Iranian involvement in the Syrian Civil War

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Iran and Syria

Iran and Syria are close strategic allies, and Iran has provided significant support for the Syrian Government in the Syrian Civil War, including logistical, technical and financial support, as well as training and some combat troops.

Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests.[1][2] Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was reported in September 2011 to be vocally in favor of the Syrian government.[3]

In the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran was said to be providing Syria with technical support based on Iran's capabilities developed following the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests.[3] As the uprising developed into the Syrian civil war, there were increasing reports of Iranian military support, and of Iranian training of NDF (National Defence Forces) both in Syria, and in Iran.[4]

Iranian security and intelligence services are advising and assisting the Syrian military in order to preserve Bashar al-Assad's hold on power.[1] Those efforts include training, technical support, combat troops.[1][5] By December 2013 Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria.[2] But according to Jubin Goodarzi, assistant professor and researcher of Webster University, Iran aided the Assad regime with a limited number of deployed units and personnel, "at most in the hundreds ... and not in the thousands as opposition sources claimed".[6] Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Iran's government have taken direct combat roles since 2012.[2][7] In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Assad, allowing it to make advances on the opposition.[7]

In 2014, coinciding with the peace talks at Geneva II, Iran has stepped up support for Syrian President Assad.[2][7] Syrian Opposition Interim Minister of Finance and Economy claimed that the "Iranian government has given more than 15 billion dollars" to Syria as of December 2013.[8] According to the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the Iranian government spends at least $6 billion annually on maintaining Assad's government. Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, said that his research puts the actual number at $15 billion annually.[9]

From January 2013 onward, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps lost more than 1,100 troops in Syria. 360 of the deaths have been Iranian nationals, mostly officers, including several brigadier generals.[10][11][12] The remaining deaths consist of auxiliaries recruited from Afghan and Pakistani immigrants inside Iran, who joined the IRGC in exchange for salaries and citizenship, in an arrangement similar to a Foreign Legion. The Afghans are recruited largely from refugees inside Iran, and usually had combat experience before joining the IRGC; their status as members of the Iranian military is only vaguely acknowledged and sometimes denied, despite the troops being uniformed fighters led by IRGC officers, trained and equipped in Iran, with state funerals involving uniformed IRGC personnel.[13] Among the dead are 715+ Afghans[14][15] and at least 66 Pakistanis.[16][17][18] Officially, the Afghan auxiliaries are part of the independent Liwa Fatemiyoun group, though news media outside of Iran often simply refers to this organization as the "Fatemiyoun Brigade" or "Fatemiyoun Division" of the IRGC, while the Pakistanis are part of the "Zaynabiyun Brigade".

Background[edit]

Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its interest. Its only consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Syria provides a crucial thoroughfare to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iranian leaders have cited Syria as being Iran's "35th province", with President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority led government being a crucial buffer against the influence of Saudi Arabia and the United States.[2]

The Syrian city of Zabadani is vitally important to Assad and to Iran because, at least as late as June 2011, the city served as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps's logistical hub for supplying Hezbollah.[19] Prior to the Syrian war, Iran had between 2,000 and 3,000 IRGC officers stationed in Syria, helping to train local troops and managing supply routes of arms and money to neighboring Lebanon.[2]

In April 2014, Hossein Amir-Abdolahian, Iranian deputy foreign minister said We aren’t seeking to have Bashar Assad remain president for life. But we do not subscribe to the idea of using extremist forces and terrorism to topple Assad and the Syrian government.[20]

2011[edit]

In the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran was said to be providing Syria with technical support based on Iran's capabilities developed following the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests.[3]

In April 2011 U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice accused Iran of secretly aiding Assad in his efforts to quell the protests,[21] and there were reports of Syrian protesters hearing security-force members speaking Persian.[22]

The Guardian reported in May 2011 that the Iranian government was assisting the Syrian government with riot control equipment and intelligence monitoring techniques.[23] According to US journalist Geneive Abdo writing in September 2011, the Iranian government provided the Syrian government with technology to monitor e-mail, cell phones and social media. Iran developed these capabilities in the wake of the 2009 protests and spent millions of dollars establishing a "cyber army" to track down dissidents online. Iran's monitoring technology is believed to be among the most sophisticated in the world, perhaps only second to China.[3]

2012[edit]

In May 2012, in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency which was later removed from its website, the deputy head of Iran's Quds Force said that it had provided combat troops to support Syrian military operations.[24] It was alleged by the Western media that Iran also trained fighters from Hezbollah, a Shia militant group based in Lebanon.[25] Iraq, located between Syria and Iran, was criticized by the U.S. for allowing Iran to ship military supplies to Assad over Iraqi airspace.[26]

