The number of shell attacks, airstrikes and bombings has escalated in Syria in the last few months, particularly in the suburbs of Damascus. The most recent incident included a chemical attack on the city of Douma, where many civilians choked to death. The deaths of women and children were confirmed by medical personnel and rescue groups.
The attack appears to be part of a larger operation and a months-long offensive by the Syrian regime to retake Eastern Ghouta. So far, more than 1,600 people have been killed and tens of thousands have been forced to flee, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While Bashar Assad has become the focus of such crimes against humanity, the nuanced and critical role of his enabler, the Iranian regime, must not be disregarded. In addition, although sanctioning and punishing the Syrian regime is a step forward, such an approach will not resolve the conflict and put an end to the humanitarian tragedy as long as Tehran is allowed to be freely and deeply involved across Syria on multiple levels.
The argument that Tehran is unaware of such operations in Damascus is unrealistic and absurd, from a military perspective.
Due to the weak military capabilities of the Syrian regime’s forces and his desperation to stay in power, Assad has increasingly submitted to the Iranian regime’s hard power. This has allowed Iranian leaders to exert significant control over the Syrian state, specifically its security, political and military infrastructures.
Iran is currently operating more than 10 military bases in various parts of Syria. Assad is also relying heavily on Iran’s military training because Tehran has extensive experience in conducting proxy wars or militia-to-militia warfare in a foreign country. As a result, this has given Tehran the advantage of a top-level command and control system in many of Syria’s military operations.
Militarily speaking, the Iranian regime pursues a multi-dimensional strategy. Besides senior military officials, it also deploys mid or low-ranking fighters as well as forces from the Basij, the Artesh (Iran’s national army) or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to operate on the ground. The Quds Force, an elite branch of the IRGC, orchestrates operations in Syria. It is also well documented that Iran hires Shiite militias from foreign countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, to fight in Syria in support of Assad’s forces. Furthermore, the senior cadre of the IRGC, as well as Iran’s ministry of intelligence (Etela’at), provide sophisticated intelligence, training, financial and advisory assistance to the Assad regime.
Assad is cognizant of the fact that it is fully within the IRGC and Quds Force’s expertise to use such a multi-faceted strategy in order to launch coordinated and simultaneous attacks abroad. Such operations are aimed at imposing shock and fear on the population while bombing the opposition into submission.
The Iranian regime will most likely escalate its hard power involvement in the Syrian conflict in order to fully entrench its military in Syria. Tehran has already been accused of turning the country into the world’s largest military base. The Iranian regime has become more emboldened and empowered to intervene in Syria due to several reasons, including its increasing revenues thanks to the nuclear agreement, the lifting of sanctions, and enhanced global legitimacy. The international community has been reluctant to directly confront Iran for its role in the Syrian war.
From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, the latest victories in retaking towns in Eastern Ghouta indicate that the IRGC, the Quds Force, the Basij and the national army have successfully evolved their methods of conducting war in foreign nations. The United States and its European allies ought to counter Iran’s militaristic adventures in Syria. Policy recommendations would consist of deploying NATO forces near the Syrian border to establish a no-fly zone. The EU can also warn Tehran that diplomatic ties and trade will be halted unless Iran withdraws its forces from Syria. Finally, the US and the EU must block Iran’s air access, in which Tehran uses Iraq’s airspace and commercial airlines —such as Mahan Air and Iran Air — to dispatch weapons and fighters to Syria.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh