The article also reiterated that Iran had become an indispensable source of support for the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It pointed out that the Syrian military has been estimated to have been cut in half since fighting began in 2011, leading to a steady increase in both formal and informal Iranian participation in the fighting.
Foreign Policy points out that by 2015, all six branches of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were present on the battlefields in Syria. Officially, the Iranian government maintains that this ever-growing force is only serving in an advisory capacity, but it is clear that their participation has become more intimate and has led to a corresponding increase in the number of Iranian casualties. In just the past six months, the number of Iranians killed in Syria was reportedly equivalent to the number killed in the first two years of Iranian involvement in the conflict.
While some critics of the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, are keen to characterize the IRGC as simply another fighting force on the front lines, Foreign Policy acknowledges that at the very least, the Iranian mission has shifted from being one of advisement on issues of overall strategy to being one of advisement on immediate battlefield strategy.
In the same way that there is contrast between the official Iranian position on the IRGC’s role and the actual situation on the ground, there is similar contrast between the regime’s official policies on recruitment for the Syrian Civil War and the actual levels of Iranian and Iran-affiliated participation.
That is, Foreign Policy notes that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has limited IRGC recruitment to relatively small numbers of high-skill advisors. But many more hardline Shiites are interested in joining the conflict, and they have opportunities to do so by enlisting in the Shiite militias operating alongside the IRGC, sometimes under the direct command of IRGC officers.
Even if this supplementary recruitment is not proceeding according to the specific orders of the supreme leader, it is certainly being publicly encouraged by public figures with prominent reputations among hardliners. In particular, the exploits of Shiite militias have been praised in state media by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s foreign expeditionary Quds Force, who was credited with Shiite victories over the Islamic State in Iraq before taking over command of operations in Syria and personally convincing Russia to use its air power to support Iranian operations on the ground.
Suleimani is reportedly a folk hero among political hardliners and Shiite fundamentalists, and his support for militant groups gives the defense of the Assad regime an even more religious dimension. This fact is in turn cited by Iran’s critics to underscore the US State Department’s argument that sponsorship of the brutal Assad regime is encouraging the growth of Sunni extremism on the other side of the conflict.
On the other hand, the moderate rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime insist that this ever-growing Iranian influence has not been sufficient to secure Assad’s continued rule, and has in many respects led to the weakening of Iran’s position in the region. On Friday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran quoted the Free Syrian Army’s Brigadier General Mthghal al-Batish as saying that the IRGC had suffered high numbers of casualties in fighting outside Aleppo, where rebel forces succeeded in capturing nine villages.
Batish added that that opposing side’s offensive near Aleppo was being conducted almost entirely by the IRGC, with very little presence of the Syrian military.
Furthermore, at the same time that the IRGC is suffering growing numbers of casualties, Iran’s foreign proxies are also incurring significant losses in the same conflict. The Tower emphasizes, for instance, that Mustafa Badreddine, the leader of Hezbollah operations in Syria, had recently been killed in an explosion near the Damascus airport.
This setback to the Lebanese militant group is potentially good news for its chief enemy, Israel, and also for other targets of global terrorism, given that Badreddine was linked to a number of earlier Hezbollah attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut.