Iranian regime is bleeding in the Syrian quagmireAug 24th, 2016
Hassan Dai*, August 8, 2016
The battle of Aleppo showed the failure of Iranian military surge in Syria since 2015 to reach a decisive victory and proves how deeply Iran is bogged down in the Syrian quagmire.
On August 7, 2016, after days of fierce and bloody battle, Syrian rebels broke through the siege on opposition-held areas of Aleppo. Having backed Assad financially and militarily, the significance of the defeat dawned on the Iranian regime and struck home how deeply it is bogged down in the Syrian quagmire.
To better understand its impact and significance and to predict the Iranian regime’s response to the situation, it is necessary to revisit Tehran’s decision for a military surge in Syria in early 2015 as Iran and the 5+1 countries were finalizing the nuclear deal. Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader and his allies in the Revolutionary Guards who were perceived as the main losers of the deal, believed that a military victory in Syria could compensate for their nuclear defeat, weaken the rival “moderate” factions, strengthen the Iranian hegemonic position in the region and subsequently keep the main contour of Iranian regional policy intact.
In April 2015, General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force travelled to Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to coordinate Russian military intervention in Syria. During the summer of 2015, the Quds Force mobilized its proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanese Hezbollah and Afghani units sending thousands of additional fighters to Syria. As clashes began to rage in the fall of 2015, the capture of Aleppo was considered the top prize with Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah calling Aleppo the “grand strategic battle“.
Simultaneously, the Iranian regime launched a large scale public campaign inside Iran to persuade public opinion in justifying its military intervention in Syria, to reinvigorate the regime’s base and silence factions opposed to its current Syrian and regional policy. The campaign that continues to this day includes religious ceremonies, conferences, speeches and various television programs defending the regime’s policy and honoring the martyrs. In May 2016, a film festival was organized in Tehran featuring documentaries about the “defendants of the holy shrines”, a term used by the regime to refer to the fighters deployed to Syria. The Supreme Leader has personally received the families of “martyrs” several times with the meetings being broadcast on national TV. A series of documentaries featuring the wives of the martyrs are aired on TV in which they describe their relationship with their husbands and how their husbands sacrificed all worldly pleasures and their families in order to fulfill their Islamic duties by enlisting to fight in Syria. The regime’s campaign aims to demonstrate that the martyrs are venerated and respected by Iranians and that the regime takes care of their families. The campaign further attempts to create an ideological and emotional connection between the public and the Revolutionary Guards killed in Syria.
A large number of these events are dedicated to Quds Force foreign fighters notably the “Fatemiyoun” division which is comprised of Afghanis. Earlier in May 2016, the Iranian Supreme Leader received some of the families of the Afghanis killed in Syria. On June 28th, a rally was organized by the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran to honor the martyrs of the “Zeinabiyoun” brigade which consisted of Pakistani Shi’ites recruited and organized by the Quds Force to fight in Syria.
One of the objectives of this campaign is to generate public support for military involvement in Syria and subsequently silence the regime’s factions and officials who criticize and publicly oppose it.
The internal divisions
The staunchest critic of the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards’ increasing military involvement in Syria has been Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Iranian Expediency Council. During a public speech on August 30 2013, Rafsanjani denounced Bashar Assad’s war crimes stating that he has used chemical weapons against his own people. Two days later, during a meeting with a group of Iraqi dignitaries and officials, Rafsanjani once again denounced the Assad regime’s crimes against the Syrian people, a policy that according to Rafsanjani would empower radical Sunni groups and threaten Iranian and Iraqi security.
More recently, in an interview with the Iranian Aftab News published on May 30 2016 Rafsanjani warned of Iran’s untenable involvement in several countries in the region and stated: “now, the Arab and Muslim countries in the region are confronting us and this is a serious challenge that should be addressed. To safeguard our interests, we are currently stuck in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan. Such involvement is difficult to sustain and cannot be abandoned easily either. We are facing a difficult situation in the region and we should resolve it by adopting wise policies.”
More broadly, the so-called moderate and reformist factions voicing their concerns that Iran’s current policies in the region and military involvement in several countries are real obstacles to the government’s efforts in improving diplomatic and economic relations with the West and convincing foreign companies and financial institutions to deal with and invest in Iran’s depleted economy. These factions demand a change in Iranian foreign policy and suggest following the example of the nuclear deal by reaching a comprehensive agreement with the US and regional countries to reduce tensions and resolve the regional crisis.
The Supreme Leader’s choice
In response to these factions, the Iranian Supreme Leader has repeatedly criticized them for being naïve and not understanding the Iranian regime’s interests. During a speech on August 1, 2016, he praised Iran’s influence and position in the region and declared: “In the present time, the Americans are asking us to go and speak to them about regional matters. Well, this experience (nuclear deal) tells us that this is a deadly poison for us.”
