Behind Syrian regime, a familiar US adversary: Iran

Iran has supplied troops, cash, and know-how to Syria's President Assad, who is standing for reelection on June 3. That support has been vital, but comes at a cost to Iran. 

Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images
A large dove with a bleeding heart looms over the stage at the anniversary remembrance of Iranian Brig. Gen. Hassan Shateri, killed a year earlier in Syria, on Feb. 6, 2014 in Tehran. Iranian troops have propped up Syria's regime, enabling it to gain the upper hand in its civil war. Iran has supplied arms, cash, and intelligence to Syria in what has become a proxy conflict for regional powers.

Iran’s military this week is mourning another senior Revolutionary Guard officer killed while fighting in Syria, and commemorated at home with full honors.

Abdollah Eskandari was, by one count, the 60th Iranian officer to die as a “martyr” in Syria. At funerals and memorials that are crowded with officers, the fallen are eulogized for “defending” the Shiite shrine of Zeinab in Damascus.

Together with its Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah, Iran has provided military and economic support that has enabled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to turn the tide in a three-year civil war.

 For Iran those results boost its two-track strategy of pushing for a negotiated solution in Syria, while doing what it can to ensure the survival of the regime. Tehran wants to guarantee that Assad, who is seeking reelection in a June 3 poll that critics call a sham, can negotiate with rebels from a position of strength.

But the cost for Iran has been high, in blood and treasure, as well as in tarnished reputation – certainly among Sunnis in the Middle East – for engaging in a Shiite-vs-Sunni sectarian war in which its Syrian ally targets civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

The extent of Iran’s material support for Assad remains murky. Iran says it has trained more than 50,000 pro-regime Syrian militiamen. But reports that it has mobilized thousands of Shiites from Iraq and Afghanistan to fight alongside regime forces, while providing military advisers to train them, are disputed here.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander boasted this month of 130,000 Iranian reservists being primed for the Syrian battlefield and compared the struggle with Iran’s “sacred defense” of its soil during the ruinous 1980s war with Iraq. He said the Syrian regime was “no longer at risk of collapse.” Meanwhile, militant Iranian websites say a recruitment campaign has yielded 3,000 volunteers.

“Iran is playing a huge role in financing the war machine of the [Syrian] regime, in terms of money, materiel, oil, whatever the regime needs that they can provide, Iran does it,” says Jubin Goodarzi, an Iran-Syria expert at Webster University in Geneva, speaking in Tehran. “I don’t think they are holding back on anything that they think can be decisive.”

This week Iranian Brig. Gen Hossein Salami, deputy chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), applauded Syria for “victory in the field,” saying it had paved the way for the “political phenomenon” of the election. Yet large swathes of Syria are in rebel hands, muddying any mandate Assad may claim from victory.

Peacemaker role

Even in Iran, no one expects Assad to ever be able to defeat the spectrum of anti-regime factions backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which are mostly Sunni and include Islamist and Al Qaeda-linked groups that rule brutally.

President Barack Obama this week pledged to “ramp up more support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator,” in addition to existing clandestine training operations.

Amidst the war effort, Iran has also played peacemaker. It takes credit for negotiating an agreement earlier this month for besieged rebels to peacefully depart Homs, the erstwhile “capital of the revolution.” And Iran was crucial last fall in convincing Assad to give up Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, say Iranian sources. 

“Our policy toward Syria has not changed,” says a senior Iranian official who spoke on condition he not be named. “There is no need for the Syrian Army to have [foreign] advisors, to have more ammunition, to have more people to be able to fight. Our role has been as in the past. We have not increased our presence or our activities in Syria.”

In early 2013, Assad’s forces were on the defensive. Alarmed by the prospect of his eventual defeat, Iran stepped up supplies of essential inputsfrom cash to intelligence to encouraging proxy warriors that helped shore up the regime. Behind Iran’s loyalty to Assad is a security calculation, says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University.

“To be frank, everyone knows that Assad cannot rule Syria as a unified country, no matter if he is able to suppress all the rebellion,” says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. “So Iran wants to preserve the regime, because its absence will be chaos [and] insecurity.”

That means that Assad’s presence is not as important to Iran as some form of functioning state, ideally one not hostile to Iran. 

The senior official said Iran wanted to help Syria find a political solution. “From the beginning we have said that it is not for Iran, for America, for others, to choose for the Syrian people who should be their president.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has presented a four-point peace plan that emphasizes a political deal and self-determination to the former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and top UN officials. But recent events have “bolstered the hand of more hard-line elements” in Iran, says Goodarzi.

One was UN chief Ban Ki-Moon’s offer – rescinded under US pressure – to invite Iran to take part in Syria talks in Switzerland last January. The failure of those talks, and intensive infighting between rebels, tipped Iran’s hand towards extending more military aid to Assad.

A second Hezbollah

Some 130,000 Iranians are “trained” and ready to go, and already “Iran has formed a second Hezbollah in Syria,” claimed Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani, an IRGC commander who was reportedly sent to Syria in 2012 to oversee Iran’s involvement there, earlier this month.

Besides deploying Iranian advisers and lining up its own recruits, Iran is also reported to have mustered volunteer Shiite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The senior official denied this: “With regard to these rumors that Iranians are recruiting people, there is no need…the Syrian Army does not really need much support these days,” he says.

Mr. Goodarzi cautions that Iranian forces on the ground are likely limited to less than 1,000. They train thousands more Syrians, and oversee Shiite militiamen from across the region.

“The Iranians are trying to be as low key as possible,” says Goodarzi, author of a 2006 book on the Syria-Iran alliance.

 Among the few pieces of evidence of Iranian fighters in Syria are video diaries captured by rebels last year. The videos, which were posted online, show a modest IRGC “base” in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, and a handful of Iranians getting ambushed by rebels.

So far at least 60 IRGC members have died in Syria and been buried in Iran with official or military funerals, according to a report this week by Dutch and EU-funded Radio Zamaneh, which is critical of Iran's government.

Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Guard’s Qods Force which handles operations abroad, has attended some funerals and public mourning sessions.

An Iranian recruiting form posted online by the “defenders” of the shrine of Zeinab includes a declaration of “willingness to be dispatched to Syria.” It asks for an “urgent access” phone number, a signature and fingerprint. Recently, another Iranian web site for volunteers – now inactive – put the number of such volunteers at 3,107.

'Surrender or starve'

Iranian advisers have overseen Syria’s “surrender or starve” siege tactics in rebel-held areas. And besides training a pro-regime Syrian militia that is tens of thousands strong, Tehran has organized thousands of Iraqi volunteers to fight in Syria, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

“The Iranians are running the show,” a European diplomat in Beirut told the Monitor. “They are contracting Iraqi Shiites to serve six-month tours in Syria with a guaranteed job when they get home.”

Afghan refugees in Iran, all fellow Shiites, are also being recruited to fight in Syria, with promises of $500 per month, an Iranian residency, and school registration for children, The Wall Street Journal reports.  

Since November, Iranian media and militant websites have spoken of an Afghan brigade called “Fatemioun” fighting in Syria. They report that some 20 Afghans who died “defending” Zeinab’s shrine have already been buried in Iran. 

Such reports of Iranian efforts are blown “out of proportion” to their actual impact, says Hadian-Jazy.

“Saying a thousand [Afghans] is easy. Finding a thousand people, training them, trusting them so you know they won’t go to the other side – they can’t speak Arabic. It is not easy,” says Hadian-Jazy.

By contrast, he says, “Hezbollah is an organized force. You know them, they are trained, they speak Arabic and it has taken decades [to achieve].”

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