Iran’s IRGC prefers low-intensity conflict with Israel to all-out war
Iran remained remarkably silent in the days after the April 29 attacks — suspected to have been carried out by Israel — on two northern Syria military bases that host Iranian and allied Shia militia forces.
State-controlled Iranian media played down the incident, providing an important insight into the strategy towards Israel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). While it does not mind engaging Israel in a low-intensity conflict, it tries hard to avoid all-out war.
Iranian media coverage of the attack on the Syrian bases quoted Syrian government sources, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Every piece emphasised that Iranian officials had not confirmed the loss of Iranian nationals.
As time passed, Iranian reporting dismissed any Iranian or allied losses altogether. For instance, the centrist Iranian Students News Agency quoted “an informed source” on this point. The unidentified source, supposedly from within the Joint Force Staff, dismissed the idea that Iranian military advisers in Syria had suffered “martyrdom.” An unnamed base commander of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division was quoted claiming that none of his forces was “martyred.”
There have been inconsistencies in the official line, however. The only Iranian politician publicly speaking about the April 29 incidents did not say Iran had suffered no losses. Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, spokesman for the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian parliament, condemned the April 29 attacks in an interview with the centrist Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).
Naqavi Hosseini was less categorical than other unidentified sources about Iranian losses. He said: “We do not have exact statistics and the government must officially announce it… The Syrians must provide the numbers since they are in charge. We are in Syria at the behest of the government of Syria.” He added that the “crime” of Israel “will not remain unanswered.”
In general, there appears to be an attempt to keep Iranian emotions over the alleged attack by Israel in check. Veteran foreign policy analyst Davoud Hermidas-Bavand warned against rash reactions from Tehran. In an interview with ILNA, Hermidas-Bavand said: “Israel is trying to provoke Iran to react in the hope of taking greater action in Syria.”
Immediately after the attack on the northern Syrian bases, Iran seemed to agree more with Hermidas-Bavand than with Naqavi Hosseini. It has a track record on this.
The IRGC did not retaliate against Israel for its April 9 air raid on the T-4 air base in Homs. The T-4 base hosts a unit from the IRGC Air and Space unmanned aerial drone force. It is part of the substantial military infrastructure established by Iran in Syria. Colonel Mehdi Dehqan Yazdeli, the highest-ranking Iranian fatality identified in the April 9 attack, served in the IRGC’s Air and Space Force. Other Iranian nationals killed in the incident were probably involved in Iran’s drone programme.
The T-4 airbase strike was not the first time the IRGC and its allied Shia forces were subject to Israeli attacks. Israel admits it has engaged in more than 100 air raids against Lebanese Hezbollah’s arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon. High-ranking IRGC officers were killed in some of those attacks.
On February 13, 2013, Commander Hassan Shateri, also known as Hessam Khoshnevis, was killed in an Israeli attack while transporting Iran-made weaponry from Syria to Lebanon. Shateri was officially the head of the “Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon.” In reality, he was the highest-ranking IRGC al-Quds Force officer in Lebanon.
On January 18, 2015, IRGC al-Quds Force officer Mohammad-Ali Allahdadi was targeted by Israeli helicopters in the Quneitra area in south-western Syria. He was killed along with several Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
Even though there is no acknowledgment of Iranian casualties from the April 29 attack, one thing is very similar to the aftermath of the April 9 strike: Tehran’s muted response. This is understandable. Fearing Israeli attacks, Iran is methodically expanding its military infrastructure in Syria so it can engage Israel in a permanent low-intensity conflict. This manoeuvre is aimed at keeping Israel busy. Perhaps it is also meant to deter Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Of course, the IRGC’s planners realise this strategy entails a cost, not least losses at Israeli hands, but that is a price the IRGC finds affordable. It would be much less acceptable for the IRGC to lose face. So, the IRGC does not respond to losses inflicted by the Israeli Air Force. It knows it is neither in a position to inflict serious losses on the Israelis nor does it want to escalate a low-intensity conflict into an all-out war.