Qasem Soleimani (left, holding microphone) talks to Hezbollah operatives, probably in the region of Latakia, Syria (Facebook, October 13, 2015).
Iranian Intervention in Syria
- In the past weeks Iran has increased its IRGC forces in Syria as part of its deploying to support the Syrian army and Hezbollah forces in the large ground offensive initiated by the Assad regime in the northwestern part of the country. On October 13, 2015, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that on October 12, 2015, Iran sent the first group of IRGC forces to join the Syrian army and Hezbollah forces in a large-scale action to restore Syrian regime control in the northwestern part of the country. The objective of the ground offensive's first stage is to restore Syrian control of the countryside around the cities of Hama, Homs and Idlib, and then for the Syrian army to reach the border with Turkey and join several Kurdish YPG units. According to Al-Akhbar, Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani went to northwestern Syria on October 11, 2015, to supervise the ground offensive. The social networks posted a video and recent pictures of Soleimani in Syria with Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi'ite militiamen, who were sent to Syria to reinforce the fighters battling on the side of the Syrian regime.
- The Western media (Reuters, The Guardian and AP) also reported a significant reinforcement of Iran fighters in Syria. Iran denied the reports. Last week Hossein Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab-African affairs, said Iran had not sent soldiers to Syria but rather a group of "military advisors" experienced in fighting terrorism, in accordance with a request from the Syrian government. However, he confirmed that Iran had increased the number of its "military advisors" in Syria, as requested by the Syrian regime, to help in the "struggle against terrorism" (ISNA, October 15, 2015; Tabnak, October 20, 2015). The Iranian foreign ministry also denied reports about Iranian forces having being sent to Syria. The foreign ministry said in a statement that no change had been made in Iran's collaboration with Syria, which was intended to "support Syria in its struggle against terrorism" (ISNA, October 16, 2015).
- During a recent visit recently to Syria and Lebanon, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Majlis Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, also mentioned the Iranian presence in Syria. He met with President Bashar Assad, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. At a press conference in Damascus he said that if Syria asked Iran to send Iranian ground forces to Syria, Iran would consider the request (Fars News Agency and Tasnim News, October 15, 2015).
- Iran has paid a high price for its involvement in the ground offensive in northwestern Syria. Since the death on October 8, 2015 of Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, one of the IRGC's highest-ranking commanders and a senior military advisor, at least five other IRGC officers and ten fighters have been killed.
- On October 12, 2015, two IRGC colonels were killed. They were Farshad Hasounizadeh, a former commander of the Saberin Brigade, and Hamid Mokhtarband, former commander of the IRGC brigade in Ahvaz (Shaheed News, October 13, 2015). They were buried in Khuzestan on October 17, 2015 (Shaheed News, October 17, 2015). Saberin is an IRGC special forces brigade established in 1998 as a rapid response force to threats along Iran's borders.
- On October 17, 2015, Moslem Khizab, a former commander of Zahra Battalion of the 14th Imam Hossein Brigade was killed in Isfahan (IBNA, October 18, 2015). He was buried in Isfahan on October 20, 2015.
- In addition, two junior officers serving in the IRGC's 8th Armored Brigade were killed. They were Hassan Ahmadi and Komeil Ghorbani, and at least nine other fighters. They were Rasoul Pour-Morad from the city of Qazvin, Mehdi Alidoust from Qom, Nader Hamidi from Khuzestan (reports differ as to whether he was killed in Quneitra or Aleppo), Reza Damroudi from Sabzevar (killed in al-Hasakah), Mohammad Estehkami Jahromi (from the IRGC's 33rd Special Forces Brigade), and two operatives of the Basij from Hamedan, Mojtaba Karami and Majid Sanei. Also killed were Abdollah Baqeri (who formerly served as a bodyguard for President Ahmadinejad), Amin Karimi and Reza Khavari (a senior operative in the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a brigade of Afghans fighting in the service of the IRGC).
