The National Council of Resistance of Iran had participated in this criticism in the days leading up to the semi-formal cancellation of the Geneva agreement. The NCRI had issued multiple reports describing a buildup of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces and apparent plans for major offensives by the IRGC and the Syrian Army. The IRGC was accompanied by foreign fighters recruited by the Iranian regime, chiefly from among Afghan and Pakistani populations.
Five of these Iran-controlled fighters were reported killed in action on Monday, further contributing to the perception of a sustained or even enhanced Iranian presence in the fighting since the ostensible cessation of hostilities. An IRGC officer was also reported wounded. Although military analysts maintain that the high ratio of officers’ casualties suggests a predominantly advisory mission, the sheer number of those casualties undermines the regime’s claim that neither the IRGC nor the regular Iranian army are directly participating in the fighting.
These denials were repeated on Wednesday, according to Reuters, but they were repeated in the context of explaining away the large-scale deployment of fighters from Brigade 65 of the Iranian military. The NCRI had previously reported upon this deployment and it was confirmed on Wednesday by Ataollah Salehi, the commander-in-chief of the Iranian army. But Salehi would only acknowledge that some commandos from Brigade 65 had gone to Syria as “volunteers” for the IRGC.
“The army has no responsibility in the military advice given to Syria,” Salehi maintained. But even while such comments retain plausible deniability for the regime, Reuters makes it clear that the latest developments strongly suggest that it is no longer just the IRGC and associated proxy forces that are actively defending the Assad government, but also some elements of the regular Iranian military.
Reuters further points out that such a deployment is unprecedented in the 37-year history of the Islamic Republic. To some staunch opponents of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, this development is also sure to justify the Syrian opposition’s pullback from the ceasefire, which was intended to focus other factions’ attention on the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front.
If this outcome was unfeasible in practice, is may be in large part because of what a number of analysts have concluded regarding Iran’s policies in Syrian: that they are focused on defending Assad, over and above any opposition to the Islamic State terrorists. This perspective on Iran’s motivations has been supported by its conduct in international negotiations, with Iranian delegates maintaining that the establishment of a transitional government that does not include Bashar al-Assad is a “red line” for Tehran.