Iran and Assad Are Not Winning
Iran is deeply involved in Syria, having essentially taken over the Syrian security services.
In 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded to the popular uprising against him not as a lion, but as a hyena devouring Syria. The seeds for the 2011 rebellion were planted at the beginning of the century following the death of Hafez al-Assad, when Bashar attempted to stand in his father’s place and was found wanting.
This began with an unusually severe drought in eastern Syria’s Jazira region in 2001, displacing 3-4 million farmers and herdsmen who migrated to cities in search of work. The impact of the drought was accentuated by Bashar’s rash efforts to enter global agricultural markets by insisting on production of water-intensive cotton and wheat crops. The farmers and herdsmen displaced to the cities quickly formed shantytowns where Assad’s security infrastructure was minimal.
The ignition of the Syrian rebellion began a chain reaction that would see many of these desperate young men in the shantytowns providing the initial recruits for the multiplicity of Sunni militias taking up arms against Assad.
Bashar, unlike Hafez, had fully embraced Iran and quickly turned Syria into an Iranian dependency. In a single decade, Iranian soft power would begin to envelope Syria. The Jerusalem Post noted in 2006, that there were more than 40 Iranian charities operating in Syria, about a dozen Iranian cultural centers in Syria’s major urban areas and Iranian clerics were allowed to openly engage in preaching to convert Syrians, mainly Alawite and Sunni, to Shiism. Iranian tourists, who had been limited under the regime of Hafez al-Assad, now came in their thousands under Bashar to places like the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus and other Shiite sites in Syria.
The Syrians had likewise signed dozens of economic agreements furthering Iranian investment in Syria, with most of that in the energy, construction and tourism sectors. Iranian companies — from the Iranian Saipa Auto manufacturer to joint ventures between Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS) and Bank Saderat Iran (BSI) — spread across Syria. Al-Thawra reported in 2008 that Iranian investment in Syria amounted to at least $1.5 billion.
A significant amount of that investment occurred through Iranian Bonyad-funded “development” projects all over Syria in everything from a natural gas pipeline to a 60% Iranian-owned joint bank in Damascus. These Iranian Bonyads act as charitable trusts dominated by clerics and the Revolutionary Guard, and therefore, they are able to avoid most economic sanctions since they are not official government organizations. This also provided entrée for a semi-permanent Syrian presence for the guard. Even without the rebellion, Iran had invested far too much treasure in Syria to walk away without a fight.
When the mutiny erupted against the Syrian president in 2011, that reliance on Iran would ultimately leave Syria devastated and Assad as little more than an instrument of Tehran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
In 2012, the Assad government lost control of the revolt, massive defections eviscerated the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and it appeared the days of the Syrian government were numbered. Facing the collapse of the keystone state in its resistance axis (Jabat al-Mugawama),
Iran then made the strategic decision to intervene militarily using the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force (IRGC-QF) to restore what the guard calls “alignment.” The Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, acting at Khamenei’s direction, essentially took control of the Syrian security forces, while Assad became little more than a local figurehead. To carry out the intervention, Gen. Reza Zahedi, the commander of the Quds Force Lebanon Corps, had to improvise a campaign that can be described as “Saving Syria” for Tehran by creating a counterinsurgency in the midst of an ongoing civil war. Brigadier Gen. Zahedi coordinated the intervention with both Gen. Hassan Shateri (Hossam Khoshnevis), who was the IRGC special representative to Lebanon’s Hezbollah prior to his assassination in February 2013, and Gen. Hossein Hamedani, who exercised operational authority over the Revolutionary Guard in Syria.
Iran’s Improvised Counterinsurgency
In improvising the counterinsurgency campaign, the Revolutionary Guard acted in distinct capacities for multiple purposes. The scope of the Quds Force’s counterinsurgency campaign encompassed administration, intelligence support, battle management, training and arms resupply. The focus of Gen. Zahedi was proper management of the campaign in Syria rather than brute intervention with large numbers of troops. Therefore, Zahedi determined that only a few hundred Revolutionary Guards in Syria with 60 or 70 command officers should generally be in Syria at one time. This number did not include the Basiji militia volunteers who were counted separately.
