June 10, 2015 | NOW Lebanon
Tehran’s Siamese Twins
“[I]n the next few days, the world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are currently preparing,” Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force, reportedly stated from Syria last week. Soleimani’s comments were part of an Iranian propaganda blitz, which included statements by other Iranian officials affirming commitment to the Assad regime, and a flurry of reports about Iran's intention to send Iraqi Shiite fighters, and possibly Iranian troops, to fight in Syria.
The Iranian move comes in response to severe losses that the Assad regime has recently suffered on the battlefield. Analysts are split over what to make of these losses. On one side stand those who are predicting the nearing end of the Assad regime. On the other are those who are more optimistic about the regime’s chances. The truth lies between these two. The Iranians are pursuing Plan B: securing a protectorate in western Syria, an area contiguous with the territory in Lebanon controlled by Tehran’s client, Hezbollah.
Soleimani’s grandiose claims of an imminent “surprise” aside, the Iranians’ primary objective is not to reverse the losses suffered by Assad. Rather, it is about retrenchment. Reports of the Assad regime’s manpower problems are now as numerous as they are credible. Publicizing the imminent arrival of thousands of soldiers and militiamen from outside Syria only underscores the acute manpower problem in the Iranian camp. The reported figures for this force vary from 20,000 or 15,000 fighters, to 7,000, which is likely the most realistic one.
Despite the calls by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, for total mobilization of the Lebanese Shiites, there has been no suggestion that the new force will contain a Hezbollah contingent. Clearly, the organization is already stretched too thin.
It is perhaps significant that Soleimani made his announcement regarding reinforcements while he was visiting the Alawite heartland of Syria. The move reinforced the perception, inside Syria and out, that the Alawite enclave, much like southern Iraq, is essentially an Iranian province — under Soleimani’s authority as much as Assad’s. Indeed, Soleimani has openly assumed a command role, and taken it upon himself to speak on behalf of the regime.
What function will the new force perform? Its strategic goal is to preserve the Assad regime in an enclave that would include Damascus, the corridor up to Homs, straddling the Lebanese border, and the coastal mountain region around Latakia. Some analysts are describing this plan as preserving ‘useful’ or ‘vital’ Syria. This description is not entirely wrong but it misses a key point; namely, the Iranian role in the project. Far more important to Tehran than the inclusion of, say, Aleppo, is the maintenance of territorial contiguity with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.
In the eyes of Tehran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime are Siamese twins sharing vital organs. Separating them from each other will result in the death of both.
In order to secure communication routes and strategic entry points into the Syrian enclave, the Iranians must create a buffer zone around it. In the last two years, the regime and its allies had succeeded in pushing east of the coastal mountains in the central plain, and had linked Homs, Hama and Idlib. Now that the Assad regime has lost most of Idlib, the northern gateway to the coastal mountains—the Alawite heartland—and the buffer of the Ghab Plain to its east, have become vulnerable.
But the northern front is not the only worry. The Iranians must also secure Damascus. Their much-vaunted attempt earlier this year to expand the perimeter south of the capital city and to drive down to the border with Jordan and Israel has failed. What is more, Amman, wary of the Iranian presence near its border, helped the rebels push back the IRGC and their militias in Daraa Governorate. So, it’s most likely that the other bulk of the incoming Shiite fighters would be deployed to shore up the capital’s defenses and to fortify the lines leading into it from northern Daraa and Quneitra. The fall of the 52nd Armored Brigade base in Daraa on Tuesday underscores the regime’s vulnerability. Indeed, a Syrian security source emphasized that the first priority was the defense of the capital — a revealing admission about the precariousness of the regime’s position in Damascus.
Soleimani’s new fighters will mostly be Iraqis, as the security source confirmed. But, according to other reports, they might also include some Afghans. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is tasked with trying to clear the Qalamoun hills, thereby protecting the corridor from Damascus to Homs, and the border with Lebanon. The group is the principal fighting force there.
What this means, in sum, is that the defense of the capital and the critical points of the regime enclave is now almost entirely in the hands of the Iranians and their militias — who are also under severe pressure in Iraq, where even with the aid of the US Air Force they are hard pressed to roll back the Islamic State. Their ability to expand much more beyond the enclave’s perimeter is dubious.
All of this raises an acute question about American foreign policy. Is this really the right moment to provide Iran with a massive cash infusion? The Iranian system is under strain. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the United States to exacerbate the strain rather than relieve it?
Instead, the Obama administration is helping sustain the Iranian regional project.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.