Iran and Hezbollah have built a 50,000-strong parallel force in Syria to help prolong the life of the Assad regime and to maintain their influence after his fall, Israel’s military intelligence chief has claimed.
Major General Aviv Kochavi said Iran intended to double the size of this Syrian “people’s army”, which he claimed was being trained by Hezbollah fighters and funded by Tehran, to bolster a depleted and demoralised Syrian army.
Kochavi, the director of military intelligence in the Israel defence forces (IDF), also said Assad’s troops had readied chemical weapons but so far had not been given the order for them to be used.
At the same time, he warned of the increasing sway of extremist groups in the opposition, particularly the al-Nusra Front, which he claimed was beginning to infiltrate Lebanon and was making connections with a Sinai-based militant organisation, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which is focused on attacks on Israel.
Israel opposes the western arming of Syrian rebels because of its fears that the weapons will end up in the hands of such groups.
Defence officials say they are focused on Assad’s sizeable arsenal of chemical weapons and missiles and they are prepared to carry out more air strikes to stop such arms being transferred to Hezbollah, even at the risk of what a senior official predicted would be an ugly new war in Lebanon.
Western and Israeli governments have long alleged that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are advising Assad’s generals, and that Hezbollah guerillas are fighting alongside Syrian government troops. Israeli officials say the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, has been in Damascus to oversee operations.
In his speech on Thursday, Kochavi went much further and claimed that since last June Tehran had been using Hezbollah to build up a large Syrian militia that would be Iranian-controlled even in the event of Assad’s fall from power.