TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Forces in Syria
Iran’s Forces in Syria
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Iran’s forces and proxies in Syria are crucial to its strategy and that of Russia, its tactical ally on the Syria issue, to keep Assad in power
• Tehran’s extensive intervention in Syria gives it leverage to shape the country’s future, even if Putin, who is visiting Iran this week, shifts away from Assad in multilateral negotiations
• On several fronts in Syria, Iran and its proxies have become the lead force—in some cases with little participation from Syria’s armed forces
• As the threat of the Islamic State’s expansion in Iraq recedes, Iraqi Shi’a militias have become pivotal to taking battlefield pressure off Iran’s most cherished ally, Lebanese Hizballah, which has suffered huge losses in Syria.
Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, Iran has been the primary external power supporting the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Iran provides an estimated $4-$8 billion to the regime in the form of military equipment, grants, and credits. In 2012, when it became clear that Assad would not quickly defeat the protest movement that had evolved into an armed rebellion, Iran began sending to Syria military equipment and advisors from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).
The IRGC-QF is the component of the IRGC that helped Lebanese Hizballah build its militia, and which arms and trains Shi’a militias in Iraq. The IRGC-QF has also supported Hamas, Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, various secular Palestinian militant factions, militants in Afghanistan, radical Shi’a opposition in Bahrain, the government of Sudan, and Muslims in the Balkans. It is commanded by Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who has a direct channel to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is an increasingly prominent figure in Iran and the region.
Tehran’s strategy in Syria has been to maximize the use of Syrian and foreign proxy forces and limit Iran’s risk. The IRGC-QF has deployed a relatively limited 2,000 personnel to Syria, of which as many as 200 have died to date. IRGC leaders deny that the IRGC-QF personnel are in combat, and describe its losses as manageable. However, some of those lost have been high-ranking IRGC-QF commanders, including the mid-2015 loss of a leading IRGC-QF commander in Syria, Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamadani.
In 2012, the IRGC-QF established with Syrian volunteers the National Defense Forces (NDF) militia, modeled on the IRGC’s Basij force, to assist Syria’s regular army. By 2013, after assessing that indigenous Syrian forces were still insufficient, Iran facilitated the deployment to Syria of foreign Shi’a fighters—initially from Iran’s closest regional ally, Lebanese Hizballah. About 4,000 Hizballah militiamen serve in Syria at a given time, and the group has taken heavy losses of about 1,000-1,500 fighters—a huge hit for a force of only about 15,000.
Iran also facilitated the deployment to Syria of Iraqi Shi’a militia forces from such established Iraqi groups as Kata’ib Hizballah (Hizballah Brigades, KH) and Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (‘League of the Righteous,’ AAH). Some new Iraqi Shi’a militias have been formed specifically to aid Assad, including the Nujaba Movement (‘Movement of the Bold Ones’). The Iraqi militias returned to Iraq after the mid-2014 capture of Mosul by the so-called Islamic State, but went back to Syria in 2015 as the Islamic State threat to Shi’a areas of Iraq receded. Tehran also recruited significant numbers of Afghan and Pakistani Shi’as to fight, in large part due to concerns regarding Hizballah’s heavy losses.
By mid-2015, there were about 20,000 foreign Shi’a fighters in Syria, including those from Hizballah—all generally under the command of the IRGC-QF and Soleimani. These numbers, however, were not sufficient to reverse Assad’s battlefield fortunes, and Iran urged Russia to intervene to salvage their common interests in Syria, including Assad’s continued hold on power. Russia has largely limited its involvement to airstrikes, as Iranian and Iranian proxy forces serve as the ground component of the Iran-Russia strategy. The Iran-led forces are so significant a component of the overall ground force in Syria that they are now fighting virtually alone on fronts around the city of Aleppo, with almost no Syrian participation.
The prominence of Iran-led forces in Syria has gained Tehran a ‘seat at the table’ in the multilateral negotiations in Vienna that began in late October and continued in mid-November. The final statement of the November 14 Vienna meeting reflected U.S. and Russian urgency to defeat the Islamic State, calling for a transition regime in Syria by mid-2016, with elections under a new constitution to be held one year thereafter. Left open in the communiqué was the fate of Assad. Iran does not trust any other Syrian leader to continue allowing Iran to use Syrian territory to arm and protect Hizballah. Iran also seeks to secure the Syria-Lebanon border to the point where Sunni extremist groups in Syria cannot easily attack Hizballah inside Lebanon.
Iran has apparently become concerned that Russia might ultimately break from Iran and reach agreement with the United States that Assad must step down. Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to put Tehran’s concerns aside in a Monday meeting in Tehran with Supreme Leader Khamenei. The two leaders agreed publicly that the Syrian leadership should not be imposed from ‘outside.’ It is unlikely, however, that Iran’s concerns about Russia’s future decisions in Syria have been put to rest during the Putin visit, which also resulted in a Russian pledge to provide a $5 billion credit line to Iran and resume civilian nuclear cooperation. While in Iran, Putin is also attending a summit meeting for major world natural gas producers. Even if Putin ultimately breaks with Iran on Assad’s fate, Iran’s forces in Syria could provide Tehran with the capability to shape post-Assad Syria to its advantage. Iran may be able to engineer the accession of another Alawite leader who would accommodate Iran’s interests or, at the very least, maintain a proxy force on the Syria-Lebanon border to protect Hizballah.
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