Friday, May 29, 2015

The Regime's Military Capabilities: Part 2

This analysis of the Syrian regime’s military capabilities is adapted from the ISW report “An Army in All Corners”--Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria by ISW Syria Analyst Christopher Kozak (April 2015).

Today's excerpt looks at the Iranian proxies operating in Syria. 
The final installment in this series will focus on the regime’s offensive campaign in and around Damascus. Read the previous installments on: the regime's strategic objectives and the regime’s military capabilities (Part 1).

May 29 Update: As ISIS consolidates its grip over the strategic central Syrian city of Palmyra and JN-led rebel forces move towards securing full control over Idlib Province in the north, the Syrian regime has come to rely upon increasing support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with a senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Damascus who emphasized that “Iran is determined to continue to stand by Syria and support it with whatever is needed”. A day later, Iranian officials reportedly approved a new line of credit and several investment deals with the embattled Assad regime. However, Iranian assistance to Assad does not end at financial support. Iran has provided increasing amounts of advisors, technical experts, and foreign fighters to bolster the Syrian regime’s war-fighting capacity through both the indirect participation of Iranian proxy groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the direct intervention of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members. Below you will find details about the spectrum of Iranian forces currently operating in Syria and the implications for the wider region.

Iranian Proxy Forces

The Assad regime suffers from several limitations which have had a severe impact upon its military strategy. Regime forces operated under shortages of quality manpower due to desertion, defection, and combat attrition. Consequently, the Assad regime relied upon a constellation of regular and irregular forces throughout 2014 in order to prosecute its offensive campaign and defend its core interests against the Syrian opposition and other threats, including ISIS. The network of pro-regime fighters lacked the capacity to deliver a clear victory over rebel forces due to deficits in manpower, morale, and battlefield acumen. However, Assad, with likely impetus from his Iranian advisors, used this time to restructure his forces in a manner designed to sustain their operations in conditions of protracted war. These developments ensure the survival of the regime at the cost of extended humanitarian suffering and deepening polarization. An examination of the ‘tools’ available to the regime is essential to understanding the conduct of the Syrian military campaign throughout 2014 and into 2015. The main components of the force coalition preserving Assad’s position in Syria include the Syrian Arab Army, pro-regime Syrian paramilitary organizations, Iranian foreign proxy fighters, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the regime’s own asymmetric military arsenal.

The Assad regime relies upon the coalition of Shi’a foreign fighters referred to as the Iranian “Axis of Resistance” that is organized, trained, and equipped by Iran. Assessments released in December 2013 estimated that between 7,000 and 8,000 foreign fighters drawn from Iranian proxy groups were engaged in active combat in Syria on behalf of the regime. These forces played important roles on critical battlegrounds across Syria due to their expertise in irregular combat. Lebanese Hezbollah plays a dominant role, with Israeli military officials assessing in summer fighters on rotation in Syria in Damascus, Qalamoun, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo, and southern Syria. Hezbollah militants provided key training and leadership functions to pro-regime paramilitary organizations such as the NDF along with their frontline combat duties. The Syrian regime also received reinforcements from Iraqi Shi’a militias as well as Lebanese and Afghan Shi’a populations who joined front groups such as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFAB) and Liwa Zulfiqar. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Iraqi, Lebanese, and Afghan Shi’a fighters were fighting alongside the regime in Syria by June 2014, concentrated mainly in Damascus and Aleppo cities. 

The fall of Mosul to ISIS on June 10, 2014 and the rapid expansion of ISIS-held terrain inside Iraq redirected Iranian attention from Syria to Iraq. This was a major inflection point for both Iranian regional strategy and the disposition of Iranian proxy forces inside Syria. Large numbers of Iraqi Shi’a withdrew from such Syrian battlefronts as southern Aleppo city and Mleiha in Damascus in order to return to Iraq, forcing the regime to recalibrate ongoing offensives. One rebel fighter in Mleiha stated that “we used to hear fighters with Iraqi accents on our radios, but now they have Lebanese accents…since last week, we haven’t seen as much shelling or storming of our positions.” Iranian news sources reported that a large portion of Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas specifically traveled to the Balad district north of Baghdad in order to counter ISIS advances there. Over 1,000 Iraqi Shi’a fighters had reportedly left Syria to fight in Iraq by June 17.