Administratively, the Revolutionary Guard coordinated directly with the political echelons of the Assad regime through Mohammed Nasif Kheirbek, the special assistant to President Assad, for intelligence and security. Whether Kheirbek now reports to Assad or Tehran, however, is unclear. Revolutionary Guard Ansar-ul-Medhi elements, who are usually tasked with both covert operations and executive protection, must now supervise the protection of Assad, which may amount to keeping the Syrian president under Iranian control.
Beyond that, representatives of the Revolutionary Guard are administratively embedded in the most critical Syrian government agencies reflecting a commissar-type pattern. Iran must directly observe the residue of the Assad government to prevent further disintegration of important Syrian government agencies.
In providing intelligence support for the Syrian war, the Revolutionary Guard has subsumed the various Syrian mukhabarats (intelligence services) under Tehran’s overall control. The Assad dynasty, as is done commonly in the Middle East, had used multiple mukhabarats to prevent coups by having the organizations watch each other while controlling the Syrian population. The Revolutionary Guard has forced these agencies or their remnants to focus on targeting the popular rebellion rather than each other.
Russia, which is trying to maintain its own interests in the Middle East, has also been supportive of Iran and Syria in this enterprise. For example, the Russian Military Intelligence 6th Directorate Signals Intelligence Osnaz unit operated a listening post south of Quneitra at Tel al-Hara in southwestern Syria to monitor communications among various rebel formations in the country.
Additional, ostensibly Syrian SIGINT (signal intelligence) stations with a Revolutionary Guard presence include both the al-Jazirah and Bab al-Hawa region in northern Syria. Neither of these stations were as sophisticated as the Tel al-Hara Station, but they were nonetheless part of a developing SIGINT network established under the 2005 Syrian-Iranian Defense Treaty.
The disintegration of the Syrian state has provided a prime opportunity for many powers to set up shop in Syria. In the Golan, for example, there is something of a competition between Hezbollah, Salafi jihadists and the famous Syrian “moderate opposition” to dominate the range. All of this is occurring much to the chagrin of neighboring Israel.
The Revolutionary Guard’s battle management strategy in Syria appears to be premised on a light Iranian footprint on the ground and the use of proxy militias as force multipliers to manage the battle space. This juncture of the Syrian war is characterized by the Revolutionary Guard managing the battle space by liaising across hundreds of militias.
These militias are characterized by loyalty ultimately to the Revolutionary Guard, which facilitates their funding either directly or through surrogates such as the Syrian government or the first tier Iranian proxy militias of Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib al-Haq. These militias are generally, though not exclusively, organized along Alawite, Shiite and Ismaili sectarian lines.
There is a smattering of allied Christian militias such as the Lions of the Valley, although many are integrated into Assad’s National Defense Forces. The Revolutionary Guard has effectively created a network of militias in lieu of an army to defend the urban spaces of western Syria from Highway M5 westward, while still using the pro-Assad militias to engage the Sunni formations in central and eastern Syria.
A Layered Network of Militias
This network of militias is layered, allowing the relatively small number of Revolutionary Guards to amplify their impact by organizing and coordinating the activities of multiple layers of local militias. Iran can then keep a small footprint in terms of the absolute number of Revolutionary Guards in Syria while multiplying their impact. Pasdaran Gen. Hossein Hamedani, now in command of Iranian field operations in Syria, indicated that Iran is attempting to organize roughly 70,000 pro-Assad National Defense Forces (NDF) into 42 groups and 128 battalions in 14 provinces.
The foundation of the NDF is the Jaysh al-Sha’bi, which was originally built on what were called Popular Committees (Lijan al-Sha’bia). The latter were reasonably spontaneous organizations of local militias, who attempted to provide security in their own neighborhoods and were at first under the control of local notables (strongmen or qabaday). The development of Jaysh al-Sha’bi was funded by Tehran and used by the Revolutionary Guard as proxy forces supporting the Assad regime. The Jaysh al-Watan also attempts to form operational cells in territories occupied by rebel formations.
