The announcement earlier this week by the head of Iran’s Martyrs Foundation that 2,100 combatants had been killed in Syria while “defending the shrine” has placed the extent of Iran’s human sacrifice in the Syrian conflict into sharp relief.
The term “defending the shrine” (modafeaaneh haram), referencing the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque in the southern suburbs of Damascus, is the official designation of Iranian or Iranian-sponsored actions in Syria. It evokes religious imagery and sentiments – Sayeda Zeinab was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed and is particularly revered by Shia Muslims – and lends ideological potency to Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Mohamed Ali Shahidi Mahallati, director of the Martyrs Foundation, did not give a breakdown of the casualties by nationality when he made the announcement. There are many non-Iranians fighting under Iranian command in Syria, but by most credible estimates at least half of the 2,100 killed are Iranians. The vast majority of the Iranian casualties are likely to have been affiliated to the Al-Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
This relatively high figure may raise questions about the cost of Iran’s military intervention in the conflict, but it will not cause upset or embarrassment in the Iranian defence and security establishments. It may, however, spark public debate in Iran on whether the country’s diplomatic service is fully capitalising on this sacrifice to shape the peace in Syria.
In view of the scale of Iranian operations in Syria, the announcement by Shahidi Mahallati was not a surprise. The only surprise – at least for outside observers – was the silence of Iranian public opinion. However, this is explained by two factors.
First, Iran has expertly managed its information warfare by presenting the conflict in mutually reinforcing ideological and national security terms. This fusion is strikingly captured by the term “defenders of the shrine,” as it presents the conflict in religious terms by identifying a physical threat to the iconic Shia pilgrimage site. This is also credible in view of recent actions by extremists, notably the blowing up of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in Iraq in February 2006 by Al-Qaeda, the predecessor of the Islamic State (IS) group.
This narrative is consistent with Iran’s national security doctrine of keeping threats at bay and preferably well away from the country’s borders. The underlying rationale is that if Iran does not fight the extremists in Syria today, then tomorrow it will have to confront them within Iranian borders.
Moreover, as expounded by Hussein Salami, deputy commander of the IRGC, the strategy of containing “extremists” abroad is consistent with Iran’s broader aim of preserving the “axis of resistance” in the face of a possible all-out assault by the United States and its allies.
Second, Iran’s war effort in Syria is highly compartmentalised and makes no demands on the general public in the country. The vast majority of the combatants – and by extension the majority of the casualties – are from the Al-Quds Force of the IRGC and to a lesser extent from other branches of the Revolutionary Guards.
While there is a publicity seeking dimension to the deployment, and notwithstanding the sincerity of this phenomenon, the key point to be made about this category of fighters is that they are organised, trained, deployed and directed by the IRGC.
The most controversial aspect of the Iranian deployment has been the mobilisation of Afghans, specifically Afghan residents in Iran, to fight in the Syrian conflict zones. The mainstream Western media often paints this phenomenon in the worst possible light by showcasing the alleged exploitation of cash-strapped or otherwise vulnerable Afghan residents or refugees by Iranian military authorities.
This sweeping generalisation, while not wholly misrepresentative, fails to take sufficient stock of the complexity of the situation, however. For instance, many devout Afghans are ideologically motivated to fight in Syria and appear happy to fight and die there under the IRGC banner. The latter regularly publishes extensive biographies of “martyred” Afghan volunteers, in some cases youngsters like 17-year-old Hussein Dadnazari who was killed in Aleppo last summer.
One reason for the release of the official casualty figures may be Iran’s confidence that the worst of the fighting is over and that the Islamic Republic will suffer considerably fewer casualties in the months ahead. Indeed, helping the Syrian army and its allies to retake Aleppo in December may prove to be the zenith of Iran’s intervention in Syria.
On the other hand, Iran appears to be more than ready to make additional sacrifices on Syrian battlefields. Speaking recently, Salami pledged that there would be no retreat from Iran’s regional commitments, especially as according to him the sun was “setting on the American Empire”.
However, this strident language masks private anxiety about the course of the Syrian conflict as it reaches the end-game. It speaks to Iran’s deepest fears, namely that the scale of the country’s commitment in Syria, and the toll of the conflict in blood and treasure, may not be matched by a commensurate stake in the peace.
Iran has watched on the sidelines as Russia, its putative ally in Syria, has thrashed out a range of tactical and operational agreements with Turkey. In the Syrian context, the latter is Iran’s opponent whose actions in northern Syria directly violate the sovereignty of the Damascus government and by extension hurt Iran’s interests. The situation is so serious that even seasoned Iranian diplomats are raising the alarm about Ankara’s increasing belligerence towards Tehran.
In view of the confused state of Iranian diplomacy in Syria, and specifically in relation to the present multi-level international peace initiatives, the country may benefit from a national debate on the desired outcome to the conflict. Up until now, Iranian public opinion has had little to say on the conflict. It is time for this to change.
The writer is an analyst of Iranian politics and director of the research group Dysart Consulting.