By Heshmat Alavi
On March 15th the international community will unfortunately be marking a milestone of disastrous nature. The conflict in Syria began as peaceful demonstrations by a nation seeking freedom from the reign of a dictatorship and to establish true democracy.
The regime in Iran, however, viewed such a development as a red line and placed its weight fully behind Bashar Assad and his ruthless killing machine.
Why is Syria so important for Iran?
Syria is of strategic significant for Iran, as the mullahs considers the country their 35th province. This reached the point that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei immediately dispatched his Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to prop Assad’s lines in order to maintain their reach to the Mediterranean Sea and continue the flow of much needed weapons, including dangerous missiles, to the Lebanese Hezbollah.
This Shiite group has provided Iran a platform to advance its agenda to a serious extent from the 1980s to this day. Hezbollah has transformed into a rogue military force while also taking control over a large swathe of the country’s political power. Hezbollah has taken actions forcing the West to see no other solution but to adopt a highly flawed appeasement policy in their faceoff with Iran.
In short, Syria provides the Iranian regime crucial grounds to maintain all challengers and challenges at bay, meaning far from its own borders.
A glance at the 6-year war
Shortly after the Syrian protesters were gunned down by Assad’s forces, the Free Syrian Army began to form as a large swathe of Assad’s ranks and files defected. By June 30th, 2011, Assad was on the verge of being overthrown.
Understanding the impact of such a blow, Iran began its covert support and its efforts were certainly not an unknown factor for the West, especially the U.S. under the Obama administration.
Iran’s forces gradually took command of the war in Syria and by August 2013 the IRGC ordered Assad to launch a chemical attack against a Damascus suburb that rendered around 1,500 civilians killed, including many women and children.
Irony lies in the fact that Tehran was involved in secret nuclear talks with Washington at the time, and senior regime officials came to the conclusion the international community, held back by the Obama White House, would not take any serious action against their killing crusade in Syria.
Iran established its Syria strategy on two principles:
a) Providing all-out support for Assad in quelling any and all forms of dissent,
b) Indirectly supporting extremist groups with the goal of creating rifts amongst opposition lines to deprive the Syrian opposition of meaningful international support demanding Assad’s ouster.
Iran: The Godfather of ISIS
It is now a known fact that ISIS is the rendered phenomenon of the lethal crackdown imposed by Iran’s dual puppets, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Firstly, Iran’s policies in the Middle East have provoked deadly face/offs between Shiites and Sunni communities that used to live alongside, and even within each other, for centuries. Iran’s support for Shiite proxy groups has been well-documented.
However, it must be understood that Tehran also instigate sectarian hatred amongst Sunni to pursue its broad blueprint of maintaining the entire region in flames. Iran began to purge and literally cleanse the Sunni population in Iraq and beyond following the 2003 US-led invasion of this country.
Secondly, Maliki and Assad have both been accused of facilitating the release of a joint sum of over 2,500 inmates from their prisons who went off to form ISIS. The Assad regime is also under severe scrutiny on evidence of purchasing oil from ISIS, providing the group much needed revenue to maintain its activities.
In this Nov. 22, 2013 file photo, a Shiite fighter clashes with members of the Free Syrian Army rebel in the town of Hatita, in the countryside of Damascus, Syria. (AP)
Iran rallying Russia to the rescue
The Syrian opposition was once again on the initiative in early 2015, delivering significant blows to the Assad apparatus in the country’s north and south. The Iran/Assad/Hezbollah alliance was no longer able to hold ground and the IRGC was becoming desperate in maintaining Syria.
IRGC Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to ask for much needed air support for Iran’s army of proxy militias alongside IRGC officers and troops. Despite launching the so-called “Operation Moharram” in Aleppo, the IRGC failed to reach its objective and Hossein Hamedani, commander of all IRGC forces in Syria, was killed in battle, alongside dozens of other senior Iranian military officers.
Sensing the threat, the IRGC doubled its troops in Syria to 60,000 and Khamenei even resorted to tasking units of his regular army to dispatch to Syria. Various gains were made, resulting in horrific cases such as the IRGC massacring Sunni locals in the city of Mayer.
The siege on Aleppo began in late 2016, depriving 300,000 civilians in the eastern branch of the city of any food or water, while bombings and unspeakable war crimes continued.
Finally, with the involvement of tens of thousands of militias, and reports indicate up to 25,000 IRGC troops, East Aleppo was retaken by pro-Assad forces and a ceasefire was reached on December 29th, 2016, allowing tens of thousands of civilians to leave the city – despite continuous reports of continued killings – alongside thousands of armed Syrian opposition members.
While Iranian-related forces violated the ceasefire seeking their desired objective, being the Syrian opposition’s complete annihilation, the Syrian opposition was able to evacuate a large number of innocent civilians from Aleppo and preserve their armed forces. This downgraded Aleppo into a mere tactical gain Iran and Assad.
On Syria, Khamenei is the figure making the final calls and he has entrusted the Syria dossier to his most trusted senior commanders. The dilemma forced Tehran to also dispatch members of the IRGC and regular army ground forces alongside the Quds Force and its network of proxy militias. The IRGC navy and air force have also had their share of battle in Syria.
Iran has gone as far as sending over 70,000 foot-soldiers to Syria, literally dwarfing the number of soldiers fighting for Assad, being less than 50,000, according to IRGC reports.
All Iranian ministries and government institutions have shares in the Syria war, adding to the IRGC dedicating vast economic resources to the Syria war. This goes part in parcel to the fact Iran has through the course of the past six years allocated above $100 billion to the Syria war. This massive capitol is used to procure weapons, provide for the Syrian army’s expenses and IRGC militia members’ salaries adding up to around $1 billion a year.
And the casualties Iran and its forces have suffered, meaning excluding those of the Syrian army, add up to over 10,000, including 1,500 IRGC members. To add insult to injury, 70 IRGC deaths involved colonels or more senior ranks.
This sheds light on Iran’s fundamentalist role and the importance of the Syria dossier for the mullahs, and exactly why the international community, from the Middle East, Europe and the US, should take very powerful actions to completely evict the Iranian regime from Syria.
One right step in this path is to designate the IRGC, being the Iranian entity in charge of the mullahs’ Syria campaign, as a foreign terrorist organization. This will make Iran begin to understand its meddling across the region will have consequences, and the international community will no longer tolerate such atrocities.
Originally published in Al Arabiya English
Heshmat Alavi is a political and rights activist. His writing focuses on Iran, ranging from human rights violations, social crackdown, the regime’s support for terrorism and meddling in foreign countries, and the controversial nuclear program. He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi & blogs at IranCommentary.