The Revolutionary Guard coordinated the efforts of local Syrian authorities to co-opt men into the NDF who have completed their military service and can be re-trained quickly in one-month courses in areas of the various governorates still controlled by the regime. Hezbollah, for example, has trained some of these forces at the Special Operations training facility in al-Dreij, near Damascus. Countrywide, the NDF is now supposed to be organized in various governorates through a Governorate Security Committee nominally commanded by a retired Syrian army officer.
Concomitant with this layered network concept is the inclusion of other kinds of militias such as the Baath Battalions, which originated in Aleppo under the auspices of a local Baath party and were coordinated by the Revolutionary Guard. These forces are, however, a step removed from direct liaison with the guard in this network.
Like the Jaysh al-Sha’bi, the Baath Battalions are lightly armed and look to merely relieve the army by manning checkpoints and the like. The Baath Battalions militia idea has expanded now to several thousand fighters, although good portions of those fighters are serving in the relatively safe areas of Latakia and Tartus. Nevertheless, some have now emerged in the Alawite neighborhoods of Damascus also hosting Jaysh al-Sha’bi militia groups. Organizations like the Baath Battalions are distinct from Jaysh al-Sha’bi in that they are less directly affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and articulate at least the pretentions of Bashar Assad’s ideologically secular Baath Party.
Hezbollah‘s entry into the Syrian war at the behest of Iran in 2012 has been discussed elsewhere, although it should be noted that the permutations of that deployment are coordinated very closely with the Revolutionary Guard. Hezbollah deployments range from operations in spaces abutting Lebanon, which are close to conventional military formations under Iranian military command, to Hezbollah cells acting as embedded components in Iraqi Shiite militias deployed in Syria.
In 2012, the Quds Force called for the mobilization of Iraqi Shiite militias, adding their deployment to other regime forces fighting under Revolutionary Guard command in Syria, initially under the pretense of defending various Shiite shrines. In Damascus, for example, Iraqi Shiite militia and Lebanese Hezbollah are concentrated in the Sayyida Zaynab Shrine and the Damascus Small Gate Shrine of Sayyida Sukayna, which corresponds with areas settled by Iraqi Shiite refugees from the First Gulf War in the 1990s.
The presence of the Revolutionary Guard can be verified at these shrine complexes until at least 2013. The Iraqi Shiite militias now acting at Tehran’s command originated in Iranian-sponsored Iraq Special Groups from the Second Gulf War of the early 2000s. The spearhead of the Iraqi Shiite militias fighting in Syria are led by Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib al-Haq, who were the first tier Iraqi organizations moving fighters into Syria to support Iran’s efforts to crush the anti-Assad rebellion.
It is likely that IRGC-QF Special Operations Unit 400 supported this effort by Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib al-Haq. Both liaise directly with the Revolutionary Guards, and they embed cells in secondary Iraqi Shiite militias deployed across Syria’s ungoverned spaces.
Examples of secondary Iraqi Shiite militias include the Sarriya al-Talia al-Khurasani under Sayyed Ali al-Yasseri, whose 600 fighters are tasked with protecting the Damascus airport. Iraqi Shiite organizations, such as the Badr Organization, which has seen an ebb and flow in its relationship with Tehran, have nonetheless been generally supportive of the Revolutionary Guard in Syria.
Just as those Shiite militias limited to a secondary role, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard utilizes Assad’s Syrian Arab Army in a secondary role; only a few specific Syrian army formations are deemed reliable. Those specific Syrian army formations are effectively acting as a large mixed Sunni-Alawite militia supporting the Assad regime rather than an army. There may well be an ultimate intent on the part of the Revolutionary Guard to eventually organize these disparate militias into some new national army, but such an outcome is several years away.
