Iran's Long Reach: Wreaking Havoc in the Middle East

The last few years have witnessed a growing Iranian military involvement in the fighting between Shi'ite and Sunni forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. So who exactly are the Iranian militia forces operating on foreign soil?

People gathered in the ruins of massive suicide attack in Karada, Iraq (Photo: AP)

In the last few years, we have been witnessing an ever-intensifying Iranian involvement in the fighting against Sunni forces. This involvement is reflected primarily in the employment of elements belonging to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Shi'ite militia forces supported by Iran which were organized by Iran and their people had received intensive training in bases operating within Iranian territory so as to fight against the Sunni forces in the region – not just against Israel. Those militia forces include the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, the Houthis in Yemen and the Badr Corps, the force that coordinates the operations of the Shi'ite militia forces against the Sunni opposition in Iraq. Recruitment into these militia forces is normally motivated by religious propaganda but is also encouraged by financial and material incentives. Additionally, the Iranian support for Syria and her armed forces is reflected in such areas as training, logistics, technology and financing.

This involvement has been explained by the representative of the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei in the IRGC as a necessary move, intended to safeguard Iran's security and prevent the loss of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Subsequently, it was explained by a religious decree (Fatwa) issued by Khamenei in September 2011, with the intention of securing the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and his regime. Syria constitutes the strategic link between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon and was even declared by the Iranians as a part of Iran and her 35th province. The commander of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, went as far as declaring, in September 2012, that Iran assists Syria against the terrorist elements operating against President Bashar and his regime, as Assad is "The only guarantee for the Iranian influence in the Levant region." According to Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei, "Syria is a part of our line of resistance," namely – it constitutes a part of the line of defense Iran is committed to defending.

Against the background of the weakening of the Syrian military during its prolonged war against the various Sunni rebel and opposition forces, various Shi'ite forces came to the rescue, notably the military forces of Iran – the IRGC and the regular military, as well as the forces of various Shi'ite militia organizations from different countries in the region. In the last few years, these forces have borne the brunt of the ground fighting in Syria, and in the last year they have been cooperating with the aircraft of the Russian and Syrian air forces, mainly in the context of the fighting around the city of Aleppo in northern Syria.

Members of the Syrian and Iranian opposition elements who spoke recently about the fierce fighting that took place in the eastern part of Aleppo presented new information regarding the Iranian military involvement in the fighting in Syria, which originated with the Iranian regime and its forces. According to this information, the plan of attack for Aleppo had been prepared in late 2015, pursuant to a directive issued by the Iranian leader, Khamenei. This plan was prepared and executed by forces of Iran's IRGC and the Shi'ite militia forces operating in the area, including Hezbollah of Lebanon, as the forces of the Syrian regime that operated in this area were of reduced scope and strength and were unable to carry out the plan on their own. This move was bolstered by the air strikes staged by the Syrian and Russian fighters that had served as a preparatory move and provided support for the ground maneuvers.

The decision to get the regular Iranian military involved in fighting outside of Iran was of the utmost importance, as this was the first time the Iranians have taken this step since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, as up until then the Iranians did their best to keep the military 'at home' and away from any external conflicts, where they operated through their proxies, such as Hezbollah of Lebanon, for example. This decision – to get the military involved in conflicts outside of Iran – could reflect a change of policy by the Iranian leadership in this regard, and may take place in other theaters of operations in the future. This move could have been taken subject to the consent of the Russian authorities which settled, almost exclusively, on committing only aerial forces to the fighting (it should be noted that in Aleppo, small units of Russian "volunteers" took part in the fighting as well. Many of those so-called volunteers were killed in action), preferring that the Iranians and the Shi'ite militia forces fulfill the function of ground forces in the fighting in Syria, all for the common cause – keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.

In the battles that developed over the course of 2016, in which elements of the IRGC and the regular Iranian military took part, alongside elements of the various Shi'ite militia forces – Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghani – these forces sustained heavy losses, including losses among their commanders. According to data provided by the Free Syrian Army, more than 40 senior Iranian officers from the IRGC at the ranks of colonel and brigadier-general were killed during the fighting in the Aleppo area. These officers had served in senior command and staff positions in the aforementioned forces. The above notwithstanding, the Iranians have not officially admitted their involvement in the fighting in Syria alongside the forces of the Syrian regime.

Evidently, the Iranian forces operate throughout Syria, not just in the Aleppo area. According to the aforementioned sources, the IRGC had divided Syria into five fronts, in which the Syrian military plays a secondary, supportive role, as the entire fighting and all of the offensive operations were carried out by the Iranian forces and the Shi'ite militia forces operating with them.

The primary command center of the Iranian forces is located in the Damascus area, near the Damascus airport, at a camp renamed "Imam Hussain" – the name of the primary IRGC camp in Tehran. This command center is in charge of the regional fronts, including the Damascus area front; the southern front, whose command centers and forces are deployed in the camps around Zaynab, Yarmouk and Azra'a; the eastern front, whose camps are located in the Dumeir area and the Syrian Air Force airbases Shayrat and T-4 to the east of Homs; the northern front that includes the Aleppo sector and several other camps in the area, and the coastal front, which includes the areas of Lattakia and Tartus and the nearby military camps. Following the arrival of the Russian forces at the coastal region of Syria (Khmeimim airbase), the Iranian forces in the Lattakia area were redeployed to another camp located about 18 kilometers from the city. Highly skilled operations and intelligence officers man the Iranian command centers.

The Iranian Order of Battle

The Iranian order of battle includes various units that arrived in Syria from different parts of Iran, including elements of the al-Quds Force, which is normally responsible for operations outside the borders of Iran, and other formations of the IRGC, which include infantry, special forces and commando elements as well as armored, artillery and engineering units and even helicopters and UAVs. Among these forces, units from the "Ansar al-Mahdi" Corps have been identified. This is an elite force charged, among other things, with securing the national leaders of Iran, including the supreme leader, Khamenei. These units are regarded as highly competent operationally and as absolutely loyal to the Iranian regime. Like other Iranian units, these units have also sustained heavy casualties during the fighting in Syria, and for this reason some of them were recalled to Iran. One of their KIAs was identified as a senior member of the presidential bodyguard unit of the previous Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The dispatching of forces from the Ansar al-Mahdi Corps may be conceived as a desperate move, as their task was to achieve a breakthrough in the fighting at any cost, thereby boosting troop morale – so the losses they sustained in their combat operations were a devastating blow for the Iranians.

According to sources in the Syrian opposition, the al-Quds Force is also responsible for the personal security of President Bashar al-Assad and his family, as well as his palaces, and members of that force accompany Bashar wherever he may go, dressed in civilian clothes and made to look like ordinary Syrian civilians.

According to sources in the Iranian opposition, the devastating defeats the elements of the IRGC had sustained in the fighting led them to appeal to Russia (probably during Soleimani's visit to Moscow in July 2015), which initiated operations through its aircraft in Syria since October 2015, providing air support to the ground forces fighting against the Syrian opposition. This also led to the reinforcement of the forces of Hezbollah of Lebanon and the various other Shi'ite militia forces. Nevertheless, these forces had failed to achieve any progress on the ground for more than two months and even sustained additional defeats in different sectors, which caused them to retreat.

According to the same sources, these forces focused on the fighting in the city of Aleppo and its vicinity, under the direct supervision of Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the al-Quds Force. Additionally, Iranian forces were deployed in the Lattakia area, owing to the importance of this area, and also in order to defend this area and the Russian forces deployed therein against attacks by the opposition forces. The Iranians also reinforced their forces in the Damascus area for the purpose of preventing it from falling into the hands of the rebels and the opposition forces. The sources quoted emphasized the fact that the Iranian forces do not operate against ISIS in any way, shape or form – only against the Syrian opposition forces.

The Shi'ite Militia Forces

As stated, these militia forces include three primary forces/organizations plus several secondary elements.

Hezbollah of Lebanon, with which we are thoroughly familiar, is the most important Shi'ite militia and also the one most intensively involved in the fighting in Syria, and the second most important force, right after the Iranian IRGC. This organization, which maintains very close relations with the Iranian regime as well as with the Alawite regime in Syria, was the first external element that deployed its forces to Syria to support the Syrian military, which up until then had gone from bad to worse in its operations against the opposition forces. Through its involvement in the war in Syria, Hezbollah had deviated from its standard practice and stated policy of defending the territory of Lebanon against the intentions and activities of Israel. Hezbollah's involvement helped the Syrian regime to survive opposite its internal enemies and even gain a number of achievements on the ground (the battle of al-Qusayr, for example).

