TEL AVIV -- An Israeli intelligence source confirmed Monday that a new unit of Afghan snipers trained by Lebanese-based Hezbollah and financed by Iran is now operating beyond its northern border on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In a July 18 interview, the source said the sniper unit – part of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade – is one of several additional groups of special forces that are being deployed in the fight against the Islamic State organization, also known by its Arabic acronym Da'esh.
"These Afghan Shias are battle-hardened and focused at the moment on fighting Da'esh. But we're obviously following with interest any introduction of new forces and capabilities in that theater that may turn their attention to us when the time is right for them," said the Israeli analyst, who insisted on anonymity because the interview did not take place through normal authorization channels.
The Israeli source validated reports earlier this month from Iran's Tasnim, a news agency affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), that a new group of snipers specializing in camouflage and concealment tactics was now operational in Syria.
According to a July 9 report, Tasnim acknowledged that the unit was part of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade trained by Hezbollah, which operates in Syria under the command of the IRGC.
Another Tasnim report from July 12, translated by Amir Toumaj, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in an account published by the online Long War Journal, noted that "Hundreds of special Fatemiyoun snipers have been deployed to defend sacred shrines across Syria and have joined Fatemiyoun combat units."
According to Toumaj's translation, "additional groups of special Afghan forces with advanced training in combat, commando capabilities, guerilla warfare, anti-armor missiles, shoulder-launched missiles, etc. are expected to join" Fatemiyoun ranks.
"The notable point is that the special Fatemiyoun forces have been trained under skilled Afghan instructors who themselves have completed training in special courses under the supervision of skilled Hezbollah forces," noted the Tasnim report.
According to Toumaj's research of Iranian media, the IRGC expanded the ranks of Fatemiyoun forces from a brigade to a full division last year; and some 380 have been killed thus far in Syria.
A recent study by Israel's Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center noted that one year after signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, Tehran has no intention of reducing its ties to Hezbollah, a designated terror organization.
In its report "Spotlight on Iran" for the week of July 4-17, the Center cited a July 12 interview on state-run Fars TV with Abbas Araghchi, Iranian deputy foreign minister, in which the official characterized the Iran-Hezbollah axis as "a priority… that could not be changed."
"Araghchi's remarks reinforce our assessment that no significant change can be expected in the quality and quantity of Iran's support for Hezbollah, despite its effort to lift the international economic restrictions imposed on the country in recent years," the Center noted.
It added, "Iran will be prepared to continue paying the diplomatic, media and even financial price in its relations with the United States and the West for continued fostering of Hezbollah as a military-political force and an Iranian proxy."
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.