Iran’s mounting losses in Syria point to build-up

Rising casualty toll is a graph­ic indication of how, despite Tehran denials, Iran’s direct involvement in 4-1/2-year-old conflict is growing.

Mounting toll. Iranian mourners touch the coffins of members of Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reportedly killed in Syria, during their funeral in Tehran in June.

2015/08/21 Issue: 19 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh

Washington - Hardly a week passes without Iranian media coverage of funeral and memorial services held across the Islamic Re­public for Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani fighters killed in Syria.

The rising casualty toll is a graph­ic indication of how, despite Tehran denials, Iran’s direct involvement in the 4-1/2-year-old conflict is growing.

It also illustrates the extent to which Tehran is deploying Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to bolster the forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) battling rebel forces seeking to topple the regime of Syr­ian President Bashar Assad, Iran’s strategic Arab ally.

Amid growing indications that the Iranians have taken control of military affairs in Syria as Assad’s military is increasingly weakened by combat losses, defections and draft dodgers in a war in which 240,000 people are estimated to have been killed

With the regime no longer able to sustain its military campaign, the Iranians — including units of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force — are having to take a heavier share of combat while foreign recruits for rebel Islamic forces pour into the war zone.

The worry in Tehran is that the growing involvement by Iran and its Shia allies to shore up Assad’s beleaguered regime makes military disengagement impossible in the short term but also suggests that no decisive and final military victory should be expected.

In Iran, the dead receive heroes’ funerals: From the vast Behesht-e Zahra war cemetery outside Tehran to major holy cities to remote vil­lages, mosque networks mobilise large crowds to follow the coffins to burial.

The funeral services are attended by important military and religious officials who address the crowds to commemorate the fallen.

In spite of the elaborate and high­ly choreographed funeral services, the Tehran government consist­ently denies the IRGC is involved in the fighting in Syria, insisting the casualties are “martyred guardians of the shrine” or volunteers who fell guarding sacred Shia pilgrimage sites in Syria, including the holiest of them all, the tomb of Zaynab, the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, on the outskirts of Damascus.

The true casualty toll is not known but a survey of funeral ser­vices shows 113 Iranians, 121 Af­ghans and 20 Pakistanis have died in Syria and buried in Iran since January 2013. These numbers ac­count only for casualties whose fu­nerals were covered by official me­dia, so the real total must be higher.

In addition, Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah, along with the other Shia deployed in Syria, seem to have suffered casualties in even greater numbers but, given the re­gime’s opacity, it’s difficult to estab­lish an accurate total.

The slain Iranians all served in the Revolutionary Guards. According to the death notices, eight were in the corps’ ground forces, eight with al-Quds Force and three served in the Basij militia controlled by the IRGC. The remaining were active-duty guardsmen but it’s not known in which branch they served.

The lack of information may reflect the regime’s attempt to obscure their service in the 15,000-strong Quds Force or to mask the extent of the IRGC ground forces’ deployment.

If the IRGC is sending its regular troops to Syria, that’s a clear indi­cation al-Quds Force is spread thin and taking mounting casualties.

The regime has every reason to play down the extent of its involve­ment and losses in Syria.

The officially acknowledged cas­ualty toll has made defending the Assad regime highly unpopular. The Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda may be universally despised by Iranians but there’s no love for the Assad re­gime either.

Additionally, rising IRGC casual­ties point to operational deficien­cies with the corps.

In the short term, the Tehran leadership is unlikely to abandon Assad. Iran’s military elite has in­vested so much blood and treasure in the Syrian war that it no longer believes it can withdraw without a smashing victory to show for it.

The nuclear agreement between Tehran and the US-led global pow­ers means that Iranian assets fro­zen abroad will be released, giving Tehran access to billions of dollars in foreign currency with which to fund its engagement in Syria.

So it could take some consider­able time before the regime will be forced to admit that victory in Syria is not within reach, and that only a political settlement will end the war.

Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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