Iran deploys a new special force in Syria
Washington - Almost five years into Syria’s civil war and facing rising combat fatalities, Iran is deploying more and more military units — and all from its most trusted military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — into the charnel-house combat zone to secure the survival of its key Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The latest units deployed in Syria, to judge by a survey of Iranian nationals killed in combat in Syria, are from the IRGC’s Saberin Brigade, the corps’ special forces group of several battalions.
Their commitment, along with the elite al-Quds Force, to keep Assad in power underlines the military power Tehran’s Shia leadership is having to deploy to save the quasi-Shia Assad regime.
Little is known about the Saberin Brigade, which as far as the outside world is concerned has been overshadowed as Tehran’s external spearhead by the Quds Force, Iran’s secretive expeditionary force that has played a vital role in rescuing Assad’s regime from collapse.
So what is the Saberin Brigade — the name means “Those with Forbearance” in Farsi — and its significance in the Syrian bloodbath?
According to Brigadier-General Morteza Mirian, a former commander of the brigade, the Saberin was established in 2000 modelled on Britain’s famed and secretive Special Air Service. Major-General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s current chief, served as the Saberin Brigade’s first commander. The current commander is Brigadier- General Mohsen Karimi, appointed on May 15, 2012.
At the time of its establishment, the Saberin Brigade’s primary mission was to counter the threat from the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey, which has been fighting Ankara for Kurdish autonomy since the mid- 1980s.
PJAK, based in the Qandil mountains of eastern Iraq, has been engaged in a guerrilla war with Iran for a decade. Several hundred fighters on both sides, including General Abbas Asemi, the IRGC’s commander in Qom province, and Brigadier-General Abbas-Ali Jansari, commander of the Isfahan Artillery Corps, have been killed.
As the conflict diminished in mid-2012, the IRGC deployed the Saberin in Sistan and Baluchistan province where the brigade has battled Jaish ul-Adl, a Sunni insurgent group that has challenged the Tehran regime across the south-eastern province that borders Pakistan.
On the surface, the IRGC and the Saberin battalions have restored a measure of calm in the impoverished province but since the IRGC’s counter-insurgency strategy solely relies on use of force and lacks a social dimension for improving the living conditions of the local population, Sistan and Baluchistan province is in a state of emergency. This nurtures further grievances among the local Sunni population against Tehran.
To judge by these actions, the Saberin Brigade seems to be operating on Iran’s increasingly restive borders which are largely populated by non-Shias.
The distinction between the brigade and the Quds Force thus may be blurring because of the Syrian war.
There have been no reliable reports on Saberin operations in Syria since Tehran consistently denies there are any IRGC personnel there. But a study of reports on funeral services in Iran for Iranian nationals killed in Syria, sheds light on the brigade’s activities.
On February 14, 2015, Abbas Abdollahi, a Saberin Brigade officer from East Azerbaijan province, was reportedly killed in Kafr Nasij village in the Deraa governorate of southern Syria. He was Saberin’s first combat fatality in Syria. Since then, the brigade has lost at the very least ten other personnel there.
Colonel Farhad Hassounizadeh, another senior Saberin officer, was killed in southern Syria. The more recent deaths seem to have occurred in the suburbs of the northern city of Aleppo, a key battleground since 2013 with Syrian regime forces holding half of the war-battered city and rebels the other. It is widely understood that what transpires in Aleppo may decide the outcome of the conflict.
The death of several Saberin Brigade members on the same day and same geographic location as IRGC members from the same Iranian province further indicates that the Saberin forces have been incorporated into the IRGC structure in Syria.
With the limited information available about this special forces brigade, it’s difficult to assess the significance of their contribution to the overall IRGC war effort in Syria. But the mere fact that Saberin is deployed there is a sign that the IRGC is moving from being the Tehran regime’s praetorian guard to becoming one big Quds Force, operating beyond Iran’s borders.
This is happening at a time when Tehran is stepping up its expansionist strategy, particularly against Saudi Arabia, to establish itself as the region’s paramount power.
In the current state of tension between the kingdom, which sees itself as the guardian of the world’s Sunni Muslims, and Iran, the superpower of the minority Shia sect, this is a worrisome development.