Qods Force in Syria
By 2018 the combatants under Iranian control outnumbered the regular army of Assad, whose troops were around 50,000. According to estimates by NCRI, in Syria between 8,000 and 10,000 members of the Revolutionary Guards and between 5,000 and 6,000 Iranian regular troops, from 7,000 to 10,000 members of Hezbollah, and between 40,000 and 47,000[??] additional militants from other countries [eg, Afghanistan] were fighting which, even in the smallest cases, gave a minimum of 60,000 combatants.
Moreover, according to opponents, it was these forces who faced the brunt of the fighting. "The Syrian army does not fight, all the weight of combat is carried by the Iranians and their mercenaries. The Syrians are only there as local guides to lead others to locations ... The fighting is so intense that the Syrian regime does not trust his soldiers. The situation is very tense, and could be defecting. So it's Hezbollah or Iraqi militias that fight".
Once the war in Syria subsides, Iran will most likely pursue its well-known modus operandi of propping up its proxy militias as a means of influence over the state. This tactic is reminiscent of Iranian support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, which have already received official recognition and funds from Baghdad.
Syria-Iran relations resemble a strong, long-time marriage, albeit one of convenience, with Syria being the junior partner. Syrian goals appear short-term and reflexive, further shoring up the impression that Damascus needed Tehran more than Tehran needs Damascus. Damascus and Tehran want to demonstrate a united front against pressure from the United States and the West.
Iran's long-standing support for Syria's special ally in Lebanon, Hizballah, helped Syria reassert its influence there, after withdrawing its troops in April 2005. Iran's efforts in Iraq, while more sustained and nuanced than Syria's, have mirrored Syrian efforts to prevent any quick realization of an American "project" for Iraqi democratization and stability. Syria would have liked to serve as a key intermediary between Shiite Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The Iranians helped Syria in the main regional struggle against Israel and helped at a time of great pressure from the US. Syria pursued an enhanced relationship with Iran because Iran was supportive of Syrian efforts to play an active regional role.
There appeared to be areas where Syrian and Iranian interests potentially diverge. The two sides' attitudes toward Hizballah are a case in point. Syria approaches the Hizballah relationship tactically, and, if it obtained a peace deal returning the Golan, it would likely be willing to cut off its support for Hizballah. Iran had no such land grievance with Israel that could be addressed by negotiations and diplomatic give-and-take. Rather, it needed Hizballah to project its influence in the Arab Middle East and no confluence of developments is likely to change those calculations or lead Iran to re-evaluate its support for Hizballah.
Iranian and Syrian interests in Iraq also seemed to diverge in critical ways despite their shared interests in trying to block any perceived "American success" there. Syria and Iran see Iraq differently (from each other), as Syria sees Iraq through an Arab lens while Iran is focused on the Shi-ite angle. Of course, there are also interests that bind the two countries. In the end, those interests may predominate.
Keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power came with a deadly price for Iran's Qods Force, which lost more troops in the first six months of teh Rurssian Intervention than in the previous two years. Nearly 300 Iranian troops were killed in Syria since September 2015, according to an analysis by the Levantine Group of casualties reported by Iranian media.
The willingness to sustain such losses gives evidence to Tehran's commitment to the Assad regime, but is also shows that Iran has put its forces on the line to replce what the Levantine Group describes as a "decomposing" regime army. "Iranian operatives are not mere military advisers spread out along regime lines," said geopolitical and security analyst Michael Horowitz. "Iranian troops are in fact concentrated around Aleppo, where they fought all of Assad's battles," he said. "They serve as the tip of the spear, rather than advisers."
Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy, is based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Levantine Group's Michael Horowitz is "currently serving in the IDF Spokesperson Unit as a noncommissioned Officer working with the main European Press outlets (linkedin bio).
Two of the deadliest months for Iranian troops are tied directly to fighting in and around Aleppo. Tehran's troops suffered 50 casualties during its counteroffensive in April 2016 in southern Aleppo, according to the Levantine Group analysis. February 2016 saw more fatalities, when 64 troops were killed — 51 of them during a 10-day span that coincided with an offensive in northern Aleppo.
US officials have been watching Iran's military maneuvers in Syria closely and say it is clear that the heavy fighting has taken a toll — especially on units belonging to its Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as the Quds Force. "Iran continues to withdraw some of its more elite forces from Syria and replace them with troops of lower caliber," a US intelligence official told VOA in May 2016.
That process, which began in April 2016, came as Iran stepped up its efforts following a decision by Russia in March 2016 to withdraw some forces, including some of its air power, from Syria.
