WASHINGTON — Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, are building a network of militias in Syria to protect their interests in the event President Bashar Assad’s government falls or retreats from Damascus, US and Middle Eastern officials say.
The militias are fighting alongside government forces to keep Assad in power. But officials believe Iran’s long-term goal is to have operatives in place if Syria fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
A senior Obama administration official cited Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. ‘‘It’s a big operation,’’ the official said. ‘‘The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable.”
Iran’s strategy, a senior Arab official agreed, has two tracks. ‘‘One is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses.’’ The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Fragmentation along religious and tribal lines is a growing concern as the civil war approaches its third year.
Rebel forces, largely from Syria’s Sunni majority, are far from united. Militant Islamists, including many from other countries and with ties to Al Qaeda, are growing in power.
Kurdish nationalists have their own militias. Minority Christians have largely sided with Assad, fearing the outcome of an Islamist victory. Syria’s 700,000 Druze, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, are increasingly leaning toward the rebels.
Each of Syria’s internal actors has external backers.
‘‘Syria is basically disintegrating as a nation,” said Paul Salem, director of the Mideast Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ‘‘It’s going to be very hard to put Syria the nation back together.’’
Hezbollah arose out of the 1970s Lebanese civil war, when Iran exploited grievances of that country’s Shi’ite population, a pattern it also followed in Iraq after the US invasion.