Small but dangerous in Damascus: the Iran-backed groups operating in the Syrian capital

The attack on the home of a top Islamic Jihad operative in Syria shows the group's value to the regime, and to Iran

epa07992868 People carry the coffin of Moaz, the son of Akram al-Ajouri, a leader of the Islamic Jihad Movement, during funeral procession at al-Majed Mosque in Damascus, Syria, 13 November 2019. Reports state Moaz was killed along with another person a day earlier by Israeli missiles that hit his house in Mezza area in Damascus. Al-Ajouri survived the attack.  EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI

An attack this week in the heart of Damascus that missed a senior member of Islamic Jihad highlighted the important role that relatively low-profile militant organisations play on the side of Iran and the Bashar Al Assad regime.

Islamic Jihad said on Tuesday that Israel had attacked the Damascus home of its politburo member, Akram Al Ajouri, killing one of his sons. Footage on regime media showed the front of an apartment building in the Mezze district torn apart by an explosion.

The attack occurred almost immediately after an Israeli strike in Gaza killed senior Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu Al Atta, who was also known as Abu Salim. His wife was also killed and rockets were launched against Israel in retaliation.

By basing their top tier in Damascus, Islamic Jihad had been relatively immune from the kind of targeted Israeli attacks in Gaza, and elsewhere like the one that killed the group’s leader, Fathi Al Shaqaqi, in Malta in 1995.

Fathi Shaqaqi (1951 - 1995), the Palestinian who founded and led the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation, attends a conference held in Tehran in support of the Palestinian people, February 1992. An advocate of suicide bombings as a means of protest, he was assassinated by Mossad in Malta. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

Islamic Jihad has also benefited from the regime’s military communications infrastructure in Syria to maintain operational links with Gaza, according to Syrian military defectors.

Until the Syrian revolt in March 2011, an unwritten rule in the relations between the Assad family and Israel has been that the militia clients of the Syrian regime would not be attacked on Syrian territory. Among them were Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

There have been exceptions, most notably the 2008 assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah’s military mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh, overseen by the CIA and Israel's Mossad spy agency.

After 2011, Israel regularly struck pro-Iranian Shiite militias that had poured into Syria, mainly from Iraq and Lebanon, or which Iran formed inside Syria, to prop the Assad regime.

Hezbollah also started developing its own, highly localised mini-proxies in areas bordering the occupied Golan Heights in southern Syria, the birthplace of the 2011 revolt.

In 2015, an Israeli strike on the Syrian side of the border with the Golan killed a general in the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the son of Mughniyeh.

But in the main junctures of the Syrian civil war, as the Syrian regime faced manpower shortages among its Alawite core, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC were crucial to propping up the Syrian president.

Military defectors say Iran and Hezbollah took over a large part of the coordination effort with Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC from the regime’s Military Intelligence. The two groups helped recruit Palestinians into the various Iranian-funded militias.

According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, about 10,000 Palestinians have fought on the side of Assad so far in the civil war.

But the Palestinian community in Syria, which numbered 650,000 before 2011, has not been wholesale behind the regime, with many Palestinians having joined the uprising or critical of the role of the pro-regime Palestinian armed factions.

A turning point was when the PFLP-GC encouraged hundreds of residents of Yarmouk camp near Damascus to protest at a fence separating the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria in June 2011.

Israeli forces killed at least 10 protesters. PFLP-GC militiamen then killed a dozen mourners at the funeral of the protesters in Yarmouk.

The incident marked a main split in the camps. The Palestine Liberation Organisation sought to remain neutral, Hamas became de facto pro-revolt and Islamic Jihad remained with the regime.

A Syrian officer who had defected from the regime’s military and fought in northern Syria said that Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC later helped Assad besiege and bomb major rebel cities, notably Aleppo, “instead of realising their claim that they want to liberate Palestine”.

Islamic Jihad leadership moved to Syria in the late 1980s and early 1990s via Lebanon after they were thrown out of Gaza. The PFLP-GC has a long presence in Damascus as part of a strategy to weaken the late Yasser Arafat, whom Hafez Al Assad detested.

The group also has hundreds of fighters in Lebanon. But the PFLP-GC’s presence in Gaza is negligible.

Almost automatically, every time Israel strikes Iranian targets in Syria or US pressure builds up on Iran, Islamic Jihad fires rockets on Israel from Gaza.

This somewhat contrasts with Hamas, which has sought to keep room for manoeuvre by maintaining ties with Egypt and with Gulf states, specifically Qatar. Hamas did not take part in the latest rocket salvos launched against Israel in retaliation for the assassination of Abu Salim.

Facing a dearth of backers, Hamas has moved closer to the Iranian camp after President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was ousted. But in Iran’s proxy wars, small militia actors are as important as large ones.