The operation to retake Palmyra from ISIS (end of March) saw the participation of Iranian troops, but did not result in a similar spike. This suggests that other forces led that campaign (either the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias, or even Russian operatives). Russia also deployed more advanced close air support in the form of attack helicopters for the Palmyra offensive, which suggests that ground forces had a bigger advantage there. The comparison between the Palmyra offensive in March and the April counter-offensive in southern Aleppo also underscores the vulnerability of Iranian forces when they are not backed by proper air support, particularly that provided by Russia.
And it may be exposing a key weakness for Iran's forces. "Without Russian air support, it seems that their effectiveness is marginal," the Levantine Group's Horowitz said. "After the Russian withdrawal, more than 40 Iranian troops were killed as they launched a counteroffensive in southern Aleppo, yet weren't able to reverse the opposition gains in the area," he said.
In contrast, with Russian air support during the Iranian-led February 2016 offensive in northern Aleppo, pro-regime forces were able to cut the main supply line for opposition forces. The analysis also noted lower Iranian casualties during the Russian-led offensive to retake the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State terror group, suggesting either that Iran's forces benefited from the use of Russia's helicopter gunships or that they played a lesser role in the offensive.
Iran calls is fighters "Shrine Defenders" as Tehran says it is in Syria to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus. Since 2011, Iran has been a major backer of the Syrian regime in its war with rebel groups across the country, at first sending advisers, then forces from its elite Revolutionary Guard. Tehran was initially silent about its involvement in Syria, but in the last year has increasingly made its presence public to rally Iranians behind the cause. It has sent top officials to funerals, allowed news media to report on ceremonies, and promoted a military theme park for young people touting alleged accomplishments in Syria.
Tehran said a number of its soldiers were killed in fighting near Aleppo, in what could be one of Iran’s biggest losses in Syria since deploying forces to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Fars news agency on 07 May 2016 quoted a Revolutionary Guards official as saying that 13 military advisers had been killed and 21 wounded in the clashes with Islamist insurgents on May 6 in Khan Tuman, some 15 kilometers southwest of Aleppo.
According to Russian figures, by August 2016 over 400 Iranian soldiers had been killed in fighting in Syria.
Iran has sent thousands of Afghans living in Iran, mainly ethnic Shi’ite Hazaras, to Syria to fight alongside forces of Hezbollah, and sent members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in support of Syrian government forces. Pakistani volunteers are also part of the forces. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon are fighting alongside Iranians in separate units. As Iran has increasingly made funerals of war dead public, many of the victims are Afghans and Pakistanis who do not have citizenship or resident status in Iran. They agree to fight in Syria in exchange for monetary benefits and rights for their families, experts say.
"Tehran allows authorities to grant citizenship to the families of Afghans and Pakistan nationals who are fighting in Syria against Sunni militants including the Islamic State," said Ali Alfoneh, a Washington-based international affairs expert and IRGC analyst.
An Iranian official said in November 2016 that more than 1,000 soldiers deployed by Iran have been killed since 2012 while aiding the Syrian regime in its civil war. Mohammadali Shahidi Mahallati, head of Iran's Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans’ Affairs, did not elaborate on comments to the state-controlled Tasnim News Agency about the 1,000 dead. The number was a startling jump from four months ago, when the Islamic Republic put the figure at 400. "The numbers could be an accumulation of all killed" including Afghans and Pakistanis fighting with Iran-allied forces and Lebanese Hezbollah, said Mohsen Shemirani, an Iranian scholar and political analyst in Tehran.
Iran is increasingly using Syrian battlefields as a proving ground for fresh military officers in training, according to Iranian media reports and Syrian opposition figures. Tehran-based Imam Hossein University, a school affiliated with The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said 23 February 2017 it recently deployed military leadership students to fight in Syria as part of an educational program designed for future officers, according to state-run media. Tehran said its forces are in Syria to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus, a Shi'ite holy site. But since 2011, Iran has been a major backer of the Syrian regime in its war with rebel groups across the country, at first sending advisers, then forces from the IRGC expanding far beyond the shrine area. The state-controlled Tasnim News Agency said that about 1,000 Iranian soldiers had been killed in Syrian fighting in support of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
IRGC brought many reinforcements to Aleppo, mainly new officers and students from its military academy. Iran also has relied on military students to help lead battles around Homs and Damascus where the IRGC is believed to have conducted full-scaled operations with foreign militias against rebels. The use of Shiite Afghans and Pakistanis, as well as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias in this conflict, was an unprecedented military experience for Iranian military units.
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