Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.Political and military officials in Iran insist they are maintaining an advisory role in Syria, and that members of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Iran’s regular army dispatched to Syria are not directly engaged in fighting Syrian opposition groups. However, aside from the IRGC, Shi'a Iraqi militias and Afghans of the Fatemioun Division – all associated to the IRGC – are deeply involved in Syria alongside members of Iran’s regular army. Recently five members of Iran’s Special 65th Commando Brigade were killed south of Aleppo.
Conflicting remarks from Iran’s army
Iranian army commander General Attaolah Salehi emphasized army members killed in Syria were advisors. He didn’t make it clear which entity was responsible for dispatching these army members, yet he did claim a number of army forces had “volunteered” for the fight in Syria.
General Pourdastan, commander of the army ground forces, also referred to the fact that the army has no 'unit presence' in Syria. As the remarks made by these two army commanders clearly show their reluctance to deploy forces to Syria, the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency reminds this is a “duty,” adding according to the law, “the army must stand ready to cooperate with the Revolutionary Guards.” It appears army soldiers are dispatched to Syria in the shadows of previously-sealed arrangements, that army commanders are forced to abide by.
Insisting on “advisory presence”
Despite the deaths of 13 IRGC members, 21 others wounded and at least 6 taken captive in the strategic village of Khan Touman (15 kilometers southwest of Aleppo), Iran continues to emphasize that its military, IRGC and militias dispatched to Syria are acting as advisors; whereas deputy IRGC commander Hossein Salami said “Iran’s military advisors” are present in Syria “in four different categories of strategic, operational, tactical, technical and medical activities.” From January 2012 to February 2016 Iran has lost at least 342 IRGC members, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
According to London’s Daily Telegraph, to this day 700 military and militia forces dispatched by Iran have been killed in Syria, and according to the London-based International Strategic Research Institute around 2,000 IRGC Quds Force personnel are present in Syria. Of course these are all official numbers, and Iran has no clean sheet for truth-telling.
Iran’s objectives and strategy in Syria
Iran entered the Syria conflict in 2012 with a number of experts believing Syria would become Iran’s Vietnam. Others believed that similar to post-2003 Iraq, Iran in Syria would strengthen its influence in shaping political developments. To this day we have witnessed Syria evolving into a dangerous quagmire for Iran.
During the past four and a half years, Iran has provided significant financial and military support for the Assad regime, along with rallying a large number of Iraqi Shi'a militias, Afghans, Pakistanis and the Lebanese Hezbollah into the Syria campaign. The Syrian people and their opposition have so far taught a hard-learned lesson to Iran and its proxies, and it seems sure that the mullahs of Tehran will witness darker days to come in the Levant.
Russia does not insist on Assad remaining on the throne, and any agreement with the US that recognizes Moscow’s security, intelligence and strategic interests in Syria would be acceptable. However, Iran is seeking a full-blown victory over all opposition forces, expanding its influence over Damascus and the future of Assad across Syria, or at least the western sectors of this fragmented country.
The most important objective for Iran in Syria is for the Assad regime to maintain power, securing an open path for the delivery of weapons and equipment to the Lebanese Hezbollah, and upgrading the influence of its associated Shi'a militias in Syria, mirroring its initiative in Iraq. Despite suffering many casualties, there are no signs of Iran downgrading its presence or stance in Syria.
Contrary stances: Russia and Iran
Recently, Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, emphasized that Assad remaining on the throne is a red line for Iran.
On the contrary, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made it clear “Bashar Assad” is not Moscow’s ally, adding that Assad's Syria has never been such an ally as Turkey is to the United States.
According to various Russian media outlets, Moscow and Tehran lack a unified position on Syria, and Assad, counting on Iran’s support, resists demands made by Moscow. The Kremlin has called on Assad for more cooperation to end the war based on an agreement sealed between Russia and the US back in February: releasing detained dissidents and seeking tangible flexibility in negotiations in response to demands raised by the opposition.
According to these media outlets, Russian officials have informed their American counterparts that they can provide advice to Assad, but cannot ultimately control him. These officials have said Russia’s relationship with former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad was much deeper and more far-reaching. There is, however, no such bond between Moscow and Bashar Assad.
In response, Velayati rejected the agreement reached between Moscow and Washington, furious over being left out of any such negotiations and seeing no share of the end results allocated to Tehran.
Assad relies mostly on Iran
Iran’s peremptory support for Assad and its interests in maintaining him in power have encouraged Assad to rely solely on Iran. Even prior to the Syria civil war Assad was permitting Iran to use its airspace and ground routes to provide military hardware for Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Currently, Hezbollah are providing support for Assad’s troops in battle, parallel to the vast financial/military/logistical support delivered by Iran and the presence of IRGC, army, Iraqi and Afghan militias joining hands to maintain Assad in power. However, these forces will not be able to make any advances without Russian air support carpet-bombing Syrian opposition. The truth is, these forces, in line with Assad’s troops, are the boots on the ground for the Russian Air Force in Syria.
Retaking the city of Aleppo from opposition groups is a major priority for Iran and Assad, which has led to deadly airstrikes and ground attacks back and forth south of Aleppo.
At a time when US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart speak of a mutual agreement over Syria and continue their diplomatic efforts to reach a political solution to end the civil war, Iran and Assad are continuing their ruthless slaughtering of the Syrian people, leaving no hope for a quick resolution of this war raging in the Levant.
Over 470,000 deaths and millions of internally displaced people and refugees abroad should be enough for the international community finally to stand alongside the Syrian people and their legitimate opposition by providing the tangible political and military assistance they need to bring an end to the Iran-Assad dictatorship in Syria.