Seven years after getting involved in the Syrian war, Iran may be beginning to have second thoughts about the wisdom of an adventure that shows no signs of ending. Several factors have contributed to what analysts believe could morph into a re-think of the costly strategy.
The first factor was official confirmation of Iran’s human losses in the war. Between November 2012 and 2017 Iran lost over 2,100 men, including 418 ranking officers while more than 7,000 Iranian “defenders of the shrines” were also wounded. Unofficial estimates for the losses of non-Iranian fighters, mostly Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani, recruited and led by Iran, show several thousand casualties.
According to estimates by Iranian researchers using a survey of “funeral notices” published by the Lebanese branch of “Hezbollah,” the Iran-controlled militia led by Hassan Nasrallah has lost at least 1,400 men in combat in Syria. That is more than twice the number of men that “Hezbollah” lost in the 2006 war with Israel.
Western intelligence sources put the number of Iranian and Iran-led fighters in Syria at over 25,000. Thus, the losses they have sustained are far bigger than the classical military measure of “decimation” used to indicate the worst possible military performance. With that measure, Iran and the forces it leads in Syria should have lost no more than 2,500 men in total.
“The Syrian experience is a textbook case of poor planning and amateurish leadership,” says Hamid Zomorrodi a former naval officer and military analyst. “Those who decided to get Iran involved didn’t know what they wanted and were thus unable to decide what type of forces to commit and what tactics to adopt.”
According to a posthumously published account by General Hussein Hamadani, killed in combat in Syria, Tehran’s decision to intervene was aimed at preventing the fall of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad. However, Hamdani’s account shows that he and his fellow combatants were never told what they were supposed to do. Worse still, on arrival in Damascus, they realized that the Syrian military were far from keen on Iranian intervention.
“The Syrian military raised a wall of iron to keep us within limits.”
Unable to secure a central position within the broader strategy developed by the Syrian military, the Iranian contingent invented a justification for this presence by posing as “defender of the holy shrines.”
However, almost no one knew how many shrines there were or why they needed to be defended. More importantly, there was no sign of anybody wishing to attack those shrines in the middle of a larger war with much bigger objectives on all sides. The Iranians spent the first year of their presence putting together a list of shrines, coming up with the amazing number of over 10,000, many of them linked with Old Testament figures.
However, even supposing the objective was to protect “the shrines”, the elements sent to Syria were not trained for what was essentially a policing, not military, mission.
Iranian meddling in Syria has led Tehran into its biggest military losses since the eight-year war with Iraq. Iran’s military intervention in the 1970s in Oman against Communist-led insurgents in Dhofar claimed 69 Iranian lives.
According to General Ali Khorsand, who led that campaign, it succeeded because it was designed with “clock-work precision.”
“We knew what we were supposed to, how to get there and how to get out,” he claimed. “More importantly, we knew who was in command.”
In the case of the Syrian adventure, Iran’s involvement was not predicated on those conditions and, above all, lacked a clear command structure.
The Western, especially American media, have tried to build up Major-General Qassem Soleimani who heads the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps as the overall commander in the Syrian adventure. American magazines have put him on their cover and American TV has portrayed him as a swashbuckling knight on a white charger.
However, Soleimani, having spent almost his entire career at staff level, has had little field experience and is not capable of developing a strategic vision needed in a major conflict. By all accounts, Soleimani is a talented PR man and an efficient controller for the militias and agents paid by Iran in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. But he is no military planner and his Quds Corps, which lacks combat units of its own, has never been anything more than a composite beast of intelligence, security, business, espionage, counter-espionage and propaganda.
Not knowing what type of forces was needed in Syria, Tehran left the sending of fighters there to personal choices of the “volunteers of martyrdom” and he hazards of the situation. Thus thousands of Iranians who had served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Baseej (Mobilization) of the Dispossessed, the Islamic Police (NAJA), the elite Islamic Green Berets and disparate other forces such as The Forestry Guard and even the navy went to Syria, treating that multifaceted war as if it were a tougher version of a Boy Scouts Jamboree. Among Iranian officers killed in Syria were at least 17 naval officers, including some experts in underwater fighting, although there was no water in the Syrian war.
The hodgepodge nature of those forces made it impossible to develop a coherent command-and-control system, especially in the context of asymmetric warfare against “enemies” using guerrilla tactics in their own home territory. Iranian fighters in Syria spoke no Arabic, knew nothing about the terrain and the culture, and were often shunned by the Syrian government’s armed forces. In the tragic case of Khan Touman, for example, the Syrian 4th Armored Division, simply refused to come to the aid of a besieged unit of Iranian Green Berets, left isolated and surrounded. In their hasty retreat Iran’s best fighters had to leave behind the dead bodies of 13 of their comrades.
Another problem is that the majority of Iranian “defenders of the shrine” are retired officers and NCOs, not at the height of their physical powers, or teenagers and young fighters with little or no combat experience. The 3-week “basic training” offered by Gen. Soleimani is not sufficient to train those volunteers in anything but driving military vehicles and handling weapons and ammunition.
The passage of years has not solved any of those problems.
Iranian forces don’t know what they are supposed to do apart from killing as many Syrians and possible. On occasions they become involved in classical positional warfare against “enemies” that specialize in hit-and-run. On other occasions they are confined to guarding and patrolling sites that are of no military interest.
The emergence of Russia from 2015 onwards as the chief orchestrator of the war in Syria has further confused the Iranians, limiting their margins of maneuver and reducing their overall influence.
Lacking an air force, Iran has not provided its forces in Syria with air support especially by helicopter gunships. Both Syria and Russia, which have the air power needed, have always refused to put their asset at the disposal of the Iranians or their Lebanese and other mercenaries.
In a closed system such as Khomeinist Iran it is not always possible to gauge public opinion. However, anecdotal evidence and musings within the establishment indicate growing weariness about a war which Iranians have never been fully informed about let alone approved.
An attempt almost two years ago to put General Mohsen Rezai, the former IRGC Commander, in charge of the Syrian war and relegate Gen. Soleimani to his public relations function was vetoed by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.
However, once again, the buzz in Tehran is about a new strategy and a new command structure for the Syrian war which, even if won, will give Iran no more than crumbs of victory.