- The relatively large number of Iranians killed, among them officers, indicates that in all probability IRGC operatives are fighting in the front lines of the ground offensive in northwestern Syria.
- With increasing Iranian involvement in Syria, senior Iranian officials stressed Iran's commitment to continue its support of the Assad regime.On October 11, 2015, Ali-Akbar Velayati, advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and head of the Center for Strategic Studies in the Iranian Expediency Council, told ISNA that as far as Iran was concerned, Bashar Assad was considered by Iran as a "red line" and even the West could not suggest a replacement for him. He stressed that there would be no resolution of the crisis in Syria without Iranian involvement. Velayati called the Russian military offensive in Syria "important and strategic," saying that the aerial umbrella Russia gave the Syrian regime was necessary for the struggle against terrorism.
- Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Iranian Expediency Council, said that for Iran there was no difference between the Iranian and Syrian borders. On the margins of the funeral held for Hossein Hamedani, Rezaei said that it was Iran's duty to defend Islam and Muslims because Iran saw no difference between Iran and Syria. He added that Iran's security could not be ensured within its borders alone, because its security was linked to that of the entire region (Fars News Agency and Asr-e Iran, October 11, 2015).
- Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, said that Syria was the front line of Islam against "global arrogance and the Zionist regime" in the Middle East and that the security of Western Asia depended on Syria and the resistance front. During the funeral ceremony held for Hossein Hamedani, Jafari said that the United States sought to topple the Syrian regime in order to extend its influence to the Muslim states in the Middle East. He said that in the coming days Syria would witness "a great victory" (Tabnak, October 12, 2015).
- As opposed to the official Iranian position in favor of Russian military intervention in Syria, on October 15, 2015, the reform daily newspaper Shargh published an article by Mohammad Ali Sobhani, former director general for Middle East affairs in the Iranian foreign ministry. Sobhani claimed that the Russian operation was not entirely in accordance with Iranian interests. He said that Russia had always acted exclusively in its own interest, ignoring the interests of others, and that even during the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Western powers Russia had not exploited its position to reinforce Iran's stance. He warned that a coalition of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Russia might be met with resistance by Arab states and could damage Iran's international and regional standing. He said that before the Russian offensive in Syria Moscow had consulted with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which could indicate coordination among them. The presence of Russia in Syria, he said, was liable to be at Iran's expense, which would be well received by Israel, which had close relations with Russia. Sobhani therefore recommended that Iran be careful in its approach regarding Russian involvement in Syria, and ensure that it did not harm Iran's national interests.
- At this stage there is no evidence for specific differences of opinion within the Iranian regime concerning Iranian intervention in Syria. However, increasing IRGC intervention may create disputes between the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the IRGC over Iran's strategy in Syria, especially if Iranian intervention continues take a high human and economic toll.
- On October 20, 2015, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir published new information about the coordination between Iran, Russia and Syria which predated the Russian offensive in Syria. According to the paper, the three countries began consulting during the nuclear talk in Vienna. The Iranians warned the Russians that despite Iranian efforts to support the Syrian regime, the Syrian army was weakening and suffered from a severe fuel shortage. At the end of the spring of 2015 Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sent an envoy to Moscow, who apparently convinced Russian President Putin to intervene militarily in Syria. However, Putin asked for more time to discuss the operational aspects. To that end Khamenei sent Qasem Soleimani on a covert mission to Moscow, where on July 26, 2015, he met in the Kremlin with President Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu and senior Russian army officers. They viewed maps of the deployment of the various forces operating in Syria and decided that Iranian and Russian officers would review developments in the arena in coordination with the Syrian army.
