June 10, 2022 - 3:30pm

Sources in Syria bring disconcerting news. Lebanese Hezbollah — the largest, most active, and most powerful Iranian-aligned militia — is infiltrating fighters into northeastern Syria and setting up sleeper cells where Coalition forces are stationed. Soldiers and commanders are now in Hasakah city, the capital of the Al-Hasakah Governorate. So far they are mainly in the regime-controlled Security Square and Al-Meridian neighbourhood. They are also in Qamishli and regime bases.

They are not supposed to be there, of course, so they hide their presence — disguising themselves as Syrian regime soldiers and slipping in among its army units. Damascus has little choice but to allow this to satisfy the demands of its patron, Iran.

My sources tell me that Hezbollah officers and soldiers share HQs and buildings in the Security Square with other Iran-aligned militias and Syrian regime forces. There is now a military “company”-sized group (50-100) of Hezbollahis in Hasakah — not large enough to cause significant damage to the Syrian Defence Forces and Coalition but large enough to engage in hostile activities against them, which is what they are doing.

They are there to do several things in fact — all geared toward strengthening Iran’s knowledge of and presence in coalition forces. First is to spy. Their forces in Hasakah city are gathering intelligence on the SDF and Coalition to more effectively plan destabilisation activities, such as encouraging women and children to physically block the passage of Coalition convoys. During the Gweiran Prison siege, they also launched small-scale attacks on the SDF — disguised as Isis.

They’re also expanding. In the last six months, Hezbollah has recruited around 800 local Syrians to train for ‘Popular Resistance’ sleeper cells. Training takes place south of Qamishli in Hezbollah bases like Tal Haj Badr Training Camp. After training, they are paid 100,000SYP a month to sit and await activation. Like other Iranian militias, Hezbollah tries to recruit young people through tribal connections. The Al-Tayy, Shammar and Bani Saba’a tribes are major ‘pools’ for recruitment.

What makes Hezbollah such a potent force is not just its military prowess but its political skill. Reports reach me that Hajj Iyad, a Hezbollah commander in Hasakah is busy handing out aid packages to members’ families in the city — right in the Security Square. Other aid distribution is linked to ‘clandestine’ proselytisation efforts by Iran-linked groups.

The risk of conflict is growing. Most immediately, US forces are present in nearby Al-Shaddadi and they regularly patrol the area. More broadly, Hezbollah also now threatens the UK’s interest in effective counter-Isis operations. The Gweiran Prison break showed the world that Isis remains both active and dangerous. Iran is calculating that if coalition and SDF forces get bogged down in a fight with Hezbollah then, beyond the immediate damage they can inflict, then Isis will be given valuable breathing space. The terror attack and foreign fighter threats will grow.

We need to watch northeast Syria. It is there that Iran is preparing for a renewed battle with the West.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)