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Is the IRGC Losing Strength in Syria or Just Growing Stronger Elsewhere?

Especially since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement with Iran in July, the Obama administration has repeatedly indicated that it is willing to discuss the Syrian crisis with Iran and Russia, the main backers of the Assad regime in Damascus. The US president has maintained that that regime is either unsalvageable or incompatible with a peaceful future for the country, and that its backers would be sure to recognize this fact at some point.

The first suggestions of an Iranian draw-down in Syria have come from US officials, according to Bloomberg View. And this possibly suggests that the latest information has been interpreted through the lens of the administration’s optimism about forthcoming changes in Iranian and Russian strategy. Since the initial reports of retreat, that interpretation has been criticized, as have the reports themselves.

On Monday, the Washington Post ran an editorial by Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council, in which he argued that the Obama administration’s “wishful thinking” on Syria has effectively given Iran and Russia the upper hand. Hof notes that it is not as though Iran and Russia are unaware of the facts on the ground. Rather, they have been resistant to Obama’s views because they see the situation from an entirely different angle and their strategy puts more emphasis on preserving Assad than on defeating ISIL.

Hof goes on to emphasize that even if Russia and Iran could be converted to a more productive view, the Obama administration has indicated that this could take months. Those months, Hof cautions, represent many deaths and displacements in Syria, especially if they pass in absence of an assertive, Western-led strategy to forestall the violence.

For many critics of the administration’s policies, such a strategy must entail the very things that Russia and Iran are not currently willing to do, namely the ouster of Assad and the removal of Iranian forces from the country. Of course, if the latter is happening in absence of Western intervention, it is a step in the right direction. But on Monday, Al Jazeera described this notion as “nonsense.”

The Obama administration’s interpretation of recent movements in Syria is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is responding to a rising death toll for its own forces by diminishing their presence in conflict zones. But Al Jazeera claims that it is more likely that the Iranians are simply adapting to more dangerous conditions by moving back into a largely advisory role, rather than withdrawing.

This interpretation is arguably supported by reports of the apparent growth of other Iranian-controlled forces in the Syrian Civil War, most of which serve Iranian interests in the region but without putting actual Iranian soldiers in harm’s way. Over the past several months, numerous reports have detailed how Tehran has been recruiting Shiite militia men from the Afghan refugee community inside Iran, as well as from Afghanistan itself. More recently, there have been reports of all-Pakistani fighting forces appearing on the battlefield alongside the Afghani ones.

This trend was detailed in a Reuters profile of the Zeinabiyoun on Friday. The article indicates that the group has a transparent affiliation with Iran, motivated by the perception that Iran is the regional leader of the Shiite sect. Reuters quoted Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute as saying that Iran’s recruitment of Pakistanis and Afghans along these lines is “inherently dangerous and can get out of hand.” It also allows Iran to retain political influence in the conflict areas without necessarily being immediately present.

That is something that is apparently well-recognized not only by Western analysts but also by Iran’s regional adversaries. Last week, Al-Monitor reported that Turkish President Recep Erdogan had decried sectarianism as the source of Syria’s troubles, and had explicitly blamed Iran for promoting sectarian policies in the region.

Al-Monitor also explained that Turkey’s recent entry into Iraq as a combatant against ISIL was presumably motivated by a perceived need to block the direct line of influence that passed from Tehran to Damascus, through Baghdad. The long reach of Iranian military and political influence has been a source of nervousness among Middle Eastern players who see the US as having abandoned confrontation of Iran.

The Emirates-based Al Jazeera expressed these concerns itself when it suggested that Iran’s continued political role in Syria had been legitimized when the Islamic Republic was invited to participate in international security conferences in Vienna. This arguably makes it less important for the Iranians to have a direct military presence in Syria, as long as they feel they will still be able to maintain their proxies in the region, including the Zeinabiyoun and Hezbollah, and direct them from the sidelines.

This may in turn allow Iran to devote more of its own forces to areas where its influence has not been so formally legitimized, such as Iraq and Yemen. Reuters notes that the rise of the Zeinabiyoun has apparently served to make up for the loss of Iraqi Shiite militias that have been recalled to fight ISIL and other Sunni groups in Iraq. It is easy to imagine that the Zeinabiyoun and others may also be making up for the apparently similar loss of Revolutionary Guards.

If this means that the IRGC stands to further expand its presence elsewhere, it would lend credence to the claims made on Friday by Majid Rafizadeh, in an editorial in Al Arabiya. Rafizadeh joined in the growing criticism of the Obama administration’s relative lack of response to recent Iranian ballistic missile tests, and he said that the administration’s strategies during and after nuclear negotiations seem to have made IRGC leaders to feel “more empowered to manifest their military power.”

By carrying on with plans to remove economic sanctions and eventually lift the bans on Iran’s ballistic missile development, the P5+1 group of nations is, according to Rafizadeh, “bolstering IRGC’s military prowess and rallying more hard-line support behind IRGC.”

What’s more, other critics of current US policy have expressed concern that the effects of the planned sanctions relief would largely be channeled to the IRGC, Hezbollah and other terrorist or paramilitary organizations. Indeed, the IRGC already controls a great portion of the Iranian economy, and there is no indication that this is about to change.

A report by Business Insider on Friday pointed out that Iran’s underground economy is estimated to be more than a third of the size of the country’s official GDP, and that this mostly benefits the IRGC, which controls Iran’s borders and thus the flow of illicit goods. Illicit goods, incidentally, include American-made goods, of which 227 have recently been placed on a ban list, according to Press TV.

But the Iranian propaganda network also acknowledges that these goods are likely to continue to find access to some Iranian markets via back channels. A report by Quartz on Friday agreed that the official stance against US imports does not eliminate the demand for them, which will make it hard to enforce across the board. The black market could fill this demand while benefiting the IRGC above all others. And this seems especially likely if the paramilitary group’s control over Iran’s borders becomes stronger as a result of the political legitimacy of other Iran-controlled groups in Syria.