The Role of Iran’s Military in Syria

by LobeLog’s correspondent in Tehran

Even though the number of Iranian casualties in Syria has been increasing lately, the Iranian government insists that the country’s role there is purely advisory and it is not sponsoring any military presence. Hossein Amir-Abdolahian, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, at a memorial service on October 17 in honor of a general killed in Syria, denied any “military presence” and pledged that “Tehran will continue to provide strategic consultation [to Syria] against terrorism.”

However, various news agencies such as Basij News, Tasnim News, and Sepah News—all affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard—have repeatedly reported the death of Iranian military forces in Syria. Also, the names of a number of individuals have appeared in the conservative newspapers as martyrs killed in Syria.

On October 23, the head of the Public Relations Office of Sepah News, General Ramazan Sharif, addressed a group of journalists and officially confirmed the death of eight members of the Revolutionary Guard. He even reported that, because of recent developments in terrorist attacks on Syrian soil, Iranians have increased the number of military advisors there. Iran has also partnered with the Russian and Syrian governments to form a center for intelligence and security cooperation, but President Hassan Rouhani has explicitly denied any formal alliance with Russia to fight in Syria.

A History of Involvement

The Iranian government clearly opposed the 2011 peaceful protests in the Syrian cities of Homs and Hama. In June that year, for example, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei differentiated those protests from the Arab Spring, called them part of a “deviant movement.”

Fifteen months after that remark, the Iranian government officially admitted to its presence in Syria. On September 15, 2012, General Mohammad Ali Jafari said at a press conference, “We are providing intellectual and advisory help to Syria as part of what the Supreme Leader referred to as an ‘Axis of Resistance.’” He added, “Iran is proud of this support.”

Since then, many high military and political officials in Iran—including Revolutionary Guard and military commanders, members of the presidential cabinet, and parliament members—have insisted on the necessity of providing military and political support to Bashar al-Assad in order to prevent fundamentalist militant groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Nusra Front from gaining power.

Yet, two questions remain. What does it mean when Iran says there is no “military presence” in Syria? And, if the Iranians in Syria are merely “advisors,” why do they get killed?

Military Elite But Not Troops

By “military presence,” the Iranian government does not mean a small- or even medium-sized combat unit like a squadron, regiment, or brigade. Looking at the career profile of those killed shows that all of them held high-ranking military positions or were members of special Revolutionary Guard units. So far, very few low-ranking officers have been reported killed in Syria.

Gen. Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in a car accident in Syria, was the highest-ranking casualty. He had been the former general of the city of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard’s unit. Another casualty, Gen. Abdollah Eskandari, held the same post in the city of Fars. Other recent victims have included Farshad Hassounizadeh, the former brigade general of the army, and Hamid Mokhtarband, who had a similar post in the city of Ahvaz. Others like Abdollah Bagheri Niaraki, Reza Khavari, and Amin Karimi were members of “Ansar Army” in charge of providing security for the high-ranking officials in the president’s administration. Niaraki, for instance, was the personal bodyguard to the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This evidence suggests that although the Iranian government has avoided sending troops, it has indeed dispatched a group of elite military members to Syria.

Iran’s obvious enemies in Syria have even confirmed this. Take, for example, Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, the leader of al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s official representative in Syria. In June, he appeared on Al-Jazeera wearing a mask and saying that, “Iran has sent military consultants but not sent troops to the country.”

One of the main responsibilities of these Iranian generals in Syria seems to have been to organize popular resistance against IS. Last week, Gen. Yaghoob Zahdi, deputy chief of the Center for Study of Strategic Defense, gave an interview with Fars News Agency in which he recalled that Hossein Hamedani, the slain general, had convinced Assad to arm the Syrian people. Hamedani told Zahni: “At first, everyone was against it. The Syrian generals and the defense minister were against giving arms to the people. I personally went there and convinced Bashar Assad. He asked me if I would guarantee it. I said I would.”

Since 2012, the low number of Iranians killed in Syria suggests that these military commanders have probably been assisting their Syrian counterparts behind closed doors. The rising number of Iranian casualties could be related to the Russian, French, and American forces joining the Syrians assault against IS, which started earlier this month. However, it might also be the case that the Iranian military elite has decided that it would be more effective to lead Syrian forces on the ground rather than just provide advice to Syrian commanders on how to fight.

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Translated from the Farsi by Parisa Saranj

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