By Iran Review
By Hossein Bozorgmanesh*
More than four years after the beginning of the ongoing crisis in Syria, which has led to enormous human casualties and destruction of the country’s infrastructure while causing millions of people to flee their homes, the United States and Western countries have finally made two strategic decisions. Firstly, they are not insisting on Syrian President Bashar Assad to immediately relinquish power anymore and, secondly, they have invited Iran, as one of the powerful actors in Syria developments, to take part in the latest talks on Syria in Vienna, which was aimed at finding a solution to the crisis in the Arab country. Major factors that can be enumerated as having influenced the attitude of the United States and European countries about Iran’s role in the Syria crisis include such instances as the resistance of the Syrian government in the face of the opposition; the rising tide of refugees, mostly Syrian, toward European countries; as well as Russia’s military intervention in Syria; failure of such projects as enforcing a no-fly zone over border regions of Syria; failure of the US plan to train and arm Syrian opposition; and disappointing performance of the anti-Daesh coalition, which is led by the United States.
However, the question is what role is Iran playing in Syria and what factors have caused the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) to succeed, despite the depth and scope of the Syria crisis, in providing Syrian government with advisory services, make militant groups withdraw from the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and help Syrian government hold its grip over relatively vast parts of the country in a guerrilla warfare?
The answer to this question can be sought in the valuable experience that the IRGC gained during domestic clashes in Iran’s Kordestan Province. Those clashes, which were in fact the first war between Iran’s armed forces and armed secessionist groups, can be considered as the first experience of the IRGC in engaging in an asymmetric and guerrilla war. That bloody war inside the country provided valuable experiences to the IRGC and its top commanders, including General Qasem Soleimani, and General Hossein Hamedani, who later used those experiences in Syria in view of special cultural and geographical conditions in that country. A few instances of key strategies used by Iranian commanders in Syria are as follows:
1. When fighting against terrorist and militant groups, coordination between armed forces and other governmental institutions is of special importance. Iran has succeeded to not only transfer its experiences to Syria in this regard, but also create suitable coordination and solidarity among Syria’s army, volunteer forces and other groups.
2. One of the most important advisory services provided to Syria by Iran was Tehran’s emphasis on differentiation between civilians and armed opposition. The goal of this policy was to inflict the lowest degree of casualties and damage on civilians in the war zones. Implementation of this policy by Iran in the Kordestan war played a key role in ending the crisis in Kurdish regions. Unlike Iran, countries like Iraq and Turkey have adopted a scorched land policy in the face of this issue and have been grappling with the consequences of this incorrect policy up to the present day.
3. The Syrian army was facing two major problems in its fight against militant groups. Firstly, the Syrian army had been trained to engage in classic war, not guerrilla warfare, and secondly, after the army purged a region of militant elements and left those regions, they were attacked again by armed opposition groups and were re-occupied by them. However after the establishment of voluntary forces in Syria, which was carried out through taking advantage of the IRGC’s experience and advices and based on the model of Iran’s Basij and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, a large number of Syrians practically entered the Syria war in the form of fighting battalions. Syria’s volunteer forces have been active in such areas as defense, offence and consolidation of areas retaken from militant groups and as such, have assumed a large part of the responsibility that should have been shouldered by the Syrian army.
4. The area of psychological warfare is considered as one of the most important areas of any guerrilla warfare. In this area, Iran has designed and implemented psychological war schemes, which address friendly forces, domestic enemies, ordinary people as well as regional and transregional powers. In doing this Iran made a great effort to manage the mentality of its addressees.
5. In the political field, Iran not only supports Assad remaining in power, but also backs political reforms in Syria and believes that if a charismatic figure like Assad is deposed from power, this will practically weaken the morale of the Syrian armed forces and, finally lead to collapse of the Syrian government.
6. Iran has also taken part in designing and implementing military operations in rural, urban and border areas of Syria as well as along primary and secondary roads according to the formula of offensive (sudden attack, pursuit, blockade, taking advantage of fire support), and defensive (purging militants followed by establishment of stability and security in region) operations. The final stage is normalization of critical areas by transferring control of the war zone to military and paramilitary forces, restoring local officials to their posts, and reducing security measures.
Despite all problems and complexities in the Syrian civil war, which are the result of violent and unprofessional behavior of Syrian army and security forces in the early stages of the crisis as well as the widespread intervention by regional countries in the Syrian civil war, the presence of the Islamic Republic in that country can be assessed as very successful. This is true because if Iran had not intervened and Damascus had fallen into the hands of radical groups, this development would have been followed by large-scale ethnic cleansing of Alawites, Christians and other religious groups of Syria by religious radicals, finally leading to total disintegration of Syria.
* Hossein Bozorgmanesh
Expert on Middle East Issues