Iran’s losses mount in the Syrian quagmire
WASHINGTON - “We must possess Syria. If the chain from Lebanon to here [Tehran] is cut, bad things will happen,” former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said in a December 24, 2012, meeting with Ibrahim Mohammad Bahr al-Ulloum, Iraq’s special envoy to Iran.
Other leading Islamic Republic officials share Rafsanjani’s analysis: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei perceives the civil war in Syria as a conspiracy against Tehran and Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who commands the elite al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-QF), has declared his readiness to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime “to the very end”.
Furthermore, Soleimani consistently emphasises Syria’s importance to Iran, not only as a core component of the “resistance” to Israel and the United States, but also against Sunni adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Based on the assessment of Iran’s political and military elites, Tehran has invested much blood and treasure in ensuring the survival of Assad and his minority Alawite regime in Damascus in a civil war that began in March 2011.
However, as Assad faces growing pressure from a unified armed opposition, Syria has turned into a quagmire for the Islamic Republic, from which there is no easy way out.
Tehran faces difficulties bankrolling Damascus. With the Iranian economy struggling under the weight of international sanctions and declining oil revenues, financing the Assad regime has become a serious burden for the Islamic Republic.
It also has difficulties persuading the Iranian public on the wisdom of spending limited economic resources propping up a regime which uses chemical weapons against its own people.
The impoverished middle class would much rather see that money spent on improving living standards in Iran. Nevertheless, the $3.6 billion line of credit from Iran to Syria is “close to being used up”, Hayan Salman, Syria’s minister of economy and foreign aid, said on May 21st.
He reportedly asked Tehran for a credit line of $3 billion but had to make do with $1 billion.
Meantime, the IRGC, which Tehran insists is only in Syria in an advisory capacity, is suffering a growing casualty toll in the fighting.
Officially the IRGC personnel in Syria are euphemistically identified as “Guardians of the Tomb of Zeinab”, the Prophet’s venerated daughter. Her tomb on the outskirts of Damascus has become one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines.
But these days in Iran there are funerals for IRGC members just about every week that the regime cannot hide. A survey of Iranian newspapers shows that at least 125 IRGC members, including two generals, have been killed in Syria since December 2011.
It’s widely believed that the death toll is considerably higher as the secretive Quds Force, which carries out largely covert expeditionary operations outside Iran, is increasingly being used in combat to stiffen Damascus’ battered forces.
Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and other senior IRGC officials attending these funeral services consistently use them to argue that if these sacrifices are not made in Syria, Iran would have to fight against terror on its own soil.
Their repeated use of such speeches suggests the IRGC feels compelled to defend itself.
An examination of Iranians killed in Syria and Iranian prisoners of war released in January 2013 by the Free Syrian Army, one of the main rebel groups, in return for Syrian opposition members held by the Assad regime, provides another insight into the murky Iranian presence in Syria.
The Iranian prisoners included Brigadier-General Abedin Khorram, the IRGC commander in West Azerbaijan province, Colonel Taleb Rahimi and Colonel Mohammad-Taqi Safari, the IRGC chiefs in the cities of Naqadeh and Gavaneh, and Hojjat al-Eslam Karim Hossein-Khani, a senior cleric and Khamenei’s former representative in the city of Oroumiyeh.
This would indicate the IRGC-QF is being stretched so thinly across the Syrian war fronts that the Guards’ have had to deploy regular ground forces, too.
Tehran’s financial hardships and the mounting death toll in Syria may force Iran to pursue a political solution to the Syrian war. But that has proven to be elusive and the collapse of the Syrian regime and the partition of the country into cantons run by rival militias can no longer be ruled out.
Tehran is likely to continue its support for pro-Iranian zones in Syria. But that will strain Tehran’s economic resources and regional prestige to such a degree it could face heightened domestic criticism and the defection of regional allies who doubt Tehran’s ability to sustain its support for them.