Hezbollah quickly expanded its combat operations to compensate for the departure of Iraqi Shi’a militias from the battlefield, as foreshadowed by the rebel fighter interviewed above. Hezbollah announced a general mobilization on June 12, 2014, two days after the fall of Mosul, and deployed more than 1,000 fighters to “defend the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.” Casualties mounted as rebel forces utilized the resultant disruption to mount successful raids and ambushes against Hezbollah positions, particularly in the Qalamoun region. The growing commitments in Syria stretched Hezbollah thin and forced it to adjust its recruitment standards. Hezbollah began enrolling Syrian citizens into Hezbollah-affiliated forces by June 2014 and deployed increasing numbers of young, inexperienced Lebanese fighters to the frontlines. This was a stark contrast to the seasoned fighters who had participated in the battle for Qusayr. One Hezbollah veteran complained in an interview with Foreign Policy in January 2015 that he “barely recognized” the organization due to the lack of discipline displayed by its new recruits. Hezbollah fighters have nevertheless maintained a major presence in the Qalamoun Mountains while playing a prominent role in key regime offensives in Damascus, Aleppo city, the southern provinces of Dera’a, and Quneitra near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights over the course of late 2014 and early 2015. 

The fall of Mosul also prompted a demographic shift in the Shi’a foreign volunteers fighting alongside the Assad regime. Replacements for the dwindling number of Iraqi Shi’a in Syria came from Afghanistan’s Shi’a Hazara community, which speaks dialects of Persian and possesses close historical ties to Iran. News reports as early as 2013 indicated that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had enlisted thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria in exchange for $500 monthly salaries, school registration, and Iranian residency permits. Afghan fighters captured in Syria in October 2014 have, however, confirmed these reports, stating that Iran had also provided training in light and medium weapons. Funeral notices in March 2015 for Ali Reza Tavassoli, the Iranian commander of the majority-Afghan “Fatimiyoun Brigade,” highlighted the link between Afghan Shi’a fighters and the IRGC by revealing a close relationship between Tavassoli and IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Afghan Shi’a fighter participation alongside the Assad regime became increasingly visible throughout the latter half of 2014 and into 2015. 

Fatimiyoun Brigade commander Ali Reza Tavassoli (right) with IRGC-Quds Forces commander Qassem Suleimani

Iraqi and Iranian fighters in Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas reportedly continued to conduct operations alongside regime forces in lesser numbers in the outer environs of Damascus city, particularly the towns of al-Zabadani and Darayya as of March 2015. A pro-regime fighter captured by rebel forces in October 2014 claimed that LAFAB was also active in the northern outskirts of Aleppo city. Unconfirmed reports throughout late 2014 and early 2015 also indicated that smaller numbers of fighters from other Shi’a Muslim communities, including ethnic Sham from Cambodia and Houthi tribesmen from Yemen, have been mobilized by the IRGC on behalf of the Assad regime. 

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)

Official Iranian military presence became more visible in Syria in 2014 in tandem with the growing visibility of Iranian proxy forces. IRGC-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and IRGC-Ground Forces (IRGC-GF) personnel operated inside Syria in 2012-2013, providing intelligence, paramilitary training, and senior-level advisory support to the Assad regime. Direct Iranian support to Assad serves to preserve the existence of a friendly regime in the heart of the Middle East bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Syria also provides Iran access to key supply routes used to deliver weapons to other regional Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas. Heavy involvement in the organization of paramilitary groups and foreign volunteer units in Syria has allowed Iran to develop a base of support which could preserve Iranian regional influence even if the Assad regime collapsed. 

Over time the Iranian advisory mission evolved to encompass IRGC trainers directly embedded with pro-regime forces. The exact extent of IRGC presence within Syria remains difficult to quantify. One former senior Iranian official stated to a Reuters reporter in February 2014 that a “few hundred” IRGC-QF and IRGC-GF commanders operated in Syria, while a former IRGC commander told the same reporter that only sixty to seventy “top” Quds Force commanders were in the country at any one time. Both sources also indicated that volunteers from the Iranian ‘Basij’ paramilitary formed a component of the irregular forces operating under IRGC command in Syria. 

The depth and breadth of Iranian involvement in Syria grew significantly through 2014 and into 2015. Opposition sources consistently reported throughout the summer of 2014 the presence of unspecified Iranian officers and fighters on the frontlines in northern Hama Province amidst rebel offensives which directly threatened the Hama Military Airport. Activists claimed in September 2014 that regime offensives in the area were jointly commanded by SAA Special Forces commander Col. Suhail al-Hassan and a “young IRGC officer.” Rebel sources also stated in late November 2014 that IRGC advisors participated alongside Lebanese Hezbollah in an offensive on the town of Sheikh Miskin in Dera’a Province. These reports raise key questions about the extent to which Assad and senior regime officials have subordinated the Syrian military campaign to Iranian interests. 

