Thousands of Iran-supported Shiite fighters are playing a crucial support role for the embattled Syrian regime, helping claw back rebel-held territory, defend regime strongholds, and ease the burden on the exhausted Syrian Army.
A video, apparently shot last month, offers an unprecedented insight into the activities of Iranian military advisers in Syria. It appears to have been intended for internal Iranian use rather than public dissemination and includes an interview with an alleged Iranian military adviser.
Although there is no clarity on the combined total strength of the Shiite fighters from organizations such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi groups, as well as unaffiliated volunteers, they have proven to be motivated and well-trained combatants who can be quickly deployed to various battlefronts.
“The impact of the Shiite militias is multifold,” says Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who writes on Shiite militia activity in Syria for jihadology.net. “On the battlefield, they are often tip-of-the-spear, well-trained, very well-equipped and ideologically motivated. In terms of extending Iranian influence in Syria… they have had quite an impact. In some reported cases, [the Iraqi Shiite militias] do not take orders from Syrian commanders, only from Lebanese Hezbollah and the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps].”
In the video, which was seized by Syrian rebels from the Daoud Brigade, operating near the northern town of Idlib, a man who allegedly appears to be an Iranian military adviser explains his view of the war:
“The current war in Syria is that of Islam versus the non-believers, good versus evil,” the adviser says speaking in Farsi. A subtitled version of the film was subsequently broadcast on Dutch television.
“This front is supported by Hezbollah,” the adviser continues. “The fighters are Iranians, Hezbollah, the Iraqi and Afghan Mujahideen and others. The opponents are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Plus America, England, France and Europe.”
The Shiite 'task force'
Iran and Syria have been allies since 1980, but relations between the two have grown considerably closer since Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, as president in 2000. Assad’s Syria binds Hezbollah to Iran, allowing for the transfer by land of weapons from Iran to Lebanon.
If Assad is replaced by a moderate Sunni regime, Iranian influence will likely diminish and Hezbollah could become isolated on the Mediterranean coast, potentially threatened by a Sunni resurgence in the Levant.
The video footage shows the adviser and colleagues in military fatigues interacting with Syrian civilians and soldiers in their headquarters, a school thought to be near the northern city of Aleppo. Rebel fighters say they uncovered the camera containing the film following an attack in which the military adviser apparently was killed. Iranian media later covered his funeral in Iran and identified him as Ismaeil Haidari, a senior Revolutionary Guard officer.
Hezbollah fighters have been operating in Syria since at least early 2012, but their presence was confirmed only in May by the party’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. This is the first time that the group has conducted a large-scale engagement with a foe other than Israel.
Hezbollah spearheaded a 17-day assault in May and June to recapture the rebel-held town of Qusayr in the Homs province, five miles north of the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah’s fighters are presently serving on numerous battlefronts, including Deraa in the south, Damascus and the Eastern Ghouta region to the east of the capital, Homs in central Syria and the Idlib Province in the north, according to multiple sources.
“Hezbollah is a task force that can be deployed at will. It’s a new, capable force backed by air power and artillery,” says a European ambassador in Beirut. “Although Hezbollah is a small force, it allows the regime to concentrate forces in one area which it can’t do with regular forces. The way they are supporting the regime is strategic even though it is a small force.”
The group’s military commanders work closely with Syrian Army officers and advisers from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and occasionally have tactical control over localized operations. In Homs, for example, veteran Hezbollah fighters sometimes command small units of Syrian soldiers in street fighting, according to a Hezbollah combatant.
Shiite groups in Iraq also have supplied fighters to Syria, including Kataeb Hezbollah, the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, all of which were part of the Iran-supported Shiite insurgency against coalition forces in Iraq in the 2006-2008 period.
“Normally, only the well-trained and ideologically motivated are sent [to Syria] for the complicated, tactically relevant missions,” says Smyth, the researcher, adding that the favored fighters follow the edicts of Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Iraqi Shiites' involvement was initially justified as a protection force defending Shiite holy sites,such as the tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed, in southern Damascus. Since March, the Iraqi groups have become more open about their role in Syria. In July, Asaib Ahl al-Haq publicly declared that it had established a sub-unit called Liwa Kafeel Zeinab, or the Supporters of Zeinab Brigade, whose fighters serve in Syria.
“The Iranians are making a resistance right now in Syria just like they made in Lebanon,” says Ali, a Hezbollah fighter who has served at least three tours in Syria since April.
Outside forces multiply
Determining the scale of the Shiite deployment is almost impossible. In June, France estimated that some 4,000 Hezbollah fighters were in Syria. The rebel Free Syrian Army estimates there are more than 10,000. Hezbollah refuses to discuss military details. Smyth says a “rough guesstimate” for the number of Iraqi Shiites in Syria is 2,000 to 3,000, although he says totaling the numbers published by the main Iraqi factions reaches 3,500 to 4,000.
The number of Iranian personnel is equally unclear. In August 2012, then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Iran's Revolutionary Guard was on the ground in Syria building a pro-regime Shiite militia. In June, a British newspaper reported that 4,000 IRGC soldiers were preparing to deploy to Syria, although the Iranian role so far appears to have been limited to training, logistics and advice rather than combat.
There have been reports of a handful of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites serving in Syria, although their numbers appear to be negligible.
Crucially, the presence of Shiite militias – especially Hezbollah with its proven combat record against Israel – has served as a morale boost to Syria's weary regular forces. According to diplomatic sources in Beirut and Damascus, some units within the 4th Armored Division, an elite unit in the Syrian Army, have come close to mutiny due to the high casualty rate among their ranks. The deployment of Hezbollah’s battle-hardened fighters has eased some of the pressure on regular forces.
“In the first nine months of the revolution, the Syrian army was losing dozens every week,” says Ali, the Hezbollah fighter. “After that, the special forces, our people, stepped in and trained them and that has reduced the casualties.”
Hezbollah’s commitment is illustrated by the growing duration of each fighter’s tour. Initially, fighters served seven days at a time, later extended to 20 days during the battle for Qusayr. Today, each fighter is required to spend 30 days on the Syrian frontlines, according to sources close to the party. There probably is not one Shiite-populated village or town in Lebanon stretching from the southern border with Israel to the northern border with Syria that has not seen Hezbollah cadres rotating in and out of Syria.
Hezbollah has justified its presence in Syria to its Shiite constituency in Lebanon by warning of the threat posed by the radical Sunni jihadists, known as Takfiris, who make up part of the armed Syrian opposition and treat as apostates all those that do not follow their austere interpretation of Islam.
An analysis by the UK-based IHS-Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center last week estimated that 35 percent of the approximately 100,000 rebel fighters in Syria were drawn from Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups or allied hard-line Sunni Islamist factions.
Hezbollah’s case has been aided by the often draconian restrictions Sunni Islamists impose in areas under their control and the video-taped executions of Assad loyalists. Any lingering sympathies felt by Hezbollah fighters and their Shiite supporters for the Syria revolutionaries have wilted before such behavior.