Suleimani had previously made a name for himself on the battlefields of Iraq, which is facing a similarly tripartite and sectarian civil war. His public presence in that conflict was in clear defiance of UN travel bans imposed upon him as a result of his being regarded as a terrorist by the US and the EU. But images of his participation in foreign conflicts led last year to talk of his possible candidacy for president of Iran, thus returning the office to military hardliners, as distinguished from President Hassan Rouhani’s pragmatic outreach to the West.
Suleimani arguably made a name for himself in Russia, as well, having reportedly been the driving force behind the campaign to secure direct Russian involvement, via air strikes, in the Syrian conflict. Suleimani held several meetings with high officials in Moscow, once again in defiance of the UN travel ban. Afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly referred to the Quds Force commander by name, telling Iranian diplomats to dispatch him to Syria after Putin announced the start of Russian intervention.
Such incidents point to expanding collaboration between Iran and Russia, and this strengthens Iran’s regional strategies. Even without the presence of Qassem Suleimani on the battlefield, the Quds Force has been playing a significant role in the conflict. At least several hundred IRGC personnel are known to have been in the country as military advisers, alongside mutli-national Shiite militias under Tehran’s control. But some sources including the Iranian resistance have indicated that the IRGC number actually reached well into the thousands.
In any event, it is clear that that will soon be the case, as The Guardian reports that Iran plans to initially send 2,000 IRGC troops and 5,000 more Shiite militiamen mostly drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike previous alleged deployments, this is happening very much in the open, and this is apparently a consequence of the support that Russia, as a global superpower, provides to the Iranian position.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press quoted the leader of a faction of the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army as saying that the Iranian presence in the Syrian Civil War is nothing new, but has ceased to be hidden since Russian air strikes began. That same leader, Tajammu Alezzah, said that this expansion of Iranian and Russian intervention “only increases the shelf life of the Syrian regime.”
The Guardian notes that this is not only because the airstrikes and pro-Assad fighters further complicate the balance of power among the various participants in the conflict, but also because it provides Iran with more political cover for insisting upon the retention of the Assad regime in any prospective political resolution to the conflict. In the US, the Obama administration has repeatedly signaled willingness to discuss a mediated solution with both Iran and Russia, although it has so far insisted that the Assad regime cannot remain in power in any scenario.
It remains to be seen whether this talking point will stay in place in the midst of the likely escalation of hostilities. But at the same time, it remains to be seen whether Iran will be able to weather an expanded role in the fighting for long enough to compel the West to change its stance. After all, The Guardian also indicates that the new deployments also carry with them a proportional increase in the risk to Iranian personnel.
This was confirmed last week when the then-highest ranking Iranian official in Syria was killed by ISIL. And it was confirmed again on Wednesday when, as Arutz Sheva reports, two more senior IRGC officers were killed as well.
However, now that Iran’s ground operations are backed with Russian air support, the ability to outlast this increased risk could provide Iran with serious advantages in the region, especially if its interests continue to align with those of Moscow. The current collaboration between these two powers raises further concerns about long-term alliances among anti-Western powers in Asia and the Middle East.
And these concerns were given still greater justification on Wednesday when Al Jazeera reported upon the connections between recent Iranian-Russian operations and the recent establishment of an intelligence-sharing office in Baghdad with participation from six individuals each from Iran, Russia, Syria, and Iraq. The report quoted Iraqi MP Hakim al-Zimili as saying that this collaboration has the potential to extend beyond short-term countermeasures against ISIL. “The idea is to formalize the relationship with Iran, Russia and Syria,” he said. “We wanted a full-blown military alliance.”