Mounting reports of Iranian casualties also served as an indicator of the ongoing shift from senior-level IRGC advisement to direct IRGC field command over pro-regime forces. Rebel forces killed and beheaded IRGC-GF Brigadier General Abdollah Eskandari on May 28, 2014 near the town of Morek in northern Hama Province. Iranian media claimed that Eskandari, the head of the Fars Province Foundation for Martyrs and Self-Sacrifice Affairs until 2013, had died protecting the Sayyida Zeinab shrine in Damascus. IRGC ‘Basij’ commander General Jabbar Drisawi was killed on the Handarat front north of Aleppo city five months later on October 16, 2014. Drisawi was reportedly an Arab, making it likely that he served as an Arabic-speaking trainer and advisor for Syrian NDF forces. Regional news sources reported three days later that IRGC commander Hassan Hizbawi had been killed in Sheikh Miskin. The presence of these senior Iranian officers in such close proximity to active frontlines suggests that IRGC commanders have directly embedded with pro-regimes forces on the battlefield. 

A recent counteroffensive against rebel forces in southern Syria offers the most dramatic indicator of the influence currently wielded by IRGC-aligned forces in Syria. A large force of Hezbollah, Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas, and Fatimiyoun Brigade fighters supported by regime forces launched a major attack along a thirteen kilometer stretch of northwestern Dera’a Province on February 9, 2015, successfully seizing several key positions held by opposition forces. The leading role played by the large number of Iranian proxy forces participating in this operation suggests heavy IRGC involvement in its design and execution. Notably, an Israeli airstrike three weeks prior to the start of the offensive killed several senior Hezbollah figures in Quneitra province as well as IRGC-QF Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, who reportedly served as the IRGC liaison to the Assad regime. The emplacement of Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy forces along the border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights is likely a key strategic objective of Iran in Syria. Taken in conjunction, these incidents may thus reflect the deepening extent which Iranian interests play in directing regime military campaigns, particularly in southern Syria.

Several key indicators support reports of direct Iranian supervision over the military campaign in southern Syria. Numerous relatively low-ranking IRGC members were reportedly killed during the February 2015 offensive in Dera’a Province, including Fatimiyoun Brigade commander Ali Reza Tavassoli, IRGC 2nd Lieutenant Mohammad Ardekani, and IRGC Captain Mohammad Sahib Karam, suggesting a heightened presence of embedded Iranian advisors. IRGC-QF commander Qassem Suleimani also reportedly visited pro-regime units in Dera’a in February 10, 2015, providing weight to claims of senior Iranian command-and-control over the operation. Meanwhile, pro-opposition sources reported that Iranian officers executed up to a dozen Syrian regime personnel on charges of collaborating with rebel forces in the lead up to the offensive. Regime Political Security head Rustom Ghazali, a resident of Dera’a Province, was sacked and reportedly beaten for his alleged opposition to the prominent role played by Iranian-aligned forces in southern Syria. These reports marked a major departure in the pattern of Iranian operations in Syria, suggesting both the depth of Iranian interest in southern Syria as well as growing regime and Iranian concern regarding opposition momentum in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces. 

The IRGC has simultaneously worked aggressively to expand its recruitment of Syrian civilians in order to build an indigenous paramilitary apparatus that would remain loyal to its interests in the event of a collapse of the Assad regime. In a speech given in May 2014, IRGC-GF Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani lauded the establishment of a so-called “second Hezbollah” in Syria. Anonymous sources suggest that the Quds Forces seeks to maintain a “Syrian Hezbollah” comprised of Iraqi, Lebanese, and Syrian volunteers which could serve as a direct military liaison and Iranian proxy for the indefinite future. Although this organization likely serves as a blanket term for the coalition of paramilitary and proxy groups organized by Iran in Syria rather than a distinct military entity, Iran almost certainly seeks to build a military structure which can continue to assert Iranian influence in Syria in the event of the severe weakening or collapse of the Assad regime. 

Several reports of independent IRGC recruitment efforts in Syria in late 2014 support the notion that the formation of a Syrian proxy force directly commanded by the IRGC is an Iranian priority. An activist in Hama interviewed in February 2015 stated that IRGC officers oversee an enlistment campaign in the city which directly competes with regime Air Force Intelligence for new recruits. Rebel sources also claim that the IRGC conducts similar recruitment in rural Homs Province. Regional observers have also noted the presence of Syrian Shi’a paramilitary organizations modeled on Hezbollah, such as the National Ideological Resistance, which operate in coastal Syria and may form the core of the IRGC vision of a “Syrian Hezbollah.” Iran appears to be nurturing this pool of future manpower through religious outreach. For example, Iranian-funded Shi’a theology schools have begun spreading throughout Tartous Province in a move designed to strengthen an Iranian-style Shi’a religious identity among Syrian Alawites. IRGC Brig. Gen. Hamedani has also personally praised the establishment of ‘Keshab’ youth groups in Syria meant to promote “spirituality” and the “revolutionary values” of the Islamic Republic. These developments suggest that Assad may no longer be a fully autonomous actor and ultimately threaten regime control over its own security forces.

Next installment:  The Regime's Offensive Campaign:  Damascus and Environs