In their arms resupply capacity, the Revolutionary Guard must direct the Syrian arms trans-shipment networks to buttress their control over urban areas in western Syria, while keeping open an overland arms channel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The nodes in this network are anchored in Damascus, Latakia and Tartus. The Damascus node, and particularly Mazeh military airport in western Damascus, plays a significant role with both North Korean and Iranian personnel stationed there; it is the best known arms hub and is still operational despite the ongoing war.
There are various routes and actors involved in the arms supply channels. With regard to Russian arms shipments to the Assad regime, Russia’s Rosoboron Export and Iran’s Yas Air are the major vectors. Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the current Abadi government support Iran’s air bridge supplying arms and equipment to Assad from Tehran through Iraqi airspace and then on to Damascus. Likewise, Tehran has shipped arms through Turkish airspace to Beirut and then overland into Syria.
Air bridges from Tehran service Damascus and Latakia, along with sea channels to Tartus and Latakia. In Tartus, Iran is building several facilities, and Revolutionary Guards operating in Tartus and Latakia wear local uniforms and coordinate with Syrian Air Force Intelligence. The facilities Iran is building near the Latakia military airport under the administrative auspices of the IRGC serve as a secure hub for weapons deliveries to the Syrian regime and, if necessary, Hezbollah. These venues now support a Revolutionary Guard presence that will continue for the indefinite future.
Corresponding to the light footprint that defines the Revolutionary Guard strategy in Syria, it is likely that Iranian and possibly Russian Special Operation Forces are operating in parallel with the Revolutionary Guard against identified rebel targets. Elements of the IRGC-GF Saberin Special Operations Force, along with Russian Directorate “S” of the SVR Zaslon (Screen) operators, are likely tasked to deal with particular threats. The region between Deraa and Damascus, for example, is a primary operational area for Russian personnel. Russian Zaslon “anti-terror” squads are allegedly entering Syria via the Russian military facility immediately north of Tartus.
The scope of the national rebellion against Assad required the Revolutionary Guard to utilize elements of the IRGC Ground Forces to provide advice in the course of the campaign. Iranian Ground Forces from the 14th Imam Sadegh Brigade and the 33rd al-Mahdi Brigade, as well as several independent brigades — including the 48th Fath, 18th al-Chadir, 33rd Djahrom and 44th Ghamar Bani Hashem — have supplied ground force experts to assist the Quds Force counterinsurgency effort.
The consequence of Tehran’s light footprint approach is that locations with a semi-permanent Revolutionary Guard presence are limited. The Damascus region, for example, contains the most significant concentration of Revolutionary Guards directly involved in managing combat against the insurgency. These forces are based in relatively safe areas, such as in the Syrian mukhabarat’s old Political Security Bureau Office in the Mezze 86 neighborhood or the military complex at Jabal Qasioum overlooking the city.
The Hezbollah arms depot at Adra, near Damascus, also has a permanent Revolutionary Guard presence. Further examples of a semi-permanent Revolutionary Guards presence include the Dumar chemical weapons facility, the Hezbollah training facility at al-Dreij and the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). Revolutionary Guard stations in Latakia are less directly involved in confronting the insurgency, as their role is more closely associated with the logistics of trans-shipping arms from the new Iranian military facility at the Latakia airport.
Knowing that direct intervention by Persian troops to maintain an Arab dictatorship would be politically counterproductive, in 2012, when facing the loss of the Syrian keystone in its Resistance Axis, Iran chose to keep Assad as the local procurator for Tehran’s regime while using the Revolutionary Guard to coordinate proxy militias as force multipliers. This prevented the impending collapse of the Syrian regime, but not before the Syrian state crumbled.
Iran’s enterprise in Syria is now in ruins as Tehran tries to salvage a presence in a western Syrian rump state. While the Revolutionary Guard is currently able to hold the line in western Syria, the old rule of counterinsurgency — that if the government is not actively winning then it is losing — still applies. Iran and Assad are not winning.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.