The Supreme Leader has repeatedly declared that a failure in Syria and a withdrawal from the region will result in the downfall of Iranian regional policies altogether, a scenario that could weaken the regime’s position inside Iran and threaten its survival. His vision was well illustrated in a notable speech that he gave in the city of Mashhad on March 20 2016 posted on his English website. First he explained the reasoning of the rival factions:
“At this point in time, the policies of arrogance – specifically and in particular, the policies of America deem it necessary to inject a specific thought into the minds of our people: first among the outstanding personalities of society and later on and gradually among public opinion in the country. For example, there are many tumultuous and chaotic situations in the Middle East– in the present time. [They say] we should cooperate, hold meetings and negotiate with America, we should think in the same way that the Americans do and should we choose a model according to the wishes of the Americans or according to America’s agreement… we should abandon our principles so that we can resolve the existing problems and so that the country can consequently benefit from its capacities and turn into, for example, an outstanding economy. This is what they say. An agreement was made on the nuclear issue and we called it the JCPOA. However [they say], there should be another JCPOA in the case of regional events. This is a logic that they are trying to promote among the outstanding personalities of society and among public opinion in society through outstanding personalities.”
The Supreme Leader explained that the Iran-US rapprochement on regional issues means a retreat for the Iranian regime and abandonment of its fundamental principles: “It means that the Islamic Republic should forget about those fundamental issues that it is committed to based on the edict of Islam and its own outstanding guidelines: it should forget about the issue of Palestine, it should forget about supporting the Resistance in the region, and it should stop providing political assistance and support to the oppressed peoples in the region – for example, the people of Palestine, the people of Gaza, the people of Yemen and the people of Bahrain. This means that the Islamic Republic should act in the same way that some regional countries and governments are acting today. Such countries have gotten along with the Zionist regime contrary to the edict of Islam and contrary to the wishes of their own peoples. And they have allowed other issues to overshadow the issue of Palestine.”
He warned that any Iranian retreat from its principles will lead to additional advances by the enemy on other critical issues: “Of course, things do not end here, the Islamic Republic should even forget about its own defense mechanisms. You see what uproar they have created in the world on the issue of our missiles. They will gradually draw the issue towards the reason why the Quds Force and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps have been formed and why the domestic policies of the Islamic Republic should be coordinated with Islam. The matter will come to this! When you retreat in the face of the enemy while you can resist him – later on, I will enlarge on this issue – the enemy will advance. He does not stop. Gradually, he will find the courage to say that our belief that the Islamic Republic’s administration, the Islamic Consultative Majlis and the judiciary branch should work on the basis of Islam and Islamic sharia is against freedom and that liberalism does not believe in this. The matter will gradually come to this.”
It is essential to note that the Supreme Leader’s views are not merely rhetorical but literally translated into direct action including the invasion of the Saudi embassy in Iran, continued military assistance to Yemeni, Palestinian and other radical groups, threats against the regime of Bahrain by the chief commander of the Quds Force, arrests of more Iranian-Americans, additional missile exercises and intensifying anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic policies.
The road ahead
A large number of Iranian analysts see many similarities between the Supreme Leader’s current position on Syrian and regional issues to his stance on the nuclear issue prior to 2012-2013 when the economic sanctions helped cripple the Iranian economy. Ultimately, he was forced to change course and engage in serious negotiations with the US to dramatically curb the nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions. These analysts rightly believe that the Syrian quagmire could eventually force the Iranian regime to change course in Syria and the region altogether.
In addition to the human and financial cost of military presence across the Middle East, Iranian policies have been fueling sectarian tensions. Furthermore, in the absence of an active US role, Israeli and Arab governments who feel threatened by Iran’s hegemonic drive are forcefully confronting Tehran. These growing hostilities against Iran are very costly and will inevitably lead to a situation described by Rafsanjani as “untenable”. Moreover, the Iranian economy is in shambles with Iranian regional policies preventing the integration of economy into the global market in order to relieve economic hardships inside Iran and reduce social and political tensions.
The Supreme Leader’s only hope of overcoming these challenges is a decisive military victory in Syria but the battle of Aleppo demonstrated that the civil war will continue with the negative impacts of the Syrian quagmire continuing to weaken the Iranian regime. Thus, the clock is ticking for Iran until the day that it can no longer continue its on-going involvement. The failure will have a devastating impact on the regime not only regionally but also inside the country, which is the prospect that the Supreme Leader has been repeatedly warning about.
*Hassan Dai is an investigative journalist and political analyst specialized in Iranian regime activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West. He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.