The Economist said that Iran had, by February 2012, sent the Syrian government $9 billion to help it withstand Western sanctions.[5] It has also shipped fuel to the country and sent two warships to a Syrian port in a display of power and support.[27]

In March 2012, anonymous U.S. intelligence officials claimed a spike in Iranian-supplied arms and other aid for the Syrian government. Iranian security officials also allegedly traveled to Damascus to help deliver this assistance. A second senior U.S. official said members of Iran's main intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, were assisting Syrian counterparts in charge of the crackdown.[28]

According to a U.N. panel in May 2012, Iran supplied the Syrian government with arms during the previous year despite a ban on weapons exports by the Islamic Republic. Turkish authorities captured crates and a truck in February 2012, including assault rifles, machine guns, explosives, detonators, 60mm and 120mm mortar shells as well as other items on its border. It was believed these were destined for the Syrian government. The confidential report leaked just hours after an article appeared in The Washington Post revealing how Syrian opposition fighters started to receive more, and better, weapons in an effort paid for by Persian Gulf Arab states and co-ordinated partly by the US.[29] The report investigated three large illegal shipments of Iranian weapons over the past year and stated "Iran has continued to defy the international community through illegal arms shipments. Two of these cases involved [Syria], as were the majority of cases inspected by the Panel during its previous mandate, underscoring that Syria continues to be the central party to illicit Iranian arms transfers."[30] More anonymous sources were cited by the UN in May 2012, as it claimed arms were moving both ways between Lebanon and Syria, and alleged weapons brought in from Lebanon were being used to arm the opposition.[31] The alleged spike in Iranian arms was likely a response to a looming influx of weapons and ammunition to the rebels from Gulf states that had been reported shortly before.[32]

On 24 July 2012, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp commander Massoud Jazayeri said Iranians would not allow enemy plans to change Syria's political system to succeed.[33]

In August 2012 Leon Panetta accused Iran of setting up a pro-Government militia to fight in Syria, and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Martin Dempsey compared it to the Mahdi Army of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Panetta said that there was evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were attempting to "train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime".[34] 48 Iranians were captured by the FSA in Damascus, and U.S. officials said that the men who were captured were "active-duty Iranian Revolutionary Guard members".[35]

In September 2012, Western intelligence officials stated that Iran had sent 150 senior members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to preserve the Assad government, and had also sent hundreds of tons of military equipment (among them guns, rockets, and shells) to the Assad government via an air corridor that Syria and Iran jointly established. These officials believed that the intensification of Iranian support had led to increased effectiveness against the Free Syrian Army by the Assad government.[36]

According to rebel soldiers speaking in October 2012, Iranian Unmanned aerial vehicles had been used to guide Syrian military planes and gunners to bombard rebel positions. CNN reported that the UAV or drones—which the rebels refer to as "wizwayzi" were "easily visible from the ground and seen in video shot by rebel fighters".

Rebels have displayed captured aircraft they describe as Iranian-built drones — brightly colored, pilotless jets. They're accompanied by training manuals emblazoned with the image of Iran's revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.[37]

2013[edit]

In January 2013, a prisoner swap took place between the Syrian Rebels and the Syrian Government authorities. According to reports, 48 Iranians were released by the Rebels in exchange for nearly 2,130 prisoners held by the Syrian Government. Rebels claimed the captives were linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.[38] US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the Iranians as “members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” calling it “just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, technical capabilities to the Syrian regime.”[39]

Iran reportedly decided in June 2013 to send 4,000 troops to aid the Syrian government forces, described as a "first contingent" by writer/reporter Robert Fisk of The Independent, who added that the move underscores a Sunni vs. Shiite alignment in the Middle East.[40] Iran was also reported to have proposed to open a new Syrian front against Israel in the Golan Heights, this coming a day after Egyptian President cut off diplomatic relations with Syria and demanded that Iran support for the pro Syrian-government Hezbollah end.[41] A Syrian official called the severing of relations by Morsi "irresponsible" and said it was part of a move by the U.S. and Israel to exacerbate divisions in the region.[42]

According to American officials questioned by journalist Dexter Filkins, officers from the Quds force have "coordinated attacks, trained militias, and set up an elaborate system to monitor rebel communications" in Syria from late 2012 to 2013. With help from the Hezbollah, and under the leadership of Quds Force general Qassem Soleimani, the al-Assad government has won back strategic territory from rebels in 2013, in particular an important supply route during the Al-Qusayr offensive in April and May.[43]

In the fall of 2013 Iranian Brigadier General Mohammad Jamali-Paqaleh of the Revolutionary Guards was killed in Syria, reportedly while volunteering to defend a Shia shrine.[44] In February, General Hassan Shateri, also of the Revolutionary Guards, had been killed while travelling from Beirut to Damascus.[45]

