Iran has deployed the regular army in its first overseas operation since the 1979 Revolution to bolster Syrian Bashar al-Assad amid fears in Tehran that Russia may agree to his removal.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have maintained a discreet presence in Syria since the civil war began five years ago. But reports of the deaths of Iranian commandos in Syria has shed light over a shift in the Islamic Republic’s policy.
Tehran has kept its army at home for decades and tried to keep conflict at bay through a strategy — manned and managed by the Guards — of fighting its regional rivals through proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Syria is crucial to its success. It is on the ‘frontline’ with Israel and is an important bridge to Hizbollah, Iran’s Shia proxy force in Lebanon.
Tehran’s support of Bashar al-Assad, has been key to his survival in a five-year civil war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and about half of the population displaced.
Diplomats based in Damascus believe that Iran has boosted its military presence in Syria in an attempt to increase its influence amid an apparent rift between the Assad regime and its other patron, Russia, over how to handle peace talks. “They [the Iranians] saw it as an opportunity to move closer to the regime,” said one official.
Iran has vowed that it will not compromise on the fate of Mr Assad.
Iranian leaders are concerned that Moscow, which launched an air campaign in support of the Syrian regime last September, could side with Washington to push for the removal of Assad. A partial pullback of Russian forces last month was widely interpreted by western and Iranian observers as a message to the Syrian president.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, said last week “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.”
In the meantime, the high casualty rate among Revolutionary Guards — whose “military advisers” are reckoned by a western diplomat in Tehran to number fewer than 10,000 — has prompted Tehran to deploy its regular army to bolster Assad’s forces in Syria.
Local media in Iran have named more than 150 Guards who died in more than a year of fighting in Syria. At least four army commandos were reported to have been killed over the past week, almost as soon as the news of their departure was released. Unofficial reports put the death toll much higher.
Source: The Financial Times, April 16