Magazine article The Middle East

Iran's 'Foreign Legion': Tehran Has Stepped Up Its Military Support for the Embattled Syrian Regime and by All Accounts, Is Virtually Running the War to Keep President Bashar Assad in Power, Using Iraqi Shi'ite Fighters in What Is Seen as a New Expeditionary Force Iran Is Building to Further Its Regional Ambitions

Magazine article The Middle East

Iran's 'Foreign Legion': Tehran Has Stepped Up Its Military Support for the Embattled Syrian Regime and by All Accounts, Is Virtually Running the War to Keep President Bashar Assad in Power, Using Iraqi Shi'ite Fighters in What Is Seen as a New Expeditionary Force Iran Is Building to Further Its Regional Ambitions

Article excerpt

IN EARLY OCTOBER, FIGHTERS SUPPORTING SYRIAN President Bashar Assad drove rebel fighters out-of the town of Sheikh Omar, a suburb of Damascus straddling two important highways that link the Syrian capital with, regime forces in the south along-the Jordanian border. It wasn't a major battle, but it marked a significant setback for the rebels; who hold an arc of territory on the outskirts of the battered Syrian capital from where they are able to threaten Assad's seat of power.

It was also important because the regime forces were spearheaded on the ground by Iraqi Shi'ite fighters moved into Syria by the Iranians to join the Lebanese veterans of Hizbullah to keep Assad, Tehran's strategic Arab ally, in power.

The Iraqi fighters were mostly members of "Special Groups" of Shi'ites Iran had formed in Iraq to fight the Americans in 2006, in the same way that Tehran created Hizbullah in Lebanon in the early 1980s to resist the invading Israelis.

The Sheikh Omar action was the Iraqi contingent's first major engagement in Syria, with the Shi'ites and a Hizbullah group driving out rebel forces under a bombardment by Syrian army artillery and tank fire. Tens of Shi'ite fighters were killed or wounded.

Since then, the Iraqi group has been built up to a force of at least several hundred men by Hizbullah, Tehran's most trusted Arab ally, and the elite Al Quds Force, the covert operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that operates outside Iran. These two military organisations are now the offensive backbone of Assad's embattled regime and form the core of Iran's increasingly dominant role in Syria.

Suleimani runs Syria

Arab sources say that Shi'ites from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab countries have also been recruited into Iran's emerging "foreign legion", a force that Arab governments, and the West, are starting to view with some trepidation.

Arab intelligence sources say this now extends to Yemen, where Tehran is reportedly arming Shi'ite Houthi rebels in the north against the crisis-ridden Sanaa regime, with the Saudis claiming Hizbullah technicians, at Tehran's behest, are helping the Houthis assemble and deploy short-range rockets.

By all accounts, the Iranians, headed by the enigmatic and elusive figure of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force chief who US intelligence considers its most formidable adversary in Tehran, are now effectively in command of the Damascus regime's military-security operations because Assad and his cohorts are no longer deemed capable, or reliable--probably both--of defeating their rebel opponents.

"Qassem Suleimani is now running Syria," says Col. Ahmed Hamade, of the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed segment of the Syrian rebel forces.

The reality is that without Iranian military aid and financial largesse, the Syrian regime would probably have fallen some time ago. The regime's victory in taking the strategic western town of Qusair in June was overwhelmingly due to the discipline and experience of Hizbullah's battle-hardened fighters. Similarly, more recent advances in Homs were secured largely by Hizbullah and the Iraqi brigades.

Some Arab sources estimate that Tehran's pumping $600m -$700m a month into Damascus to keep Assad's regime functioning, even though at home Iran's economy is slowly collapsing under US-led international sanctions.

Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, a senior Iranian cleric and close confidante of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently emphasised Syria's importance to Tehran as its gateway to the Levant by observing that "Syria is Iran's "35th province ... and is a strategic province for us ... If we lose Syria we won't be able to hold Tehran."

Suleimani, a highly decorated hero of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war who ran clandestine Iranian operations in Afghanistan in the 1990s and Iraq after the US invasion, emerged as the central figure in the campaign to keep Assad in power at the beginning of this year. …

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