Who is fighting in Syria on the side of Iran?

With the militants and the opposition in Syria, not only the local army is at war. And it’s not just about Russia’s aerospace forces – the Iranian paramilitary forces have long ago established themselves in the Arab Republic for a long time. What tasks are they doing there?

Iran, like Israel, prefers to achieve its goals in the most economical way. If it is possible to achieve goal by financial means, it will use only them. If it comes to a military conflict, the military advisors first go to the hot spot. The servicemen of the country take part in hostilities only in the most exceptional cases, and, as a rule, these are the soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), not the regular army.

The followers of Shi’ism live in various Muslim countries, but on the whole their number is small – only about 15 percent of all followers of the Prophet. This state is compelled to seek allies in the region among the most diverse Middle Eastern sects. One of them is the current of the Alawites, or, as they are also called by the founder’s name, Nuseirith. In 1973, a prominent Iranian theologian Musa Sadr (later creating the Lebanese Shiite movement “Amal”) issued a fatwa stating that Alawites should be considered Shiite Muslims.

But Hafez Assad, who came to power in 1970, was just an Alawite, and he needed to legitimize his military coup in the eyes of the Sunnis, who make up the overwhelming majority of the country. In the third article of the Syrian Constitution adopted in 1973, it was stated that the president of the country should be a Muslim. Thanks to the fatwa, which makes the Alawites Muslims (albeit Shiites), Assad managed to match this point. The displacement of the regime of Bashar Assad (son of Hafez) would mean the end of Iranian influence in the country. The militants of the Sunni groups fighting against the official Damascus are guided by the monarchies of the Persian Gulf or Turkey, where they receive monetary and military aid. And for Iran, in such situations, there is simply no place.

After the outbreak of hostilities in Syria, the Iranian leadership denied the fact that Iran’s citizens are at war in Syria. All the support, they said, was limited to “moral and financial”. However, in September 2012, the brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, admitted that his men are in Syria.

Iran does not build new military bases on Syrian territory, but uses and expands existing ones. Ksirists use Syrian infrastructure in almost all provinces of the country. The greatest concentration of Iranian forces is in the region of Damascus. In addition to the personnel, there are warehouses with Iranian weapons, electronic intelligence centers, UAVs and so on at the bases. Some of the Syrian bases are shared by Iranians with Russian specialists. Thus, in early April, the Israeli Air Force fired a missile strike at the T4 airbase, where Iranian UAVs are based, but in addition to them, Russian Ka-52 combat helicopters and personnel are also present. Then as a result of the attack at least seven fighters and officers of the IRGC were killed.

An example of one of the large units is Kharakat Hezbollah al-Nudjaba, a Shiite paramilitary group established in 2013 in Iraq. This is one of the first groupings that began sending their fighters to fight in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. The group is openly receiving weapons and material assistance from Iran, including the military advisers of the IRGC.

In 2015, Hezbollah al-Nudjaba played one of the key roles in the battles in the southeast of Aleppo. At the moment the grouping is divided into four teams: “Liva al-Hammad”, “Liva Ammin ibn Yasser”, “Liva Imam al-Hassan Mutjab” and “Liberation Brigade of the Golan”. The creation of the latter in March 2017 caused Israel special concern, since the faction intends to release the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel.

“Liva Fatimiyun” was established in 2014. It includes Afghan Shiites, who recruit fighters throughout Afghanistan and among refugees. They are under the full management of the IRGC, which teaches, arms and finances them. “Lebanon Fatimiyun” fought on almost all fronts of the Syrian war and with all the factions opposing Damascus.

“Liva Zainabiyun” is formed from Shiite-Pakistanis, who live not only in Pakistan, but also in Iran. “Zainabiyun” fights along with “Fatimiyun” and reports to the IRGC. This Shiite grouping participated along with the Syrian units and Fatimiyun in the attack on the Koneco field. Then, as a result of the response from the coalition forces of Western countries, Russian employees of the Wagner PMC were killed.

Separately interesting is the personality of Kassem Suleymani. As a major general of the IRGC, he commands the Quds unit, which performs the tasks set by the Iranian leadership abroad. He is the curator of all units controlled by Iran. Under the direct leadership of Sulejmani, various operations are planned in Syria. According to some reports, one of his tasks after the arrival in the country in 2012 was the continuation of the armed boBattles in the event of the fall of the Assad regime. Suleymani also organized a series of operations against militants of the “Islamic state” in Iraq. Opponents of the official Damascus use the image of Kassem Suleymani in their propaganda. Militants say that thanks to the power of the Shiite fighters led by Suleymani, he is the real master of Syria, and not President Bashar Asad. On the whole, the factions differ little from each other. Each of them is assigned a military adviser from the officers, the same “Hezbollah” or “Sil Quds” (an arm of the IRGC), which are engaged in training and arming the militants. The operations are planned by the IRGC officers. Pro-Iranian groups are located in all the provinces of Syria – from Aleppo to Dara and from Damascus to Deir ez-Zor. At the moment, they are concentrated on the most difficult areas in Damascus, where fighting was fought for East Ghouta and clashes occurred for the Yarmuk refugee camp, as well as for the north of Idlib, where the besieged Shiite villages of Fua and Kefrai are located. Experts estimate that up to 30,000 different pro-Iranian militants are now in Syria. Iran has forced internal conditions to create such an extensive network of mercenaries. By 2016, the number of Iranian soldiers in Syria has reached 2,500. Spending on Shiite mercenaries in Syria amounts to tens of millions of dollars a year, which is quite costly for a country under sanctions. Although initially the motivation was different: the militants arrived in Syria, responding to the call of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei to protect Shiite shrines. A huge number of mercenaries are unlikely to be dissolved after the end of hostilities against jihadists in Syria. Already, some militants remain in Syria and carry out police functions in the region. In addition, in the east of the country there is considerable tension: the union of Kurdish and Arab groups “Democratic forces of Syria” (not without the help of a coalition led by the US) took control of the majority of oil and gas fields. These circumstances do not suit the official Damascus and its allies. This is evidenced as there were numerous skirmishes on the contact line, in which both Russian and Iranian mercenaries died. To destabilize the situation on the territories controlled by the “Democratic Forces”, the pro-Iranian formations created a sabotage and reconnaissance group called “People’s Resistance Forces.” It positions itself as an instrument of struggle against the invaders of the Syrian territories, implying coalition forces and Kurdish militants from the SDF. NSS conducted a number of operations, including against the US military, firing at their base. The creation of such groups, along with the large number of Shiite fighters remaining in Syria, fits well into the concept of creating Iran in other countries Shiite networks working more on Tehran than on local authorities. An extensive grouping network, clearly controlled from Tehran and operating in Iranian interests , allowed the regime of the ayatollahs to establish control over Syria and de facto turn it into a colony. Concern of  the US and Israel about this issue is understandable: Iran continues to play an active game in the Middle East and, quite possibly, will try to include some other countries in the region in its orbit.