For a country that does not even acknowledge its troops are fighting on the ground in Syria (calling them instead “volunteers”), admitting that it lost 13 commanders in one week is a testament to its deepening involvement and the lack of an immediate exit.
In the last week, the Aleppo battle has accentuated Iran’s losses in the conflict, with 13 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commanders (IRGC) dead, 21 others wounded, and several kidnapped according to the Iranian media. Iran’s total losses in Syria, estimated at 342 soldiers between January 2012 and February 2016, make the Aleppo toll even more staggering, without promising however a shift in its role or offering a glimpse of an exit.
Goals and strategy
Since its involvement in the conflict in 2012, some have projected the Syrian war to turn into Iran’s Vietnam, while others have warned of a Iraqi scenario whereby Tehran would gain the upper hand over matters in Syria as it did in post-Saddam Iraq. The reality today is neither.
While Iran has gained leverage and doubled down its support for the Assad regime, a Iraqi scenario is unlikely because of a stronger anti-Iran/Assad component in Syria. Also, Iran’s intervention is not a quagmire given that the majority of Iranian military investment is rooted in foreign Iraqi, Lebanese, and Afghani militiamen fighting its battles.
Iran’s goals in Syria are defined by keeping the regime afloat, securing weaponry routes to Hezbollah, and expanding a militia presence inside Syria. Despite its losses and rising costs, Tehran is meeting these goals, having built large paramilitary force allied with the regime, and having secured the routes connecting Damascus to the coast and to Hezbollah in the Bekaa valley.
Despite its losses over four years in Syria, there are no signs of Iranian willingness to scale down its role in the conflict. If anything, the visit of Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Assad on the same day that Tehran announced the IRGC casualties last week, is a statement of continuity in supporting the regime and investing in the fighting.
Iran vs. Russia
The Assad-Velyati meeting also stands in contrast with Russia’s messaging on Syria. While Velyati was issuing statements that Assad remaining in power is “Iran’s redline”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov was telling Sputnik that “Bashar Assad is not Moscow's ally like Ankara is to Washington.”
Sources close to Russia have been consistent over the last few months in relaying “frustrations” for Moscow in dealing with Assad. These include his lack of cooperation and violations to the cessation of hostilities reached last February, unwillingness to release detainees from jails, and inability to offer real compromises at the negotiating table in Geneva.
While Iran has gained leverage and doubled down its support for the Assad regime, a Iraqi scenario is unlikely because of a stronger anti-Iran/Assad component in SyriaJoyce Karam
Those sources say that as far back as 2014, Russian officials have told both the United Nations and the United States that they “can counsel Assad but cannot control him.” The Kremlin emphasized that the “relation with Assad the son is different from the father” making the case that with the latter, relations were “deeper, broader and more strategic.”
Indeed, Assad the son has drove his regime closer to Iran and to a level of dependency. Even before the conflict, young Assad allowed the transport of qualitative weaponry to Hezbollah, and received its leader in Damascus, both would have been taboos under the father.
Today, it is Hezbollah’s intervention, and Iranian financial, military and logistical support that constitute the lifeline for the regime. Absent of Russia’s air support, they cannot score large military victories for the regime, but they can keep it going while maintaining a strong influence for Iran in key parts and power circles in Syria.
For Russia, a deal with the United States that safeguards its intelligence and security presence in Syria is an acceptable outcome. Not for Iran, however. Tehran is tactically going for an outright victory and control over Syria through expanding its ground presence in Damascus, near the Golan Heights, and on the full spectrum of the borders while conceivably conceding middle of country for the rebels or the Islamic State (ISIS). That marks the significance of the Aleppo battle as a prelude to Assad’s plan to retake the border areas with Turkey.
While Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry signal agreement on several benchmarks on Syria, hoping to reach a political solution before US President Barack Obama leaves office (January, 2016), the reality on the ground is being driven by Iran, Assad and the rebels.
“Don’t be deceived, there are no near solutions to conflicts in the region”, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah told his supporters last Friday. His statement echoes both Iran’s and Assad’s goals in the Syrian war, whose cost will only climb up as the regime eyes an outright military solution.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam