Iran has taken command inside Syria and is maneuvering to create a new leadership structure; in the meantime Assad’s regime has crumbled to merely a façade. Evidence of this can be found most obviously in the 9 January prisoner swap between opposition and regime forces, as well as in the increased role Iran has recently been playing in military planning and operations.
For over six months now, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been both overseeing and directly taking part in the regimes battles against the armed opposition Louay Moqdad, Free Syrian Army spokesperson tells NOW. Iranian military advisors, he says, have formed joint operation rooms with regime forces to provide tactical and logistical support.
“Hessam Khoshnevis, or Commander Hassan Shateri, killed inside Syria two weeks ago, was a military engineer,” said Moqdad. “He was an Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander operating inside Syria. The IRGC are also providing the newly-formed National Army with Basij-like training and expanding it to include elements from the security apparatuses, police forces, and Shabiha. Their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, has also joined forces.”
According to Moqdad, for the past two months, the regime has been withdrawing its ground forces from Homs, Zabadani, and Qusair towards Damascus, paving the way for Hezbollah forces to take their place, and signaling a weakening of the regime. “The recent battles in Qusair between Hezbollah and rebels are coordinated directly from the newly-formed joint operation rooms. The Iranians oversee the operations and the regime provides them with air cover,” says Moqdad.
Basil Haffar, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, corroborates Moqdad’s report. He tells NOW that Tehran has significantly increased its military presence inside Syria; high ranking Iranian officials have taken the lead logistically in Damascus and Homs. Haffar also says that defense factories in Sfireh, east of Aleppo, which produce the now-famous TNT barrel bombs, are now being run solely by Iranian experts.
“Iranians have become directly involved in the battle against Syria’s opposition,” he says. “The first prisoners swap to occur since the beginning of the crisis occurred between rebels on one side and Iranians on another, not regime forces.”
Here, Haffar is referring to the incident last summer, in which Syrian rebels kidnapped 48 Iranians in Homs who they said were Revolutionary Guard fighters, but who authorities in Tehran described as pilgrims. They were released this year in a prisoner swap with Syrian authorities in exchange for 2, 130 opposition prisoners. In the case of this exchange, the privileging of Iranian prisoners over Syrian regime fighters shows the extent to which Iran now pulls the strings of the Assad regime.
Further, Iran is building a sectarian Alawite- and Shia-majority militia, Ammar Abdulhamid, a pro-democracy Syrian activist based in Washington DC, and the head of the Tharwa Foundation, tells NOW. Abdulhamid believes this new militia will seek to maintain old alliances with minority communities, loyalist Sunni clans and groups, while attempting to forge new ones in the future among potential ‘rogue’ rebel units who would be more interested in carving out turf for themselves than in the fate of the country.
“At this stage,” adds Abdulhamid, “Assad is a mere placeholder. Despite the all-too-real cult of personality that surrounds Assad in the ranks of the Alawite community, this does not ensure his long-term survival. Iran eventually wants a group that will be beholden to [it] first, not to Assad,” says Abdulhamid.
Iran’s continued support for the Syrian regime has made it clear that its politicians realize that any immediate regime change in Syria would prove detrimental to their interests. Recent remarks by Iranian officials confirm this. Following the Israeli strike in January on Syrian targets, advisor to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Akbar Velayati threatened Israel with retaliation on Syria’s behalf. Iranian official Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, who heads the Ammar Strategic Base, later stressed Syria’s strategic importance to Iran and declared it its “35th province.”
Syrian opposition member and Associate Professor at Shawnee State University Amr al-Azm believes that at this stage, Iran aims to remain relevant to the developments in Syria at least until the proposed 2014 elections.
“Iran wants a regime with strong Iranian ties to survive, [but] not necessarily [helmed by] Assad himself,” says Azm. “The regime can survive; they now have soldiers that are well-trained, very significant power resources, [chemical and biological weapons], and the Iranians and Russians on their side. So, even if they don’t survive intact as a state in charge of Syria, and if the state disintegrates and different groups run different areas in the country, the remnants of the regime are in a very good position [to retain power].”
Azm also points out that the conflict in Syria has turned into a proxy war between Iran and the regime on one side, and Arab states and Turkey on the other. He sees the recent transfers of weapons aim to create a balance between the different regional powers. Azm, referring to recent reports of Saudi Arabia arming rebels, believes that the Kingdom aims to bypass the jihadist groups present in Aleppo and in the northern part of Syria.
“The Saudis, along with other western countries, namely Britain, are supporting the brigades present in Damascus and south, all the way to Daraa, whereas the middle strip between Aleppo and the northern border is being controlled and influenced by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The battles are just as much against each of these proxies as they are against the regime and Iran,” says Al-Azm.
Read this article in Arabic