Iran helping build “New Syrian Army;” ISIL fighters Fleeing to Iraq from Russian Airstrikes

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Alarabiya television is reporting 16 new casualties in Syria since October 9 among Iranian fighters there. There are thought to be some 1,500 Iranian military personnel in Syria, though some of these are actually Afghans. Several of those Iranian personnel killed during the past 2 years have been high-ranking officers of the Iranian revolutionary Guards Corps.

AFP Arabic is saying that Russian airstrikes have forced “a large number” of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) fighters and their families, especially foreigners, to flee Syria for Western Iraq.

On Monday, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Brig. Gen. Husayn Salami, gave a wide-ranging interview on the Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 2, a transcript of which was translated by BBC Monitoring. I have often complained at this blog that the US press follows the government line too much, and seldom lets us hear voices branded “enemy” voices. For that matter we almost never see English translations of speeches even by American allies such as French President Francois Hollande. So I thought it is worthwhile sharing some of what Salami said, so we can see what the Iranian hardliners are thinking about Syria. I personally think the Iranian backing for the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad is shameful, but we should try to understand it nevertheless.

Here are some excerpted highlights, especially Salami’s own words, as translated by BBC:

Salami said that Syria was the “focal point of strategic efforts made by an international coalition” to implement a “destructive political scheme in the Islamic world” [he means the USA, Western Europe, and Saudi Arabia]. He alleged that the US wanted to overthrow the Syrian government so as to put into practice its “political and security goals” in Lebanon and elsewhere.

He maintained that despite these destructive activities, the Syrian regime is “regaining its political status”. He denounced US strategy in Syria as a “counteroffensive to Islamic Awakening revolutions in the region” [e.g. in countries like Egypt and Tunisia; but this is bizarre; the US backs Tunisia and Egypt, and it is Iran that is supporting counter-revolution in Syria -JC.]

He outlined the “two fronts” he believed involved in the country’s struggles. On the one side was “the Islamic Revolution and the Resistance front” [i.e. the al-Assad dictatorship], and the other side being “Global Hegemony” [i.e. the US and its allies].

He added,

“All the nations of the Islamic World are passengers on the same boat. Countries of the Islamic World are connected to each other in terms of beliefs, politics and security interests. However, the enemies of Islam want to destroy this link. Just like … the Islamic World was divided with the Sykes-Picot agreement…They want to attack each part of the Islamic World at a time. . . What we are doing is guaranteeing the political, psychological, economic and military stability of the Syrian system, which is currently the frontline of the fight with the strategy of the USA and the Zionist regime.”

4 Dimensions of Iranian military role in Syria

“Our role from an operational perspective in Syria has four levels. First of all, on a strategic level, we support the Syrian government, nation and army politically and psychologically. As advisors, we transfer our war experiences to top commanders in the Syrian army. Actually, we are helping them modernise and rebuild the structure of the Syrian army . . .”

He added,

“On a strategic level, the Syrian army needs supplementary defence, that is the participation of the people on the ground, i.e. popular mobilization. Thanks to our valuable experience in this field…we implemented this concept in a structural way in Syria’s defence system.”

“When it comes to the operational level, we are helping brigade commanders for example…People who engage in physical confrontation with the enemies on the field…This is why a number of our commanders are there and are helping in planning and devising operational strategies in order to gain victory over the enemies.”

[He said Iran was also acting at a tactical level and a technical level (i.e. logistics, supply, etc.)]

Iran’s, Syria’s security “intertwined”

The interviewer then asked about increasing Iranian casualties in Syria:

Salami: “Our national security is intertwined with the security of important parts of the Islamic world, the national security of Syria. This is the main philosophy behind our presence [in Syria]. Of course, our presence there is also very much based on beliefs. But beyond beliefs, there are very important strategic aspects [to Iranian presence in Syria]. ”

“When we see that the Syrian system is at the frontline of the fight against takfiri [extremist] terrorism…naturally, we cannot leave them alone. Because if did, we would have to fight in other places, which would be detrimental to us and to other Islamic nations.”

“Increased” Iranian presence

Salami: “There was a need for increased training… The new popular forces that joined needed new training. The Syrian army was busy on the field and could not provide training. They needed help for that…Therefore, our presence increased, in terms of quantity and even quality . . . However, in order to provide good advice, our men naturally need to visit the field…We need to get to know the realities of the field. Our philosophy is that our judgement cannot be accurate until we see the field from close-by.” He said that the number of “martyrs is not so high” even if it is greater than in the past.

