Nujaba played an important role in assisting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and pro-Syrian regime forces conquer Aleppo late last year.
The Iraqi militia functions as an extension of the Islamic Republic. Having sworn full allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the militia promotes velayat-e faqih (guardianship of jurisprudence), the Islamic Republic’s founding ideology. Harakat al Nujaba takes direct orders from Major General Qassem Soleimani, the chief of the IRGC extraterritorial branch the Qods Force. Last year, the Iraqi militia, which is also known as Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba, proclaimed that it and Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful foreign militia, were “the twins of resistance.”
The militia leader Akram al Kabi is close to the top Iranian leadership, including the supreme leader. A co-founder of the Asaib Ahl al Haq – itself an offshoot of the Mahdi Army – Kabi was designated in September 2008 by the US Treasury as a terrorist for aiding Iraqi insurgents. In 2015, he openly said he would depose the Iraqi government if Khamenei issued the order. Last year, top Iranian officials close to Khamenei gave Kabi a highly publicized reception in Tehran, unprecedented in scope and scale for a militia leader. This past December, Harakat al Nujaba publicized Kabi’s meeting with Khamenei on the sidelines of a conference in Tehran.
Harakat al Nujaba has divulged some details about the Golan Liberation Brigade. The commander of the militia’s forces in Syria released a statement declaring the unit to be a synthesis of combat experiences gained in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The militia’s official spokesman confirmed the event at a press conference held on March in Tehran at the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, saying the unit was formed following “recent victories” (an implicit reference to Aleppo). He claimed the Golan unit is comprised of “special” forces.
“Should the Syrian government make the request, we are ready to participate in the liberation of occupied Golan with our allies,” the spokesman said. “We will not permit the soil of Arab countries to remain in the grasps of occupiers.”
Harakat al Nujaba also released a video promoting the Golan unit that showed fighters marching in columns and carrying a banner reading, “Israel will be destroyed.”
Tehran’s goal of establishing a foothold in the Golan Heights is not a secret. Last year, the head of the Israeli foreign and defense legislative committee revealed without divulging details that Israel had repelled several Iran-directed attempts to move forces into Syrian Golan Heights.
Senior Iranian military commanders are known to operate in Syrian Golan. Last July, the then-commander of the IRGC Basij paramilitary publicized an inspection of Quneitra by the Israel border. In January 2015, an Israeli strike in the area killed several high-value targets including IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi and multiple Hezbollah operatives.
A chasm remains between the capabilities and ambitions of Harakat al Nujaba and the IRGC to retake the Golan from Israel. The combined forces of the Syrian regime and IRGC-led militias are no match for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and this disparity is expected to hold for the foreseeable future. Israel could also adopt a more proactive approach in Syria to foil IRGC encroachment by the Golan, for example by coordinating with Syrian rebels positioned in the area. Syrian Golan’s flat geography furthermore denies the IRGC suitable terrain to replicate the southern Lebanon model of concealing rocket launch sites dispersed across a widespread area, making it easier for the IDF to search and destroy weapons systems. For years, the IDF has been fortifying positions in the rocky plateau of Golan to face greater capabilities than the IRGC and its allies can muster.
Yet the claim to retake Israeli Golan underscores Harakat al Nujaba’s ideological commitment to Khamenei’s declared goal of destroying Israel. Khamenei and his top Guard generals have frequently spoken that the divine hand would aid the faithful who take steps towards “divine-inspired” ideological principles.
Brandishing the formation of the Golan unit also challenges Arab countries on the Palestinian issue, as Tehran has accused them of abandoning the cause in service of Israel. The Islamic Republic has slammed reported Arab-Israeli rapprochement and talks to form a US-brokered military coalition with the goal of countering Tehran, as covered in The Wall Street Journal. Last month, top Iranian government officials hosted another round of the Support of Palestinian Intifada Conference in a show of unity and defiance. This past week, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer leader excoriated “some leaders in Islamic countries who are with Zionists,” calling them “not human.” Suffering from loss of legitimacy over support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad against a Sunni-Arab uprising and nervous over a converging Israeli-Arab alliance, the Islamic Republic is projecting to the globe and “sell-out”Arab leaders a defiant commitment to fighting Israel.
The Iraqi militia’s Golan unit and IRGC-led expeditionary forces could help pro-Syrian regime forces take opposition-held areas in the south. In February 2015, IRGC-led forces launched a failed campaign in the Daraa and Quneitra. Since conquering Aleppo last year, the IRGC-led expeditionary forces and other pro-Syrian regime forces have been able to redirect their dwindling assets to several fronts in north, central, and south Syria. Pro-regime forces backed by Russian air power have been pounding Daraa in the south for more than a month to slow an opposition offensive, and have recently launched a new bid to capture it. An IRGC colonel was also killed last month in the area. A pro-Syrian regime propaganda outlet late last month reaffirmed the government’s intention to retake all of Daraa and open a major border crossing with Jordan. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces have made progress in the northern pocket of Quneitra Governorate, located in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan.
The IRGC’s goals in southern Syria are to crush Syrian opposition forces, and build the capability to open another front against Israel. The IRGC hopes a viable Golan foothold would serve as deterrence against Israel and US, and that it could activate in a future conflict, such as another Israel-Hezbollah war. For now, the IDF’s fortified posture in the Golan remains a difficult, if not futile, target for the Guard and its allies. The IRGC nevertheless intends to project steadfast commitment to ideological principles and defiance of adversaries.