January 11, 2016 | Monograph
Doubling Down on Damascus: Iran’s Military Surge to Save the Assad Regime
Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war reached new heights in 2015. Alarmed by his regime’s defeats over the previous year – the result of lightning advances by the Islamic State (IS) and increased foreign support for rebel groups – Iran undertook its most brazen endeavor yet to protect its strategic interests in Damascus.
With a recently concluded nuclear deal in hand, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani traveled to Moscow on July 24 to devise a plan to rescue their besieged ally. The joint offensive, which began in October, has focused on retaking territories in northwestern and southern Syria from Sunni rebels. Under the cover of Russian airstrikes, hundreds of IRGC ground forces joined Lebanese Hezbollah and expanded Shiite Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani militias on the frontlines to augment the regime’s depleted army. During this period, Iran also increased the quantity and quality of arms it provided to Damascus via its national carriers and Russian military planes.
Since the beginning of the offensive, Iranian casualties have increased sharply, averaging more than one fatality per day. To date, 137 IRGC members have been killed, the most significant of them General Hossein Hamedani, Iran’s top commander in Syria, on October 7. Following this high rate of attrition, Iran began winding down its surge in December by withdrawing most of its 2,000-strong force from the combat zones.
Although Iran has paid a high price in blood and treasure for its increased involvement, it has apparently won foreign acquiescence to its role in the country. In a major Western policy reversal, Iran was invited to join international peace talks for Syria weeks after the offensive began. Regrettably, however, Iranian participation will prove counterproductive to resolving the conflict, as Tehran appears committed to preserving Assad’s rule to the very end.
With the renewed urgency of fighting the Islamic State in recent months, the United States must recognize that destroying IS on the ground requires the support of Sunni rebels currently preoccupied with fighting the Syrian regime. To remove Assad from the equation, Washington and its partners must deprive him of his main source of support. Instead of cooperating with Iran for an elusive diplomatic solution, therefore, the United States and Europe should make Iran’s engagement in Syria as costly as possible.
This report documents the various forms of Iranian assistance to Assad and how that support increased in the final months of 2015. It recommends that the United States and its European allies use their economic leverage to target Iranian airline carriers, the IRGC, and Tehran’s proxy militias, while simultaneously increasing their support for Sunni rebel groups by creating safe zones and providing more training and equipment. These efforts will assume greater importance as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is implemented in early 2016, which will lift the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran and enable it to expand its operations abroad. Finally, it argues that the best way to bring an end to the conflict is for the United States to commit itself to pursuing a Syria without Assad or his Iranian backers.