2014[edit]

Iran has stepped up support on the ground for Syrian President Assad, providing hundreds more military specialists to gather intelligence and train troops. This further backing from Tehran, along with deliveries of munitions and equipment from Moscow, is helping to keep Assad in power.[2][7] This surge of support was in part a decision strongly promoted by Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds force, to exploit the outbreak of infighting between rebel fighters and the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).[2]

Former Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander said Iranian forces, said that "top Quds force commanders were tasked with advising and training Assad's military and his commanders", adding that "Revolutionary Guards directed the fighting on the instructions of the Quds Force commanders".[7] In addition there are thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij volunteer fighters as well as Shi'ites from Iraq. Former Iranian official and a Syrian opposition source also put the count of those auxiliary forces in the thousands.[2][7]

A Syrian opposition source said in recent months Iranian led forces had begun operating in coastal areas including Tartous and Latakia. They have local ID cards, wear Syrian military fatigues and work with the elite Syrian air force intelligence unit.[7]

2015[edit]

Citing two Lebanese sources, Reuters reported on October 1, 2015 that hundreds of Iranian troops arrived in Syria over the previous 10 days and would soon join Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes.[46] The Wall Street Journal reported on October 2, 2015 that Iran's Revolutionary Guard (the IRGC) has had some 7,000 IRGC members and Iranian paramilitary volunteers operating in Iran and was planning to expand its presence in the country through local fighters and proxies. The Journal also reported that some experts estimate 20,000 Shiite foreign fighters are on the ground, backed by both Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.[47]

At least 121 IRGC troops, including several commanders, have been killed in the Syrian Civil War since it began.[48][49][50]

Key victories were achieved with substantial support provided by the Quds force, namely the al-Ghab plains battles, Aleppo offensives, Dara'aya offensives of 2015 and the al-Qusayr offensives which established government and Hezbollah control over the northern Qalamoun region and the border crossings from Lebanon to Syria. In June 2015, some reports suggested that the Iranian military were effectively in charge of the Syrian government troops on the battlefield.[51]

After the loss of Idlib province to a rebel offensive in the first half of 2015, the situation was judged to have become critical for Assad's survival. High level talks were held between Moscow and Tehran in the first half of 2015 and a political agreement was achieved.[52] On 24 July General Qasem Soleimani visited Moscow[53] to devise the details of the plan for coordinated military action in Syria.[52][54]

In mid-September 2015, the first reports of new detachments from the Iranian revolutionary guards arriving in Tartus and Latakia in west Syria were made. With much of the Syrian Arab Army and National Defence Forces units deployed to more volatile fronts, the Russian Marines and Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) have relieved their positions by installing military checkpoints inside the cities of Slunfeh (east Latakia Governorate), Masyaf (East Tartus Governorate) and Ras al-Bassit (Latakia coastal city).[55] There were also further reports of new Iranian contingents being deployed to Syria in early October 2015.[56]

On 1 October 2015, citing two Lebanese sources, Reuters reported[46] that hundreds of Iranian troops had arrived in Syria over the previous 10 days to join Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes that started on 30 September 2015 and were welcomed as vital by Bashar Assad.[57]

On 8 October 2015, brigadier general Hossein Hamadani, the deputy to General Qasem Soleimani in Syria was killed.[58][59][60][61] On 12 October, two more senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hamid Mokhtarband and Farshad Hassounizadeh, were reported by Iranian media to have been killed in Syria.[62]

At the end of October 2015, Iran agreed to take part in the Syria peace talks in Vienna.[63] The talks for the first time brought Iran to the negotiating table with Saudi Arabia, which are said to be engaged in a proxy war in Syria.[64][65] The talks however were promptly followed by an exchange of sharp rebukes between Iran′s and Saudi Arabia′s top officials that cast doubt on Iran′s future participation in those.[66][67]


Casualties[edit]

Iran[edit]

Name Rank/Affiliation Date Place
Hossein Hamadani Major general, Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution 7 October 2015 Aleppo, Syria
Mohsen Ghajarian Brigadier general, Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution 3 February 2016 Syria
Mohsen Ghitaslou First lieutenant, 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade 11 April 2016 Syria
Mohammad Jamali-Paqaleh Brigadier general, Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution November 2013 Syria

Afghanistan[edit]

Name Rank/Affiliation Date Place
Ali Reza Tavassoli Afghan Shia commander of Fatemiyoun Brigade 28 February 2015 Darayya, Damascus

Lebanese[edit]

Name Rank/Affiliation Date Place
Mustafa Badreddine Lebanese Shia commander of Hezbollah 13 May 2016 Damascus

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]