He said that owing to Hizbullah and Iranian support, the Syrian government is building a new army with forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Pakistan

Russian involvement:

Salami: “Air power will have an impact. The vast ground operations of the Syrian army which in certain cases are conducted alongside the Russian air force on the northern front…they are resulting in tactical developments and valuable operations. God willing, in the next few days, these tactical operations on the field will result in a strategic change, just like we were able to shift the balance on the ground until now.

‘He said that the Syrian army is “acting powerfully even in place where the Russian air force is not present” because of the “rejuvenation of the army, popular forces and of great motivation.” ‘

He said that the Russians had come into Syria because otherwise they would have to fight the extremists at home.

He said Iraq was just as important to Iran as Syria, but that Iran was letting the Iraqi armed forces determine the pace there.

He said, “Iraq and Syria are now the points of confrontation between regional and international powers”. . .

IRGC capabilities

Asked about the IRGC’s capabilities against potential threats, Salami said that Iran needed a “strong and reliable guarantee of its defence and deterrent power against enemies on an international level . . . We cannot stand up to world powers with slogans and feelings. We need to turn these feelings, wishes and ideals into an effective reality on the ground.”

Source: Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 2, Tehran, in Persian 1910 gmt 26 Oct 15

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Mehr News Agency, Iran’s speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, on Monday attacked Saudi Arabia’s activities in the Middle East, accusing it of “angry behavior” and “failed” policies, according to BBC monitoring:

“They have been fighting against the Syrian government for years and by supporting the terrorists they have destroyed the lives and livelihood of the Syrian people. Although they did not achieve any results, they harmed the economy of the Syrian people.”

Likewise the Saudi war on Yemen “failed to bring puppets to the power, but it has wreaked havoc on Yemen’s infrastructure and [development] plans. . .”

Accusing Riyadh of not being “progressive” he said, “A country cannot have influence merely by spending money . . . The Saudis should take lessons from the past and not create rift among Muslims, so the non-Muslims and Zionists do not benefit…”

Source: Mehr news agency, Tehran, in Persian 0518gmt 26 Oct 15


Related video:

CNN: ” Officials: Iran’s military presence in Syria is growing”

17 Responses

  1. The only thing that isn’t clear is why you find Iranian backing shameful.

    I certainly don’t.

  2. Respectfully and in the spirit of inquiry: You said Iran’s support for Assad is shameful. But wouldn’t Iran and the rest of the world allowing extremist ISIS, et al, adherents of Middle Ages ‘justice’ and mass murder and enslavement of opposing religious and secular groups come to power be more shameful, and a worse outcome? And I’m no supporter of barbaric ‘Greater Israel’, by the way.

  3. “When it comes to the operational level, we are helping brigade commanders for example…People who engage in physical confrontation with the enemies on the field…This is why a number of our commanders are there and are helping in planning and devising operational strategies in order to gain victory over the enemies.”

    It would be interesting to know how much it cost for this effort in comparison to the $500 million spent for five Syrian defenders.

  4. Iran is attempting to transition its statecraft behaviour & perception into a “credible” regional counterweight. Her principal ME thrust is a containment policy on Islamic extremism, which represents a clear and present danger to itself & her allies. On a longer-term and considerably aspirational, is a “multi-layered” engagement policy with existing regional adversaries, beyond a “cold-peace”.

    Meanwhile, nurtured “Manichaen societies” are – already – instinctively dismissive of compounded overtures. Iran will remain a “hard-sell” for years to come.

  5. I’m not sure why so many people admit the genocidal goals of the rebels and condemn Iran’s support of its coreligionists. I guess if a ‘revolution’ calls for your extermination it’s just tough luck, survival is counter-revolutionary.

  6. Thanks for posting this transcript.

    There’s but one upside to this: The take-away that hardline Iranians are no less delusional than US neocons.

    Iran’s hardliners are setting the Revolutionary Guards up for a quagmire.

    • Yeah, no kidding. If the Iranian and Russian support is so effective, then please expand it into Afghanistan and get rid of the Taliban, too. Extreme ideologues on all sides share one thing for sure–a delusional, unshaken belief that cannot be changed by facts.

      • My own unshaken belief is that any unbearable pain is marked for removal. Putin, Mullahs and Al-Assad are no exception, in spite of their anti-American credentials.

  7. If Iran backing the Syrian regime appears shocking, Is that not precisely because Syria is what Salami is describing above as one of the points of confrontation between regional and international powers… in a conflict of beliefs, politics and security interests? Everyone has faith is their own beliefs, regardless how they may conflict with others, something vividly illustrated by the beliefs of the Israelis today, and many Americans with their belief in ‘exceptionalism’.

    Here is Sputnik News quoting Dmitry Medvedev after Assad’s recent visit to Moscow, when a lot of what appears to be a remarkable bringing together of disparate interests was presumably on the agenda.

