The result of a civil war in Syria is destruction, immigration and numerous deaths. It was reported that almost 700 Iranian soldiers and militia fighters were killed in Syria’s civil war.
Officially, Iran maintains that only “military advisers” have been deployed in Syria. But the state media has reported numerous battlefield casualties, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) disclosing last week that 13 of its fighters were killed near Aleppo.
About 2,000 troops from the Quds Force – the special forces wing of the IRGC – are present in Syria, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In addition, 13 Shia militias have been identified among the forces fighting for Assad’s regime.
The IRGC provides these units with recruits, weapons, training and military planning. In total, at least 3,000 Iranian military personnel are believed to be in Syria.
Their losses on the battlefield are becoming increasingly severe. About 280 Iranians were killed in Syria between the onset of Russia’s intervention on Sept 30 last year and May 2, according to a tally compiled by the Levantine Group, a risk consultancy. The Iranian media reported another 400 “martyrs” in Syria between 2013 and mid-2015.
The 13 deaths in the most recent battle near Aleppo would bring the total number of Iranian dead to 693 in the last three years. Given that the first IRGC personnel arrived in Syria in 2012 and many losses have probably gone unreported, the real toll is almost certainly higher.
But the scale of the casualties casts doubt over Iran’s denials of any combat role. On Feb 16, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, told the European Parliament: “Iran does not have boots on the ground in Syria.” He added: “We have military advisers in Syria, as we have them in other places.”
As Mr Zarif spoke those words, Iranian military personnel were helping Assad’s forces to break through rebel lines and encircle Aleppo from the north. In the 16 days before Mr Zarif’s denial, at least 51 Iranian troops were killed in Syria, amounting to Tehran’s heaviest combat losses since the beginning of the war, according to the Levantine Group.
The presence of Iranian forces in Syria – along with their allies from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia – has proved “indispensable” for Assad’s regime, said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the IISS. “It is complicated, but certainly Iran’s support – both material and financial – has been a decisive factor in Assad’s survival,” he added.
Assad is one of Iran’s few allies in the Arab world. His survival in office provides Iran with a crucial overland supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But Iran has been less anxious to conceal its military role in Syria since the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) as a formidable threat in 2014. Since then, Iran has presented itself as being foremost in the struggle against Isil.
“The emergence of Isil has given the Iranians a retrospective pretext for their presence in Syria,” said Mr Hokayem. “It’s easier for them today to justify the intervention in Syria. They have martyrs to celebrate.”
The mask slipped still further last month when the regime disclosed that soldiers from the army’s 65th Airborne Brigade had been sent to Syria. This was Iran’s first deployment of regular troops – as opposed to IRGC fighters – in a war outside the country since the conflict with Iraq in the 1980s.
At least two soldiers from the 65th Brigade have since been killed. The arrival of regular soldiers could be the army’s attempt to claim credit for joining the struggle against Isil. Their presence may also be a sign that the IRGC is short of manpower, particularly as its personnel are also present in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
“It could be that the Revolutionary Guard is overstretched,” said Mr Hokayem. “It has many missions around the region and it could need the manpower.”