What Is Iran’s Syria Policy After Donald Trump?

Heshmat Alavi Freelance Writer
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The election of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States came as an expected turn of events. Iran may be the most concerned regime, weighing how to adjust its approach, foreign in particular.

The mullahs took full advantage of the appeasement policy adopted by U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration, especially to fuel the Syria war in support of ally Bashar Assad. Nearly half a million Syrians have lost their lives, and over 10 million have been displaced inside or outside the country.

Yet with a new administration in Washington, Tehran is extremely disturbed over how to maintain its grip over the region, with a special focus on Syria.

A look back

The protests in Syria began peacefully, yet Assad resorted to brute force by opening fire on demonstrators. The Syrian people took to arms and formed the Free Syrian Army in August 2011, inflicting major defeats to Assad’s forces.

Considering Syria its 35th province, Iran deployed its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to take command of the troops fighting against Syrian opposition forces. As the opposition advanced, Assad followed Iran’s orders in launching chemical weapons and mass murdering civilians in a suburb near Damascus back in 2013. Unfortunately, the international community failed to respond adequately, as Obama literally held back any possible measures by the West to safeguard his legacy defining nuclear deal with Iran.

The rise of ISIS

The war in Syria, dragging for years due to Iran’s meddling, paved the grounds for the rise of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). Yes, Daesh is to blame for numerous atrocities. Yet it goes beyond doubt that Iran, Assad and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki launched massive crackdown campaigns against Sunnis in both countries in the name of battling Daesh.

“ISIS was created by Assad releasing 1,500 prisoners from jail and Maliki releasing 1,000 people in Iraq who were put together as a force of terror types,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a previous interview with Fox News.

The role of Russia

Confronted with major advances made by Syrian opposition forces in 2015, Iran sought Russia’s involvement to provide air cover for its ground attacks. Iran doubled the number of its forces in Syria to 60,000 and launched “Operation Moharram” aimed at retaking vast areas from opposition control, including the flashpoint strategic city of Aleppo. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei also ordered the regular army’s 65th Division to Aleppo.

Extent of Iran’s meddling in Syria

With the Assad military suffering major catastrophes and dwindling down to less than 50,000 troops, Tehran rallied more than 70,000 non-Iranian and Iranian forces in the Levant. The budget Iran has allocated to its Syria campaign ranges around $100 billion, most sent under the disguise of Khamenei’s office to facilitate the process.

Senior Iranian military commanders are regularly inspecting the situation on the ground and numerous high-ranking officers, including Hossein Hamedani, a senior IRGC commander, have been killed.

Blueprint of Iran forces in Syria

To exert greater control over the entire war front, the IRGC has structured all pro-Assad forces fighting in Syria into five different sectors, consisting of four fronts (north, south, middle and costal) under a central command post. Known as the “Glass Building,” the command center is strategically adjacent to Damascus International Airport to provide a fast escape route for Iranian commanders in case the Syrian capital shows signs of falling.

Dividing the country into four general sections allows Iran to allocate a certain quantity and quality of forces for each front. Aleppo is in the north section, where the IRGC has based its command at a site dubbed “Ruqiya, located east of the city.
The IRGC is also keeping a very close eye on the Alawite-majority coastal fronts, with troops transferred to Camp Tala’e, or “Shabibeh Garrison,” following the stationing of Russian troops in Latakia. The Syrian army and the IRGC are also controlling the Hmeimim airport near the coast, used to transfer logistics and a transit point for deploying troops to the country’s northern regions.
All in all, the role of the Assad army has significantly downgraded as a result.

Command structure

The IRGC Quds Force, commanding all pro-Assad forces in Syria, has established a complex command structure, consisting of Airborne, Navy, Air Force, the Missile Unit, Engineering and Communications & Electronic Warfare branches. IRGC Ground Forces are the main sector, fighting parallel to members of the Lebanese Hezbollah, along with foot-soldiers recruited from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. More than a dozen Iraqi Shiite groups, including the notorious Badr Organization, Kata’eb Hezbollah, Assa’eb ahl Al Haq are involved in the Syria conflict.

Talking in numbers

One can reach a more extensive image of Iran’s presence in Syria when referring to the number of troops, as were reported by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

IRGC forces: 8,000 to 10,000

Iranian Regular Army: 5,000 to 6,000

Non-Iranian mercenaries:

  • Iraqi militias: Around 20,000 (from 10 groups)
  • Afghan militias (“Fatemiyoun”): 15,000 to 20,000
  • Lebanese Hezbollah: 7,000 to 10,000
  • Militias from Pakistan (“Zeinabiyoun”), Palestine, and elsewhere: 5,000 to 7,000

The hefty burden

This vast campaign in Syria comes at a heavy price for Iran. Paying for all non-Syrian forces fighting to maintain Assad in power, alongside all other fees for their families, widows and etc., Iran is paying an estimated $80 to $90 million for these forces. This accumulates to about $1 billion over the span of one year. Add these costs to those needed for extremely expensive military weapons and equipment, along with billions provided by Khamenei’s office to maintain Assad’s government intact, we come to realize the position of the Syria dossier for Tehran.

Looking ahead

It is quite obvious that President-elect Donald Trump will be inheriting a very complicated Syria dossier from his predecessor. Iraq and Yemen are also facing devastation due to Iran’s involvement and export of extremism and Islamic fundamentalism. As a result, the Middle East is truly on the brink of triggering a conflict of global proportions and consequences.

11 Arab states have recently issued an unprecedented letter to outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemning Iran’s meddling across the Middle East. This measure, followed by a House of Representatives resolution seeking sanctions against Syria, have sent strong signals to Tehran.

The incoming Republican administration under Donald Trump needs to fully comprehend the destructive nature of Iran’s presence across the region, and how this phenomenon has rendered newly spread terrorism across Europe and beyond.

Heshmat Alavi is a political and rights activist. His writing focuses on Iran, ranging from human rights violations, social crackdown, the regime’s support for terrorism and meddling in foreign countries, and the controversial nuclear program.

He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi & blogs at IranCommentary