For Iran, the cost of its Syrian war keeps climbing
Beirut - Iran’s armed intervention in Syria to keep President Bashar Assad in power is becoming more costly almost by the week with at least 13 killed fighting rebels forces and another 21 wounded in the heavy fighting May 6th in and around the contested city of Aleppo.
Those constitute the worst single-day Iranian losses since the Tehran regime sent in the elite al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in January 2012, underlining Iran’s commitment to supporting its key Arab strategic ally through which it extends Tehran’s reach to the eastern Mediterranean and Israel’s doorstep.
The IRGC listed the Iranians as “military advisers” but did not identify the men or give their ranks. Syrian sources said there were Afghan fighters among the dead.
The unprecedented casualties stunned Iran and, on May 9th, Mohsen Rezaei, a former IRGC commander who is secretary of the powerful Expediency Discernment Council in Tehran, vowed the takfiris would pay a “heavy price” for the attack.
Iran has an estimated 3,000 men in Syria. Some 400 have been killed there, including a dozen or more generals and key commanders.
Among them were Brigadier General Mohsen Qaryajan, commander of the IRGC’s 21st Armoured Brigade, “martyred during an advisory mission” near Aleppo on February 4th, and Brigadier General Hassan Hamedani, killed by Islamic State fighters outside Aleppo last October.
By comparison, only one US general has been killed in a conflict zone since the Vietnam War ended 40 years ago.
The Afghans killed were undoubtedly members of an IRGC-controlled militia of Afghan Shias known as the Fatemiyoun Division that was sent to Syria in 2014. The IRGC has recruited thousands of the estimated 3 million Afghan Shias living in Iran for the Syrian war since November 2013.
Iran’s Fars news agency reported that the May 6th Iranian casualties were incurred when a 3,000-person, tank-led force made up of Islamist insurgents of the Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) overran the strategic village of Khan Touman, about 15km south-west of Aleppo.
Jaysh al-Fateh and its allies, including al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, subsequently posted pictures on social media of what appeared to be the bodies of those killed in Khan Touman. Videos showed what were purported to be the men’s wallets, personal documents and Iranian currency.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported the Iranian casualties were all from Iran’s northern province of Mazandaran, which indicated they probably belonged to a single IRGC unit. Earlier this year Tehran, for the first time, deployed elements of a regular army unit, the elite 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade, to act as advisers to front-line Syrian forces.
It is widely seen that the Fatemiyoun Division and militias composed of Iraqi Shias and some Pakistani Shias were formed to provide cannon fodder to minimise Iranian casualties in the Syrian conflict, which is seen as the precursor of wider wars in the Middle East.
Iran sees the Syrian inferno as a means to forge an international Shia brigade to support the IRGC and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as the spearhead of Tehran’s expansionist ambitions to become the paramount power in the Sunni-dominated region.
There is evidence that many of the Afghans were coerced into joining the war in Syria. However, many accept the Iranian line that what is happening now, and what is expected to follow in the years ahead, is an existential battle against the minority Shias’ main enemy, Islam’s dominant Sunni sect embodied in the shape of Saudi Arabia.
The fighting in Aleppo, where the rebels hold the eastern part of the city and Assad’s forces control the western sector, has been particularly intense in recent weeks as the Damascus regime battles to retake rebel-held territory to strengthen its position at the Geneva peace talks.
Aleppo is seen as the key and the outcome of the fighting taking place there stands to play a decisive role in determining the outcome of the complex Syrian conflict.
The US global security consultancy Stratfor observed: “The battle for the city is critical to both Syrian government forces and their rebel counterparts,” who mainly comprise al-Nusra Front, the Islamist nationalists of Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army.
“Damascus hopes to cement its position and quell talk of a political transition through a decisive military victory in Aleppo. Meanwhile, the rebels are fighting for the survival of their cause. If the rebels lose Aleppo, any military victory against Damascus will become a distant dream, and their negotiating position in Geneva will be severely compromised.”