- During the summer of 2015 Syria, Russia and Iran held intensive consultations, mainly at the military level, which included visits of Syrian delegations to Moscow, Russian delegations to Damascus, and the exchange of information between Tehran and Moscow. The final decision about Russian intervention in Syria was made in the middle of August at a meeting of the Russian Supreme National Security Council chaired by President Putin. The meeting authorized the suggestion of the Russian Chief of Staff to increase Russian forces in Syria and to begin an aerial campaign. Putin said that Soleimani had promised him an increase in the Iranian presence alongside the Syrian army and assured him that the ground offensive would be significant. Putin said all the actions would be directed by the ministry of defense in Moscow, but that there would be direct communications between the operation rooms in Syria and Moscow, via Russian military satellite. The Russian forces in Syria would take orders from the operation room in Syria, where Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah officers would coordinate military moves. He said another operation room would be established in Baghdad with the participation of Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and Russian officers, who would share information about the terrorist groups operating in the region.
Iranian Intervention in Lebanon
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in Tehran, said that Iran had always supported the Lebanese government, the Lebanese people and the "resistance," and that it was committed to continuing its support. Rouhani said that Lebanon was at the front line of the resistance to the Israeli occupation and that the "Zionist regime" was the source of all the regional problems. Iran, he said, wanted to preserve Lebanon's unity, territorial integrity and security (IRNA, October 18, 2015). Foreign Minister Bassil also met with Ali-Akbar Velayati, advisor to the Supreme Leader for international affairs. Velayati told him that Iran and Lebanon shared common ground concerning Syria and objected to foreign intervention in the Middle East. He said that the path of resistance to the "Zionist regime" and terrorism began in Iran and continued from there to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He added that there was no difference between terrorists committing crimes in the name of Islam against Muslims and non-Muslims and between Zionists, because both were enemies of humanity and Islam (Mehr News Agency, October 19, 2015).
Iranian Intervention in Iraq
- According to a report published in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar about the deployment of IRGC forces in Syria, Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani paid a visit to the city of Baiji in Iraq before going to Syria. The objective of the visit was apparently to coordinate the recently-begun operation to liberate the city from ISIS.
- In the meantime, the social networks posted recent pictures of Iranian developed BMP-1 APCs used by Iraqi Shi'ite militias near Baiji.
Iranian Intervention in Yemen and the Gulf States
- A Yemeni delegation arrived in Tehran on October 14, 2015, to meet with senior Iranian officials. The delegation was composed of representatives from the Yemeni Ba'ath Party, the Socialist Party and the Ansarollah (Shi'ite Houthis) (Alef, October 14, 2015). Another Yemeni delegation, composed of members of the Yemeni Supreme Revolutionary council (established by the Houthis in February 2015 after they took control of the capital city of Sanaa) paid a visit to Tehran at the beginning of October and discussed recent developments in Yemen in view of the Saudi Arabian attacks.
- Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, interviewed by the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Ra'i, denied an Iranian connection to the terrorist cell recently exposed in Kuwait. He said Iran had said a number of times that it did not intervene in the internal affairs of regional countries (Fars News Agency, August 14, 2015). His declarations came in the wake of an announcement made by the Kuwaiti attorney general at the beginning of September about the trial of 25 Kuwaiti and Iranian nationals accused of possessing weapons and explosives for carrying out terrorist attacks in Kuwait and of spying for Iran and Hezbollah.
Iranian Intervention in the Palestinian Arena
- On October 13, 2015, a conference was held in Tehran in support of the Palestinian struggle in Jerusalem. It was attended by Khaled Qadoumi, Hamas' representative in Tehran; Naser Abu-Sharim, PIJ representative in Tehran; and Hossein Sheikh ol-Islam, secretary general of the "Committee to Support Intifada and Jerusalem" and advisor to the Majlis (Iranian parliament) chairman in international affairs. The conference discussed the recent escalation in Jerusalem. Sheikh ol-Islam gave a speech in which he said that the "current intifada" was a golden opportunity to restore the issue of Palestine to the top of the Muslim world's agenda. He quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, who said that "the fate of Islam will be decided in Palestine" (Fars News Agency, October 13, 2015).