    “The last time I saw the Syrian President was in Damascus in May 2010. Syria was a tranquil and civilized country then, unlike now. The old part of Damascus, where I could take a walk, looked like a city where people of different nationalities and religions lived together peacefully.”
    “I talked with Syrians, who spoke warmly about Russia and its people. I photographed its ancient mosques and churches. It was a modern secular country.”

    Everything changed a year later, the prime minister noted with regret
    “Life in Syria became a nightmare in 2011, with war, terror, death and the destruction of holy places and monuments that are part of our global heritage.”

    link to

    I heard the same thing from a French friend, a Jewish lady as it happens, who had been traveling there a few years earlier.

    • Not sure what you are trying to say.

      Syria in 2010 was a seedy police state with thousands of prisoners of conscience where criticism of the Baath Party was illegal if not a capital crime. The economy was stagnant and poverty had increased 2007-2010. The family of the president had privatized state enterprises for their use and become billionaires. Urbanization was at 50%, shockingly low in world terms. There had been a drought since 2004 and in the northeast, farmers had lost 70% of their livestock. The gov’t seemed relatively uninterested in water works (unlike in the 1970s). This was a grenade with the pin pulled.

      • Sorry. What you say illustrates the clash of cultures. No other nation summons selective urges to set forth and adjust bits of the world to their values as the US does when their moral sensibilities are offended. Salami, I thought, was simply pointing out that the exercise of that urge lies behind what you quote him calling the confrontation between regional and international powers, and the conflict of beliefs, politics and security interests taking place in Iraq and Syria. Personally, I think he has a point. It’s not intended as a value judgement, simply a dispassionate observation. Dmitry Medvedev may well have been shielded from more egregious sights on his visit, or he may simply not have considered them any of his business. Therein lies the ‘cultural’ distinction that increasingly separates the US from the rest.

      • Frankly, Prof. What are you trying to say!!! By your single minded pursuit of the secular government of Assad and its foibles while ignoring or downplaying the actions of the surrounding governments, you are coming across as a propaganda arm of the US and Saudi regimes!
        I have enjoyed the information you provide on your blog, but your totally ignoring the context in which the Syrian government finds itself is puzzling. Even we, when faced with 9/11 have taken extraordinary steps ranging from renditions, to torture.
        Please give Assad government some slack!

        • I have disagreed with Professor Cole before on other issues. But I think here your criticisms are misplaced. To condemn Assad does not mean you are supporting ISIS or ISIL. Nor does it mean you are the propaganda wing of one country or another. It has been well documented that the Syrian regime has committed serious war crimes against its own people. Why shouldn’t they be condemned for things like poison gas, barrel bombs on civilians, gunning down peaceful protesters in the streets, and so on? Because you think Assad’s adversaries are worse, does that mean you should blithely accept his incredibly brutal policies? I certainly don’t think so.

  8. The added CNN video was as pure as tripe can be. Speculation presented as fact and then quick tie ins to Washington establishment talking points with keywords. Such CNN garbage is not complementary to your article.

  9. JC
    thank you for the Iranian interview. However, you surprise me with your remark that the US is supporting Islamic awakening e.g. the US supports Egypt (SIsi). If we look at US ME policy over the last 20 years I see very little US support for Islamic and democratic awakening (Irak, Libya, Support for S.Arabia and the other ME monarchies, the Yemen coalition). Looking et the US history vis-a-vis Iran (shah regime) and US support for Irak during the Irak-Iran war it is difficult to conclude that the US was a supporter of Islamic awakening, rather the opposite.

  10. Iran would make a mistake if she supported Assad to the hilt. Before 2011 Assad’s dictatorship could have been condoned on account of the relatively high level of living it afforded the population and the stability it granted. Now, after barrel bombs, there is no saving Assad. But Russia and Iran are right in saying that it is not enough to kick Assad out, it is essential to put something back in, otherwise we have another Lybia and another Iraq. The West is, as usual, bent on destruction and chaos. Reasonable people cannot accept it, there must be a peaceful transition out of Assad’s regime and this requires keeping essential state functions alive, and this in turn means keeping a large part of Assad’s administration in the picture.

  11. It is my understanding that, except for a couple or sorties, Russian is not bombing ISIS position, notwithstanding Russia’s claim to the contrary.

    The Carter Center has followed and mapped some 40,000 military encounters in Syria and states, involving some 7000 different militias and states:

    link to
    ATLANTA — The Carter Center closely follows events in Syria and regularly publishes reports about conflict developments on its website. These reports are publicly available and are forwarded to all interested parties, including Syrians across political divides and governments in the west and in the region. A recent report details Russia’s ongoing airstrikes in Syria, underscoring that the vast majority of the airstrikes do not target ISIS, as the Russian government asserts.

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