Iran’s mounting losses in Syria point to build-up
Washington - Hardly a week passes without Iranian media coverage of funeral and memorial services held across the Islamic Republic for Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani fighters killed in Syria.
The rising casualty toll is a graphic indication of how, despite Tehran denials, Iran’s direct involvement in the 4-1/2-year-old conflict is growing.
It also illustrates the extent to which Tehran is deploying Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to bolster the forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) battling rebel forces seeking to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran’s strategic Arab ally.
Amid growing indications that the Iranians have taken control of military affairs in Syria as Assad’s military is increasingly weakened by combat losses, defections and draft dodgers in a war in which 240,000 people are estimated to have been killed
With the regime no longer able to sustain its military campaign, the Iranians — including units of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force — are having to take a heavier share of combat while foreign recruits for rebel Islamic forces pour into the war zone.
The worry in Tehran is that the growing involvement by Iran and its Shia allies to shore up Assad’s beleaguered regime makes military disengagement impossible in the short term but also suggests that no decisive and final military victory should be expected.
In Iran, the dead receive heroes’ funerals: From the vast Behesht-e Zahra war cemetery outside Tehran to major holy cities to remote villages, mosque networks mobilise large crowds to follow the coffins to burial.
The funeral services are attended by important military and religious officials who address the crowds to commemorate the fallen.
In spite of the elaborate and highly choreographed funeral services, the Tehran government consistently denies the IRGC is involved in the fighting in Syria, insisting the casualties are “martyred guardians of the shrine” or volunteers who fell guarding sacred Shia pilgrimage sites in Syria, including the holiest of them all, the tomb of Zaynab, the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, on the outskirts of Damascus.
The true casualty toll is not known but a survey of funeral services shows 113 Iranians, 121 Afghans and 20 Pakistanis have died in Syria and buried in Iran since January 2013. These numbers account only for casualties whose funerals were covered by official media, so the real total must be higher.
In addition, Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah, along with the other Shia deployed in Syria, seem to have suffered casualties in even greater numbers but, given the regime’s opacity, it’s difficult to establish an accurate total.
The slain Iranians all served in the Revolutionary Guards. According to the death notices, eight were in the corps’ ground forces, eight with al-Quds Force and three served in the Basij militia controlled by the IRGC. The remaining were active-duty guardsmen but it’s not known in which branch they served.
The lack of information may reflect the regime’s attempt to obscure their service in the 15,000-strong Quds Force or to mask the extent of the IRGC ground forces’ deployment.
If the IRGC is sending its regular troops to Syria, that’s a clear indication al-Quds Force is spread thin and taking mounting casualties.
The regime has every reason to play down the extent of its involvement and losses in Syria.
The officially acknowledged casualty toll has made defending the Assad regime highly unpopular. The Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda may be universally despised by Iranians but there’s no love for the Assad regime either.
Additionally, rising IRGC casualties point to operational deficiencies with the corps.
In the short term, the Tehran leadership is unlikely to abandon Assad. Iran’s military elite has invested so much blood and treasure in the Syrian war that it no longer believes it can withdraw without a smashing victory to show for it.
The nuclear agreement between Tehran and the US-led global powers means that Iranian assets frozen abroad will be released, giving Tehran access to billions of dollars in foreign currency with which to fund its engagement in Syria.
So it could take some considerable time before the regime will be forced to admit that victory in Syria is not within reach, and that only a political settlement will end the war.