The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ long war in Syria
The war in Syria is coming closer to a conclusion but there is little indication that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its allied Shia militias are reducing their presence. More importantly, now that the Assad regime appears secure, the IRGC is developing a new goal in Syria: maintaining a permanent front against Israel.
Escalating tensions between Iran and Israel made headlines when the IRGC launched an aerial drone into Israeli airspace on February 10. Lacking an effective air force because of US sanctions and insufficient funds, the Iran has developed a fairly advanced unmanned aerial vehicle programme, which it deploys in Syria and elsewhere for reconnaissance purposes.
An Israeli combat helicopter intercepted the drone and deployed two F-16 fighter jets to target Iranian military bases in Syria in retaliation of the airspace incursion. The fighters faced heavy anti-aircraft fire and one of the jets was hit and crashed.
Where are Iran’s military bases in Syria and to what extent do they constitute a threat to Israel?
Most of the intelligence on the military presence of the IRGC and allied Shia militias in Syria comes from Saudi, Israeli and Iranian opposition sources. However, Javad Qorbani, who previously served as an IRGC commander in Syria, made some interesting observations in the January 21 online edition of Iran’s Jaam-e Jam newspaper. In the interview, Qorbani, also known as Abou Zahedeh, said three main Iranian bases were responsible for relatively large operational zones in Syria.
One is Nabi-ye Mokaram-e Eslam (The Generous Prophet of Islam), also known as the Izra Base, south of Damascus and close to Daraa. The second, Her Holiness Roqayyeh Base, is in Aleppo and serves as the operational command base in that area. The third is Her Holiness Zainab Base, 50km south of Damascus.
Apart from the main bases, open source data help identify other IRGC facilities and tactical bases. The IRGC maintains a military presence at the so-called Glasshouse at Damascus Airport. Afghan Fatemiyoun Division veterans from the war in Syria have disclosed that the Glasshouse serves as the entry point of IRGC and non-Hezbollah Shia allies deployed in Syria. Here, they receive uniforms and arms before being sent to tactical bases all over Syria.
Those bases include Dumayr Air Force Base, north-east of Damascus; Al-Kiswah, 14km south of Damascus, which has been targeted by Israeli missiles on several occasions; Imam Hussein Garrison, west of Damascus; Yarmouk Base, south-east of Damascus; the Tiyas and Shayrat air bases in Homs; Mayer City Base in the predominantly Shia village of Nubl on the outskirts of Aleppo and Camp Tala’e between Latakia and Tartus.
This writer’s survey of funeral services in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon shows that at least 2,872 Shia foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan have been killed in combat in Syria since the beginning of the war. This number represents an absolute minimum and is based on Shia foreign fighters whose death was reported on open source.
In recent months, there has been a marked decline in fatalities. There were 37 in December, 32 in January and just two so far in February, compared with 81 in November. However, there is no indication of the IRGC or its allied Shia militias reducing their military presence in Syria.
On the contrary, the IRGC seems to have found a new mission in Syria now that the Assad regime appears safe and it is to maintain a permanent, low-intensity front against Israel. In turn, Israel systematically unleashes its air force against targets in Syria to prevent arms transfers to Lebanese Hezbollah and to weaken the IRGC’s infrastructure in Syria.
The Assad regime is probably not particularly keen on provoking Israel but, for the time being, it is not the master of its own house and must tolerate what it can’t prevent. At some point, Syrian President Bashar Assad may realise that his ultimate goal — his survival and that of his regime — may conflict with the IRGC’s goal of engaging a long, low-intensity conflict with Israel. The downing of the Israeli F-16 jet fighter maylead to an escalation of that conflict.