October 23, 2015 | The Arab Weekly
The IRGC’s New Deployment Pattern
The October 7th death of Brigadier-General Hossein Hamedani, the most senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander killed in the Syrian war, underlines Iran’s growing military involvement in the conflict.
This has taken place in tandem with Russia’s military intervention, a major build-up by the two powers that are the most important allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime and one that was planned several months ago.
The most important aspect of the Iranian deployment is that it involves regular IRGC ground troops rather than just units of the IRGC’s expeditionary wing, al-Quds Force.
This marks a much more extensive deployment by the Tehran regime, which has strategic interests in keeping Assad in power and demonstrated Tehran’s concern that the Damascus regime had been near collapse, unable to replace heavy combat losses, defections and draft-dodging.
This trend is illustrated by the growing death toll among Iranian forces and field commanders. Hamedani, for instance, was not an al-Quds Force commander but a senior officer in the IRGC’s regular ground forces.
Hamedani’s service in the IRGC can be traced back to the suppression of the separatist movement in Iranian Kurdistan in 1979, establishment of the 32nd Ansar al-Hossein Division of Hamadan province, and command of the 16th Quds Division of Gilan province — not to be confused with al- Quds Force — during the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
After the war, for a time, Hamedani served as commander of the IRGC’s Najaf Ashraf base in Kermanshah province in north-western Iran and as deputy chief of the Basij Resistance Force.
Most remarkably, Hamedani, in his capacity as commander of the Mohammad Rasoul-Allah Division, which is responsible for security in Greater Tehran province, suppressed the widespread anti-government rallies in the capital following the June 2009 presidential election that was widely seen as fraudulent.
According to IRGC commander Major-General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, it was that experience that qualified Hamedani for “voluntarily moving to the region in 2011” to advise the Syrian government when protests against Assad erupted.
It was during Hamedani’s watch that the Basij organised its so-called Imam Hossein brigades with the primary mission of subduing urban unrest and anti-government rallies. Jafari disclosed that in Syria Hamedani organised similar “people’s armies” to try to ensure the survival of the regime.
In other words, Hamedani had a solid record in the IRGC’s ground forces, had never served in IRGC al-Quds Force prior to his mission in Syria in 2011 but was the highest ranking IRGC field commander in that country.
The full extent of the IRGC ground forces involvement in Syria is not known following persistent reports that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Iranian troops have been sent to Syria.
Tehran has made no announcement on this issue and it has every reason to play down Iran’s mounting losses in a civil war in which it claims it is not directly involved.
However, a survey of 137 identified Iranian citizens killed in combat in Syria since January 2013 shows an increasing number of IRGC ground force commanders.
Since June, combat deaths include Captain Hamed Javani of the East Azerbaijan Ashoura Division, killed in action in Idlib province on June 26th. On July 13th, Colonel Qassem Gharib, deputy commander of the Neynava Division, was killed near Palmyra in central Syria.
On August 30th, Ahmad Hayari, commander of the Shoush Basij Imam Hossein Brigade, was killed in Latakia, a regime stronghold in the north-west where Russian forces are based. These are just some of the regular IRGC fatalities in 2015.
Shortly after Hamedani’s death, General Hamid Mokhtarband, chief of the Ahwaz-based Hazrat-e Hojjat Armoured Brigade’s Combat Team, and Farshad Hassounizadeh, his chief of staff, were killed in combat.
The pattern in IRGC fatalities provides indications of a new Iranian military deployment in Syria.
Al-Quds Force, the IRGC’s expeditionary arm, which is active in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, is relatively small — about 15,000 men. In the wake of mounting al-Quds Force casualties in regional conflicts, the IRGC has had to deploy its regular Ground Forces to Syria to bolster al-Quds Force contingent.
This emerging deployment pattern in turn is rapidly changing the characteristics of the IRGC itself as it blurs the differences between the missions of the IRGC’s ground forces, whose primary task is to protect the Iranian homeland against external enemies and the regime against domestic opponents, and that of the Quds Force, which handles operations, invariably clandestine in nature, outside Iran.
This means that, in effect, the Syrian war is transforming the entire IRGC into an expeditionary force. This is likely to increase IRGC military interventions in the Middle East in the future and suggests that more Iranian forces could be deployed in Syria.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Alfoneh