Iran boosts forces in Syria amid regional ambitions
Beirut - Lieutenant Mohsen Ghotaslou was killed April 11th in fighting around the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, the first combat fatality in the 5-year-old war for Iran’s regular army. Others soon followed, underlining the extent to which the Islamic Republic and its Shia allies have become the spearhead of the military forces battling to save the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Ghotaslou belonged to a crack unit of the Iranian Army, the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade, which Tehran says was deployed to Syria a few weeks ago to bolster Assad’s forces for major offensives. The plan appears to be to regain ground lost to rebel groups and bolster the Damascus regime’s position at peace talks in Geneva.
An Iranian brigade can comprise up to 3,000 men but it’s not clear whether the entire 65th brigade has been committed. The significance of Ghotaslou’s death in combat is that, for the first time, Tehran has deployed a unit of the regular army, which has been overshadowed since the 1979 revolution by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the clerical regime’s ideologically sound Praetorian Guard.
The army’s mission has traditionally been to protect Iran’s borders but now it has been flung into the Syrian war to help save Assad’s regime, raising speculation that Tehran is steadily creating a powerful interventionary force as it struggles to further Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution across the Middle East and become the region’s paramount power.
Amir Toumaj, an Iranian analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, noted that “Iran’s decision to integrate army special forces into major foreign operations underscores its commitment to hone its expeditionary capabilities. In fact, the army’s involvement in Syria may have begun several months ago.”
In this endeavour, keeping Assad — whose father forged the alliance with Tehran three decades ago — in power is vital for Iranian ambitions. “Assad is increasingly dependent on Iran militarily and financially and Tehran does not see a viable alternative to the Alawite-dominated state that would preserve its interests in Syria,” analyst Majid Rafizadeh wrote in Al Arabiya on March 20th.
“Iran cannot afford to lose Syria, so it is using Assad to tip the balance of power against other regional powers” — particularly Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia — “and strengthen the Shia axis”.
Iran backed Assad’s regime with military force long before the Russians intervened in September 2015 to decisively turn the Syrian war in Assad’s favour. Since then the Iranian combat component has been overshadowed by the Russian blitzkrieg.
However, with indications that the Russia-Assad regime alliance is cracking over divergent strategic objectives, the Iranian expeditionary force in Syria is being seen as vital, largely because it is filling the most dangerous gap in Assad’s military capabilities: an acute manpower shortage, with as many as 100,000 Syrian soldiers killed or wounded since the war began in March 2011.
The IRGC has committed thousands of fighters to the Assad cause since 2012, including contingents of its elite al-Quds Force, a secretive unit of about 15,000 that operates outside Iran and whose primary mission is to do the dirty work in furthering Tehran’s expansionist ambitions.
It has also provided large contingents from Iran’s main Arab proxy in the Middle East, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as specially recruited Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of Asia, which operate under IRGC command. Hezbollah usually has at least 7,000 men deployed in Syria at any one time, with more when needed to boost regime offensives.
This “additional manpower is the most important contribution to the Syrian government’s increasingly under-manned forces”, the US-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor observed in an April 12th analysis.
“Iran has provided vital financial support to Syria’s sinking economy and has continued to fund the Syrian government’s war machine. As a result, Iran has at least as much leverage in Damascus as Russia does.
“Moscow and Tehran may see eye to eye on many aspects of the conflict but there are differences: Russia is less invested in Syria proper and more inclined to make trade-offs; Tehran sees Syria as a crucial bastion in its support for Hezbollah and an important anchor for Shia influence in the Levant. Russia is careful to maintain a viable exit strategy, while Iran is committed to Syria for the long haul.”
The ground-breaking Iranian Army deployment followed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim before the US Congress on February 25th that Tehran was withdrawing al-Quds Force guards from Syria, a claim rejected by analyst Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
He said that since Assad’s military and allied militias have suffered heavy casualties in three years of hard fighting and the Iranians are having to make up for these losses, moving from what had originally been training and advisory missions to direct-action combat roles.
This meant a sharp upturn in casualties for Iran, Hezbollah and other Shia groups, largely made up of mercenaries. These losses underscore how Tehran effectively runs Assad’s land forces and dominates the military and intelligence infrastructures, using them to project Iran’s spreading influence in the Levant.
“Tehran’s role will continue to deepen,” Rafizadeh predicted. “This will further militarise, radicalise and widen the conflict. A reformist presidency in Iran will not change the status quo. Though Iranian policy on Syria is formed by the supreme leader and senior IRGC officials, Iranian politicians across the spectrum agree on that policy.”
Indeed, President Hassan Rohani, considered a moderate who seeks to curtail the IRGC’s political power, declared in June 2015 that the Islamic republic will back Assad “to the end of the road”.