This involvement had undoubtedly received the blessing of Iran and was probably initiated pursuant to a directive from the Iranian leadership and in full coordination with the Syrian regime. Although their organization's involvement in Syria is portrayed by the leadership of Hezbollah as an act intended to defend the borders of Lebanon against Sunni terrorist elements that might intrude into Lebanon from Syria, but this argument is not very convincing with regard to the involvement of Hezbollah troopers in the fighting in two remote theaters like Iraq and Yemen, where Hezbollah has been assisting local Shi'ite forces through training and operational consulting, all under the auspices and guidance of Iran.

The Badr Corps is a pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi'ite militia which is active mainly in the Iraqi theater. This organization had been established by Iran at the outset of the war against Iraq, as an opposition to the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein, and was involved in that war against Iraqi forces mainly in the Kurdistan province. Today, this organization operates officially under the command of the government of Iraq, but in fact it takes its orders from Tehran. Its strength is currently estimated at about 12,000 troopers (possibly more).

The Houthi militia is yet another Shi'ite organization that operates under the authority and with the support of Iran. This militia operates in Yemen against the legitimate local government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia. The troopers of this militia were also trained at various bases in Iran. The Houthi militia had evolved into the strongest military force in Yemen and eventually decided, under Iranian guidance, to raise the banner of revolt against the existing government.

In addition to the three organizations outlined above, the Iranians had organized Shi'ite militia forces and other forces and dispatched them to join the fighting in these three theaters. These forces began to emerge on the ground mainly after the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, under the auspices and control of Tehran.

The "Mahdi Army" is the prominent Shi'ite militia established in Iraq in 2003 by religious cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, for the purpose of resisting the American occupation. The activities of this organization were halted in 2009 and subsequently renewed with the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and their domination of substantial parts of Iraq's territory.

Another group that split from the Mahdi Army and calls itself "The Men of Justice" operated mainly against US forces in Iraq. Subsequently, it aligned itself politically with the pro-Iranian Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who employed this force against ISIS, alongside the forces of the Iraqi military and in the context of the popular Shi'ite uprising in Iraq. In this context, this militia operated against Sunni elements in different areas of Iraq and its men were also dispatched to fight in Syria.

Another Shi'ite militia is the Iraqi Hezbollah organization (the militia that declared itself as the "Jaish al-Mukhtar" – the army of the chosen one). This organization was also established after the US occupation through Iranian support and pledged allegiance to the Iranian leader, for the purpose of eliminating the members of the former Baath party in Iraq and also to challenge Saudi Arabia, which is a Wahhabi Sunni monarchy. This militia had even launched rockets at border posts inside Saudi territory in November 2013. The military strength of this militia is estimated at about 40,000 troopers, and it takes part in the fighting in Iraq and Syria. This militia is associated with Hezbollah of Lebanon.

Iran established other Iraqi Shi'ite militia forces for the purpose of supporting the Syrian regime in its war against the rebel and opposition forces. After ISIS had dominated substantial areas in eastern Syria, some of the people of those militia forces returned to Iraq. It should be noted that the regime in Iraq avoids assigning the Shi'ite forces to the fighting for the liberation of Mosul from the domination of ISIS, so that the Sunni population of Mosul would not be harmed by the men of those Shi'ite militia forces.

The Iranians also established Shi'ite militia forces based on Afghani and Pakistani refugees living in Iran. An Afghan militia was established with its manpower including, in addition to the Afghani refugees living in Iran, Afghani prisoners who were released from jail as they had committed themselves to fighting in Syria. All of these elements were recruited by the IRGC in exchange for Iranian citizenship and a fee. Many of those recruits, serving as cannon fodder for the Iranian forces, were killed in the fighting in Syria. Similarly, a militia made up of Pakistani refugees living in Iran was established as well.


The complete article can be found in issue 37 of Israel Defense magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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