Iran reacts aggressively to Saudi plans of Syria deployment
WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia’s readiness to commit ground troops to Syria has provoked what seem to be contradictory responses from senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The kingdom was ready to “participate in any ground operations that the coalition may agree to carry out in Syria”, Saudi military spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed al- Asiri told Al Arabiya News Channel on February 4th.
Addressing the funeral service of several guardsmen killed in combat in Syria, IRGC commander Major- General Mohammad Ali Jafari said on February 5th: “There is fierce competition among the units of the ground forces of the Guard” to volunteer for missions in Syria. But he emphasised that the guard is “restrained” when it comes to deploying “military advisers” — read “combat troops” — into Syria.
And that, Jafari maintained, “saddens” the IRGC’s commanders, with the clear implication that the corps is champing at the bit to get into the Syrian war in which Iranians are playing an increasingly important part.
Saudi Arabia’s declared intent to step in with military forces to support rebels opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad — a key ally of Iran and, with neighbouring Lebanon, Tehran’s forward base in the Levant against Israel — would greatly complicate the already complex Syrian war. It would also sharply escalate the long-time rivalry between Iran and the kingdom by pitting their military forces directly against each other on the battlefield.
Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, Jafari’s deputy, chose a different approach in a February 7th interview with Iranian television, saying: “Saudi Arabia, even as the lead force in a coalition and engaged in an imbalanced war, is a failure in facing the people of Yemen… What capabilities has such a regime to deploy forces to as fierce a battleground as Syria?”
Concluding the interview, Salami huffed: “More than anything, this is a political joke.”
However, if Jafari and his deputy consider the threat of deployment of Saudi ground forces in Syria a “joke”, why did Jafari feel compelled to emphasise that Iran exercises “restraint” in deployment of IRGC forces in Syria, while simultaneously issuing the veiled threat of the willingness of guard units to rush to combat in Syria?
Was this Jafari attempting to warn Saudi Arabia against dispatching ground forces to Syria? Is Jafari threatening Riyadh with deploying jihad and martyrdom ready IRGC ground force units in Syria eventually to engage in direct battle against Saudi forces?
Perhaps, but to judge by funeral services in Iran and Lebanon for Shia combatants killed in combat in Syria, the IRGC is already increasing its military presence in that country.
That increase is not only visible in the growing number of IRGC casualties in Syria but also reflected in the burial of martyrs from provincial-based guard units that have little or no history of such funerals.
Since the death in battle of Major Moharram Tork of the IRGC’s elite and secretive expeditionary arm, al- Quds Force, on January 19, 2012, at least 318 IRGC members have died in the Syrian maelstrom.
The IRGC’s allies have also paid a high price. According to Iranian records, at the very least, 829 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, 229 Afghan Shias and 45 Pakistani Shias have died in combat in Syria. Iraqi Shia militias, trained, armed and controlled by Tehran, have also suffered heavy losses but there is little reliable statistical information about this available.
While the number of Hezbollah combat fatalities peaked during intense fighting in May 2013 and November 2014, the majority of non- Lebanese Shia losses in Syria have been incurred since Russia, Assad’s other key ally, intervened in the war in September 2015 and launched major offensives that have reversed Assad’s crumbling fortunes and transformed the Syrian war.
To be specific, as of early February, 192 IRGC members, 92 Afghani Shias and 22 Pakistani Shias have lost their lives since Russia’s launched air strikes against Syrian rebel forces on September 30. Most of those were killed in fighting around the northern city of Aleppo where rebels and the regime both hold territory.
And there is another indicator that the IRGC has stepped up its deployment in Syria: The corps’ latest combat fatalities belong to units with no record of participation in the fighting in Syria or only minor involvement in combat operations there.
This includes IRGC units based in Iranian provinces such as Sistan and Baluchestan, West Azerbaijan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer Ahmad, and Fars.
Seen from this perspective, the reactions of the IRGC to Saudi plans of military deployment in Syria should be a major source of concern in a region that is consumed by conflict and threatened with upheaval.