Iran pays high price for backing Assad, with worse coming
BEIRUT - Iran’s military commander in Syria, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, has been reported to have been killed or gravely wounded in fighting around the ancient battle-scarred city of Aleppo.
Tehran insists this iconic war-hero, who has masterminded clandestine Iranian operations in Iraq and across the Middle East in the Islamic Republic’s drive to become the paramount regional power, is alive and kicking.
But Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force, has missed several recent public functions and the speculation is that the Syrian war has claimed one of its highest-ranking victims, underlining the mounting toll that Tehran is paying to keep Assad’s brutal regime in power.
Indeed, 2015 has been the worst year for Iranian troops, including generals, since Tehran deployed forces there in 2012. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, death notices indicate that 222 IRGC personnel have been killed since January 2012, along with a similar number of Afghan and Pakistani Shia militiamen — although the true death toll is probably far higher.
Seven IRGC generals, possibly including the notoriously elusive Soleimani, were killed in the intense battles of 2015. By comparison, only one US general has been killed in a conflict zone since the Vietnam war ended more than 40 years ago.
The high-ranking casualties underline how the IRGC and the Shia militias they command are now the cutting edge of pro-Assad forces. These are largely concentrated in the northern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama, where major regime offensives are under way and which since September 30th have been given air support by Syria-based Russian warplanes.
Tehran has long denied it is militarily involved in Syria beyond an advisory role but as Assad’s forces have been crippled by heavy losses, desertions and widespread draft-dodging, the Iranians and their Shia militias recruited in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have become vital to Assad’s survival.
Western military sources estimate there are more than 7,000 Iranians and non-Iranian militia mercenaries in Syria and doing most of the fighting.
In October, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed there were 2,000 Iranian troops in Syria. Syrian opposition sources claim more are likely to be deployed as the northern offensives drag on.
Indeed, Iran-watchers, such as Ali Alfoneh of FDD, say that the IRGC’s death lists indicate that regular IRGC troops, not just the special operatives of the Quds Force, are now being fed into the Syrian killing machine. “Under Soleimani, the differences between the missions of the IRGC’s Ground Force and the expeditionary Quds Force is rapidly blurring,” Alfoneh said. “Effectively, the entire (IRGC) is turning into one large expeditionary Quds Force.”
Iran’s deployment of the Quds Force and the Basij, the large Iranian paramilitary force controlled by the Guards, and reportedly units from the IRGC’s regular ground forces, is not likely to be able to keep pace with the combat losses.
The relentless flow of foreign fighters joining jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al- Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing — between 27,000 and 31,000 in the last year, according to the US-based Soufan Group consultancy — means Iran will be hard-pressed to match force levels in Syria.
Gary C. Gambill of the Middle East Forum has long viewed the Islamic Republic’s intervention in Syria to support key Arab ally Assad as “Iran’s Stalingrad”.
“The Iranian surge,” he wrote in June 2013, “won’t prevent the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab rebels from eventually prevailing on the battlefield. Sunni Arabs have a five-to-one demographic edge over the minority Alawites.”
Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute acknowledges that Iran’s growing investment of men and money — $6 billion a year, according to UN officials — has, with Russian support, kept Assad in power despite repeated setbacks.
“However, all is not going well for Iran in Syria,” she observed. “Tehran faces a classic case of mission creep: It is being forced to commit ever-greater military and financial resources in Syria, falling deeper into the Syrian quagmire with no clear exit strategy.”
Analysts Fouad Hamdan, a Lebanese, and Shiar Youssef, a Syrian, who head the activist group Naame Shaam which monitors Iran’s role in Syria, have even argued that US President Barack Obama has deliberately avoided decisive intervention to aid Assad’s foes so that Iran will be irrevocably weakened, just as the United States did during the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 war in Afghanistan.
Hamdan and Youssef said Washington has been “providing moderate Syrian rebels with just enough support not to lose the war, but not enough to win it either. Even this support has declined in recent months and rebel groups have suffered more losses in northern Syria.” They call this a US “slow-bleeding policy”.