Tehran’s deployment pattern in Iraq
WASHINGTON - “The United States intends to preserve Daesh in order to make Muslims dependent on America,” Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani declared using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS) in his September 1st report on regional developments to Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts.
Conspiracy theories apart, the statement by the commander of the elite Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), contains an embarrassing truth: If it were not for the sustained US-led air strikes against ISIS positions in the Iraqi city of Tikrit in April, the Iraqi Army, Soleimani and the Iraqi Shia militias under his command would not have been able to seize control of that city.
The Islamic Republic goes to great lengths to obscure the extent of its coordination with the United States, just as Washington is unwilling to admit any cooperation with Tehran.
However, its dependence on the United States for air support is a fact and to some extent proof of the parlous state of the Iranian Air Force, which, because of international arms embargoes imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, consists largely of Vietnam-era aircraft and is incapable of mounting the type of combat operations the Americans employ in Iraq.
But Iran’s military dependency on Washington may also reflect the fact that Tehran has a very limited military presence in Iraq, which is confined largely to field commanders, specialist troops and training instructors.
There do not appear to be significant numbers of ground troops, which is in keeping with Tehran’s strategy of using proxy forces, primarily Shia, in its covert campaign to subvert its Arab opponents and extend Iran’s influence across the region.
Based on an analysis of Islamic Republic media reports on burial services in Iran for men killed in combat in Iraq, there were 27 Iranian fatalities in Iraq over the last 14 months. In contrast, 119 Iranians, 131 Afghani Shias and 20 Pakistani Shias have been reported killed in combat in Syria since January 2013.
The real number of Shia combatants to die in combat in Iraq and Syria is probably significantly higher than the numbers reported by the Islamic Republic’s media but the lower number of Iranian fatalities in Iraq reflects a more limited Iranian military presence in that country in comparison to Syria.
Qualitative analysis of the Iranian combat deaths provides an insight into the forces deployed to Iraq. For instance, all 27 Iranian “martyrs” were serving in the IRGC, which reflects the traditional division of labour between the regular army and the Guards.
Secondly, while the IRGC is tasked with extraterritorial operations as well as fighting opponents of the regime at home, the regular military’s role is limited to safeguarding Iran’s territorial integrity.
Nine of the fallen Iranians were identified as IRGC officers: one brigadier-general, two colonels, two captains and a former “command council member” of the Basij, a million-strong paramilitary force under IRGC control. Four others were commemorated as sardars (commanders).
The remaining fatalities were specialists rather than infantrymen. They included two clerics, two engineers and a photographer. This clearly shows that the Iraqi government, which is backed by Shia militias, is not in need of front-line volunteers but does need experienced and skilled field commanders.
The IRGC clearly is supplying such commanders. The fallen Iranians include Brigadier-General Hamid Taqavi, a prominent commander of the Quds Force and one of the main organisers of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) to battle ISIS.
Javad Jahani, also known as Hosnavi, served as the leader of an assault unit. The Iraqi militiamen under his command liberated Balad in Saladin province in the spring. Jassem Nouri recently liberated Dujail, another town in Saladin, while commanding a contingent of Iraqi PMU paramilitaries.
Some observers are sceptical about the ability of Iranian commanders to operate in Iraq because of linguistic problems. However, seven of the fighters killed were buried in Khuzestan province in south-western Iran bordering Iraq, two in the central province of Kermanshah and one in Kurdistan, also on the Iraqi border.
This statistical over-representation is hardly surprising: most Iranians from Arab-majority Khuzestan are proficient in Arabic, while natives of Kurdistan and Kermanshah master different Kurdish dialects, all of which are particularly useful in commanding paramilitary forces in Iraq.
Iran’s 27 combat fatalities in Iraq and limited military engagement there should not be interpreted as a sign of decreased Iranian interest in that campaign. A deployment pattern different to the one employed in Syria reflects the needs of the Iraqi government, which are very different than those of the Damascus regime.
However, just as in Syria, the regime in Tehran is seeking a military solution to political problems, an approach that prolongs rather than shortens the crises in both countries.