Iran Wades Further Into the Syrian Swamp

The talks in Vienna this weekend may determine whether Tehran will deploy additional ground troops to Syria.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Mourners carry the coffin of Amin Karimi, a member of Iranian Revolutionary Guards who was killed in Syria, during his funeral in Tehran October 28, 2015.
Mourners carry the coffin of Amin Karimi, a member of Iranian Revolutionary Guards who was killed in Syria, during his funeral in Tehran October 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s been a tough month for Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force — the foreign wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Over a dozen personnel, including eight officers, three of them senior, and his deputy, Gen. Hossein Hamedani, were killed on the Syrian front. Reports from opposition websites in Iran say that the number of funerals suggests that the true number is much higher.

Even when Hamedani; Abdollah Bagheri Niaraki, a former bodyguard of Iran’s ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and Gen. Farshad Hasoonizadeh, a former commander of a Revolutionary Guards special forces unit, are included in the count, it is still a relatively low proportion of fatalities relative to the number of Iranians that was sent to fight in Syria.

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Iranians and other combatants sent from Iran and Iraq are fighting in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Some came in June, including around 400 Afghan “volunteers” who were recruited by the Revolutionary Guards from among the thousands of Afghan refugees living in Iran, in return for Iranian citizenship. Another important group of combat soldiers fighting on the side of the government in Damascus come from the Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba (Movement of the Party of God the Outstanding), one of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq that is funded, trained and commanded by Iran.

Iraqi Shi’ite militias operate against Islamic State in Iraq, but their missions in Syria appear to be different. We are loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and “will fight to defend the Shi’ite holy places,” a militia spokesman declared recently. He was echoing the official line in Tehran regarding the purpose of Iran’s involvement in Syria — “defending the holy sites” and advising and training the Syrian forces. Nothing more.

But the situation on the ground looks very different. According to reports on Syrian opposition websites, about 1,000 Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian troops are active in Aleppo Province, most of which is rebel-controlled; others operate in the Latakia area, considered the Assad regime’s stronghold and the site of a major Russian naval base.

What’s new about the Iranian presence in Syria is that it’s the first time since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War that Iranian ground forces have been deployed to a foreign country. It goes beyond the “purely advisory” role that Iran has claimed in Iraq, in Lebanon and in pre-civil war Syria, and beyond training and bankrolling.

Iranian forces are under fire and are dying in battle in Syria. This change in policy has also drawn criticism within Iran. For example, the reformist newspaper Rooyesh-e Mellat refused to label Hamedani a “shahid” (holy martyr), and used the verb for “killed,” not “martyred,” in describing his death. The Revolutionary Guards-affiliated news website criticized the paper harshly. This is only one example of the debate in Iran over what several commentators there call the “entanglement in Syria” or even the “new Ashura in Syria,” a reference to a Muslim holy day that to Shi’ites commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein — the son of Mohammed’s son Ali, the founder of Shi’ite Islam. Ashura Day is traditionally marked with public mourning and shows of devotion that can include self-flagellation.

A few thousand Iranian combatants cannot achieve a decisive military victory, even with the aid of Russian air cover. True, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ paramilitary Basij corps declared a few months ago that he had at least 130,000 trained volunteers who were ready to do battle in Syria. And Hamedani, before his death, trained Syrian civilians and established so-called defense units to aid the Syrian military. But it seems that Tehran has not yet decided to launch an offensive inside Syria and might never do so, in light of the efforts to bring about the establishment of an interim government by diplomatic means. So too, such an offensive would turn the Syrian campaign into an Iranian one, that could risk an Arab military response.

This assessment is based on meetings Soleimani held in July with senior Russian officials to coordinate their countries’ military cooperation in Syria; in parallel, Iranian sources reported on plans for an October summit to discuss an Iranian diplomatic proposal that became “the “Russian plan” after Moscow adopted it. The summit took place in Vienna last week but did not yield concrete results; it is expected to resume this weekend.

Judging from the areas of Iranian deployment and the locations of the Russian strikes in Syria, it appears that the effort to recapture Aleppo from the rebels, even if it succeeds, does not yet point to plans to reconquer all of Syria for the regime. Instead, it seems to be aimed at achieving a strategic turning point whose purpose is to pressure the rebel militias into joining the negotiations and demonstrating to the United States that its continued opposition to President Bashar Assad’s participation in the talks could lead to a regional war.

Over the next few days it will become clear whether the Iranian and Russian military moves are indeed pressing the talks forward, or whether the opposition militias will repulse the pro-regime forces and retain control of Aleppo Province, causing Iran to deploy additional ground troops in Syria.

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