Iranian Revolutionary Guard members celebrate after launching a missile.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard members celebrate after launching a missile during a maneuver, July 3, 2012. Photo by AP
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Bashar Assad praying at a mosque. Photo by AP

Reports of members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) operating alongside pro-Assad forces have been circulating for many months, practically since widespread fighting broke out in Syria almost a year and a half ago. The Wall Street Journal highlights the first apparent admission by an IRGC general that his men are indeed operating in Syria.

General Salar Abnoush is quoted by the Journal saying in a speech to volunteers (according to Iranian news agency Daneshjoo) – “Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well."

Other sources cited by the Journal confirm that the decision was taken by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, urged by the commander of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, General Qadim Solaimani and while the actual deployment has not been officially announced or confirmed, Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi said that "Syria is managing this situation very well on its own, but if the government can't resolve the crisis on its own, then based on their request we will fulfill our mutual defense-security pact." And Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar, in Tehran this week, said that "the people of Syria will never forget the support of Iran during these difficult times.”

Does this signal a new phase of the Syrian revolution? Is Iran signaling now an upping of the ante as the first foreign country to go further than supporting one of the sides in Syria with arms and guidance, but also with its own soldier?
Here are four possible explanations and of course any combination of them is also possible.

1. General Abnoush’s speech was not for publication and the censors somehow let it pass onto a minor website. The ministers’ quoted by the Journal are only posturing and whether or not Iran has troops in Syria is still not something Tehran is interested in broadcasting.

2. Iran wants to bolster its position before the convening of the “Committee of Four” to search for a solution regarding Syria, proposed by the Egyptian government, which will include also Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The other three members of the committee are in favor of Bashar Assad’s departure and in various degrees support the Sunni revolutionaries – Iran knows it will be in a minority as Assad’s only supporter and wants more cards at hand to play in the talks. The recent round of violence in Lebanon can also be seen as an attempt by Iran to show its regional rivals that it holds the keys to stability in Arab lands.

3. While western, Arab and Israeli intelligence agencies are constantly updating their assessments of Assad’s longevity, again and again surprised that he is still holding out, the IRGC (and its subsidiary Hezbollah) is certainly the foreign organization with the best inside knowledge of the accurate situation of Syrian security forces. An overt intervention on Assad’s side may be an indication that they are aware of an imminent internal collapse and an emergency last-ditch measure to save their ally.

4. This is another of Iran’s attempts to divert attention from its nuclear program, especially on the eve of another IAEA report that is expected to detail new attempts at hiding weapons programs and hundreds more uranium enrichment centrifuges in operation.

I think that elements of all these four possibilities are true.