Not a scream nor a whimper from Tehran as Israel deals blows
“Alleged Israeli air strikes in Syria over the last five months have killed some 140 people from Iran’s military forces and allied militias,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in its September 17 estimate.
The majority of those killed, 113, occurred in the past two months. Those estimates seem to confirm the words of Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, when, during an address at Herzliya college, he said: “[I]n the last two years, Israel has taken military action more than 200 times within Syria itself.”
Remarkably, the regime in Tehran remains silent in the face of Israeli air strikes against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and allied Shia militia in Syria. Iranian authorities are not acknowledging their losses in Syria even as the IRGC and its allies’ military presence in Syria remains unchanged and there is no prospect for immediate IRGC or allied retaliation against Israel.
Data from Persian- and Arabic-language open-source content produce a much lower number than the 140 losses reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. My survey of funeral services in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon for Shia foreign fighters killed in combat in Syria identified 48 fatalities since April 1. Of these, 19 were Afghan Shia Fatemiyoun Division fighters, 16 were IRGC forces, ten were Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and three were members of Pakistan’s Shia Zainabiyoun Brigade.
The mismatch between the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights figures and the number of funeral services may reflect statistical errors by the organisation but it is just as likely to reflect the IRGC’s unwillingness to disclose the scale of losses caused by Israel.
Shia militia media outlets proudly reported their gains — and even the losses — in the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) but there is no incentive to admit losses caused by the Israel Defence Force, against which the Shia militias have taken few, largely symbolic, actions. This is hardly a source of prestige for militias that purport to destroy Israel.
There also seems to be more continuity than change in the military presence of the IRGC and its allied Shia militias in Syria. The exception, of course, is an area 85km from the line of demarcation between Syria and Israel. In July, the IRGC was persuaded by Moscow to pull back from the area. Israeli authorities deem the pullback insufficient and demanded Iran’s total withdrawal from Syria. It is a demand that the IRGC ignores.
If anything, the IRGC and its allied Shia militias are entrenching themselves in Syria, perhaps to establish a deterrence against Israel. At least for now, Tehran seems to be paying the price for such a plan of deterrence but it is not willing to admit its losses to the Iranian public.
The IRGC’s reluctance to retaliate against Israel must also be seen in this perspective. As long as the IRGC and allied Shia militias can sustain the losses, they patiently build the deterrence but if the IRGC and militias fall into Israel’s trap and respond to the attacks, the deterrence is done away with and Tehran must embark on a war for which it is not prepared.
The questions, of course, are how long can IRGC commanders hide the losses from the Iranian public and at what point does the Iranian public begin to perceive the IRGC as weak? Whatever prestige the IRGC may have gained in the fight against ISIS is at risk of evaporating as its losses to Israel become generally known to the people.