Iran deploys a new special force in Syria

Latest units deployed in Syria, to judge by survey of Ira­nian nationals killed in combat in Syria, are from IRGC’s Saberin Brigade, corps’ special forces group of several battalions.

A 2015 file picture shows Iranian soldiers carrying the coffin of Amin Karimi, a member of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who was killed in Syria.

2016/01/29 Issue: 41 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh

Washington - Almost five years into Syr­ia’s civil war and facing rising combat fatalities, Iran is deploying more and more military units — and all from its most trusted military force, the Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — into the charnel-house combat zone to secure the survival of its key Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The latest units deployed in Syria, to judge by a survey of Ira­nian nationals killed in combat in Syria, are from the IRGC’s Saberin Brigade, the corps’ special forces group of several battalions.

Their commitment, along with the elite al-Quds Force, to keep As­sad in power underlines the mili­tary power Tehran’s Shia leader­ship is having to deploy to save the quasi-Shia Assad regime.

Little is known about the Saberin Brigade, which as far as the out­side world is concerned has been overshadowed as Tehran’s external spearhead by the Quds Force, Iran’s secretive expeditionary force that has played a vital role in rescuing Assad’s regime from collapse.

So what is the Saberin Brigade — the name means “Those with For­bearance” in Farsi — and its signifi­cance in the Syrian bloodbath?

According to Brigadier-General Morteza Mirian, a former com­mander of the brigade, the Saberin was established in 2000 modelled on Britain’s famed and secretive Special Air Service. Major-General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s current chief, served as the Saberin Brigade’s first commander. The current commander is Brigadier- General Mohsen Karimi, appointed on May 15, 2012.

At the time of its establishment, the Saberin Brigade’s primary mis­sion was to counter the threat from the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an offshoot of the Kurdis­tan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey, which has been fighting Ankara for Kurdish autonomy since the mid- 1980s.

PJAK, based in the Qandil moun­tains of eastern Iraq, has been en­gaged in a guerrilla war with Iran for a decade. Several hundred fighters on both sides, including General Abbas Asemi, the IRGC’s commander in Qom province, and Brigadier-General Abbas-Ali Jansa­ri, commander of the Isfahan Artil­lery Corps, have been killed.

As the conflict diminished in mid-2012, the IRGC deployed the Saberin in Sistan and Baluchistan province where the brigade has battled Jaish ul-Adl, a Sunni insur­gent group that has challenged the Tehran regime across the south-eastern province that borders Pa­kistan.

On the surface, the IRGC and the Saberin battalions have restored a measure of calm in the impover­ished province but since the IRGC’s counter-insurgency strategy solely relies on use of force and lacks a social dimension for improving the living conditions of the local population, Sistan and Baluchistan province is in a state of emergency. This nurtures further grievances among the local Sunni population against Tehran.

To judge by these actions, the Saberin Brigade seems to be oper­ating on Iran’s increasingly restive borders which are largely populat­ed by non-Shias.

The distinction between the bri­gade and the Quds Force thus may be blurring because of the Syrian war.

There have been no reliable re­ports on Saberin operations in Syria since Tehran consistently denies there are any IRGC person­nel there. But a study of reports on funeral services in Iran for Iranian nationals killed in Syria, sheds light on the brigade’s activities.

On February 14, 2015, Abbas Abdollahi, a Saberin Brigade offic­er from East Azerbaijan province, was reportedly killed in Kafr Nasij village in the Deraa governorate of southern Syria. He was Saber­in’s first combat fatality in Syria. Since then, the brigade has lost at the very least ten other personnel there.

Colonel Farhad Hassounizadeh, another senior Saberin officer, was killed in southern Syria. The more recent deaths seem to have occurred in the suburbs of the northern city of Aleppo, a key bat­tleground since 2013 with Syrian regime forces holding half of the war-battered city and rebels the other. It is widely understood that what transpires in Aleppo may de­cide the outcome of the conflict.

The death of several Saberin Bri­gade members on the same day and same geographic location as IRGC members from the same Ira­nian province further indicates that the Saberin forces have been incorporated into the IRGC struc­ture in Syria.

With the limited information available about this special forces brigade, it’s difficult to assess the significance of their contribution to the overall IRGC war effort in Syria. But the mere fact that Saber­in is deployed there is a sign that the IRGC is moving from being the Tehran regime’s praetorian guard to becoming one big Quds Force, operating beyond Iran’s borders.

This is happening at a time when Tehran is stepping up its expansionist strategy, particularly against Saudi Arabia, to establish itself as the region’s paramount power.

In the current state of tension between the kingdom, which sees itself as the guardian of the world’s Sunni Muslims, and Iran, the su­perpower of the minority Shia sect, this is a worrisome development.

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

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