The heavy casualties suffered by its Revolutionary Guards and the need to protect the Assad regime have forced Iran to deploy its military in Syria, the first such move since the 1979 revolution.
Amid Vienna talks to end the Syrian conflict, militarization of the country continues in the name of either buttressing the incumbent Assad regime or bringing it down.
Following Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria, Iran had to step in to “fill the void” and assist the Syrian regime that is Iran’s key to its regional position against Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Will Tehran contribute to the establishment of peace in Syria? Iran’s military deployment might prove to be a useful wedge against Islamic State (IS). However, Gulf Arab rivals may view it as Iran’s overt “expansionism” and counter it with ‘Plan B’ by sending a ‘second wave’ of fighters to Syria. A negotiated end to the war will then become a remote possibility.
But Iran should not be seen as an “aggressor” here as it is responding to a war that has been imposed upon it by its “Sunni-Arab” rivals. To end this war, all parties, including Iran and Syria, must compromise on some of the basic demands they have been making since 2011.
While a “give-and-take” approach is already being considered, it would be naïve to pin too much hope on it.
Iran’s decision to deploy regular military force is extremely significant since, for decades, it has kept its army at home and tried to keep conflict at bay through a strategy of fighting its regional rivals through proxies.
The current overseas deployment — the first since the 1979 revolution — marks a departure by Iran from its duty of protecting the country’s territorial integrity that the constitution imposes on the regular forces.
The decision not only raises doubts on the success of the peace processes, but also shows how seriously and deeply Iran is getting involved in Syria. It also proves Iran’s resolve to continue its support to President Bashar al-Assad and ensure that he is not drawn into any hypothetical deal between the US and Russia regarding Syria’s transition.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said recently that Iran would not accept any measure aimed at cutting the Syrian president’s term, which is due to end in 2021. He further said, implicitly pointing at both the US and Russia, “Americans say Bashar al-Assad should go but Assad should stay as the legal Syrian president until his term finishes. Any conditions for his departure are our red line.”
While Iran’s deployment of forces to buttress Assad’s position in Aleppo is seen by the West and Arab world as its way of achieving a military solution to the crisis, for Tehran, this is a necessary step to pre-empt Arab allies’ ‘Plan B’, Turkey’s plan to divide Syria into “zones” and U.S. move to finalize the ‘Assad’s exit’ deal by August.
Tehran’s decision is also linked to changes in Iran-Russia relations. Russia has assumed a greater role in Syria since its direct involvement and many in Iran say Tehran is losing its own influence over Syria to Moscow.
An Iranian analyst recently told the Financial Times: “We (Iran) have not built our influence in the region to lose it easily to Moscow or anyone else …. At the end of the day, it was us who brought Russia to Syria to prevent the fall of Damascus and counterbalance US and Saudi policies.”
Iran’s decision to send its troops to Syria is not linked to Russia’s partial withdrawal of its forces. It wants to assume a greater role in the crisis and its Revolutionary Guards, who had been operating in Syria since 2011-12, are not proving to be effective. The heavy casualties suffered by the Revolutionary Guards despite the strong presence of “military advisers” in Syria – as many as 10,000, according to western diplomats — was a cause of concern too.
The Commander of Ground Forces, Brigadier General Hamidreza Pourdastan, described the deployment of commandos from Brigade 65 as “Iran’s new strategy to send more advisers to the Syrian war.”
Deputy Chief Liaison of the Army Ground Force, General Ali Arasteh, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency that advisers from the 65th Nohed Brigade are now stationed in Syria. Fighters from other units in the army are active there. The army utilizes a broad range of drones and they “have been furnished with hand-launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).”
As such, the army deployment, the role they are going to play and the weapons they have been armed with all indicate a greater role for Iran in Syria. Will this role widen or close the gap between Russia and Iran is a moot question. What is, however, almost certain is that for Iran, Assad’s stay in power is essential. Not only does it provide the crucial link to Hezbollah, but also is important for ideological reasons.
“Any undemocratic attempt to remove Assad will lead to genocide of Alawites in Syria and decrease Iran’s influence which we will not let happen no matter how much it is going to cost us,” a conservative analyst based in Iran told Financial Times.
The cost, many Iranians seem to believe, is worth paying for to ensure their survival in the region.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org