The core argument of this report is that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad would have collapsed a long time ago if it were not for the enormous military and economic support provided to it by the Iranian regime since March 2011, following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.
This unprecedented level of support was driven, first and foremost, by the strategic interests of the Iranian regime in keeping arms shipments flowing to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria, so as to keep Hezbollah a strong deterrent against any attack on Iran’s military nuclear programme.
One result of this heavy Iranian involvement in the war in Syria has been a qualitative change in the nature of the relationship between the Syrian and the Iranian regimes. From being historically mutually beneficial allies, the Iranian regime is now effectively an occupying force in the regime-held areas of Syria, and the Syrian regime is little more than a puppet in the hands of Sepah Pasdaran (the Iranian Revolution Guards) and its foreign operations arm, Sepah Qods. The latter’s commander-in-chief, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, is the de facto ruler of ‘Iranian-occupied Syria’.
Moreover, the author argues that the Iranian regime’s influence in Syria is likely to continue even after the fall of the Assad regime because it is now exercised primarily through Iranian-backed and controlled militias fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian regime. Many of these militias, both local and foreign, are likely to outlive Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle.
The Iranian Regime in Syria
With this in mind, chapter I tracks the Iranian regime’s military involvement in the current war in Syria, showing how it gradually grew from providing strategic and technical support to Syrian regime forces against the mass popular protests to being in overall control of the Syrian regime’s military strategy and directing all its major military campaigns.
In early 2011, Sepah Qods and several Iranian intelligence agencies formed a top-level ‘advisory mission’ to assist the Syrian regime in its ‘crisis’ following the start of the revolution. The mission was said to be headed by the former commander of Sepah Pasdaran’s Greater Tehran unit, Brigadier-General Hossein Hamedani, and the commander-in-chief of Sepah Qods, Major-Gen. Soleimani. They reportedly dispatched several Sepah Pasdaran commanders skilled in urban and guerrilla warfare to supervise and direct military operations in Syria.
One of the first steps in this Iranian effort was creating the Syrian National Defence Forces (NDF), which were modelled on the paramilitary Iranian Basij force and its experience in suppressing Iran’s own dissident movements, particularly the 2009 pro-democracy protests known as the Green Movement. The NDF, which is commonly known among Syrians as the shabbiha, was thus charged with doing the ‘dirty work’ of the regime in suppressing the anti-regime protests instead of the regular armed forces, just like in Iran.
The chapter details various pieces of evidence to support this claim about the ‘Iranian connection’, ranging from rare admissions and revelations by Iranian officials to testimonies by regime insiders and Syrian militiamen who served under Iranian commanders or were trained in Iran. Indeed, the chapter shows that the Iranian role in creating the shabbiha was not confined to advice but included training, arming and funding this notorious militia.
As the revolution was pushed towards militarisation and opposition armed forces started to achieve military advances on the ground around mid-2012, the Iranian regime made a strategic decision to send some of its loyal militias in Lebanon and Iraq to fight in Syria alongside, and even on behalf of, the Syrian regime forces.
Chapter I details various pieces of evidence to counter repeated denials by Iranian and Hezbollah officials of the role played by these Sepah Pasdaran-controlled militias. It also tracks the gradual development of the role of these militias from supporting Syrian regime forces to assuming a leading role in all major, strategic battles (al-Qusayr, Homs, Yabroud, etc.). The chapter looks in detail at the role of Hezbollah Lebanon, Iraqi Shia militias, Afghan and other Shia fighters trained, armed and directed by Sepah Pasdaran.
The author argues that the battle of al-Qusayr in spring 2013 was a major turning point in the Syria war. It reflected a noticeable shift in the Iranian regime’s military strategy in Syria: conceding, or perhaps losing interest in, the possibility of regaining control of the eastern and northern parts of the country that were then mostly under the rebels’ control. Instead, the focus from Spring 2013 on would be on defending and consolidating the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ control in Damascus and its surroundings, Homs and its surroundings (which connect the capital with the coastal region) and the Qalamon region (which connects the first two and connects both with Lebanon).
The aim, the author adds, was to secure the capital, whose fall would have been seen as a fall of the regime, and to secure the Damascus-Homs corridor in order to provide both a geographical and demographic continuity of regime-held areas and to secure arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, while at the same time cutting off those of the rebels coming from or through eastern Lebanon.
The leading role in these keys battles would be assigned to Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias, who were seen as more reliable and better organised than the regular Syrian army. Meanwhile, the regime’s air force would continue its bombardment of rebel-held areas in the north and the east to perpetuate a state of war in those areas and make life there unbearable. The barrel bombs campaigns on cities like Aleppo is an obvious example of this.
Moreover, this leading role assigned to these Iranian-backed militias is likely to continue even after Bashar al-Assad falls. Indeed, many analysts have argued that the Iranian regime’s strategy in Syria goes beyond saving the Assad regime and includes preparations for a post-Assad era in which Iranian-controlled militias still exert influence on the ground and serve the Iranian regime’s interests.
The chapter provides numerous examples of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria by all these Iranian-controlled militias and forces, highlighting ways of bringing possible lawsuits against the Iranian regime. The author argues that there is sufficient evidence – some of which is indeed detailed in the report – to try the Iranian regime’s military and political leadership for complicity in many of these crimes at various levels, ranging from ‘inciting’ and ‘endorsing and adopting’ specific acts to ‘aiding and abetting’ war crimes and crimes against humanity.
One of the examples included in the chapter, and perhaps the most significant, is the Ghouta chemical massacre near Damascus in August 2013. The case study details three types of evidence that strongly indicate a possible role for Sepah Pasdaran in this and other chemical massacres committed in Syria in 2013 and 2014, raising the following questions:
- Was the Iranian regime aware of the plan to carry out the attack?
- Were Iranian weapons used?
- Did Sepah-controlled Iraqi militias play a role in the Ghouta massacre?
Naame Shaam therefore calls for international investigations to examine the possible complicity of the Iranian regime, particularly Major-Gen. Solemani, in the massacre that led to a controversial international deal concerning Syria’s chemical weapons.
Many of these crimes could also be regarded as terrorist acts (they were pre-planned, politically motivated, targeted civilians rather than militants, and were carried out by militia groups rather than regular armed forces). All related Iranian officials and entities should therefore be added to terrorism black lists and sanctioned accordingly.
Indeed, a whole section of chapter I is dedicated to examining the links between the Syrian and the Iranian regimes and extremist Islamist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Daesh, now known as the Islamic State) and Jabhat al-Nusra. After detailing various pieces of evidence, the author concludes that both the Syrian and the Iranian regimes have infiltrated, collaborated and used these al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to derail the Syrian revolution towards militarisation and sectarianism and to justify their military actions against Syrian protesters and rebels.
This is quite significant as both regimes have been attempting, since the second half of 2014, to sell themselves as ‘partners’ in the international campaign against Islamist terrorist groups, following the UN Security Council resolution on Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra in August 2014 and the US President’s declaration of war against Daesh in Iraq and Syria in September 2014.
Finally, chapter I also examines the role of Iranian fighters and Iranian weapons sent to Syria and tracks their journey – like other aspects of the Iranian military involvement in Syria – from initial denial by Iranian officials, through intermittent admissions, to the gradual emergence of undeniable evidence.
Syria Under Military Occupation
Chapter II builds on these details and presents a case for treating the war in Syria as an international conflict that involves a foreign occupation (by the Iranian regime) and a liberation struggle by Syrian people against this foreign occupation.
The chapter starts with a legal discussion of what constitutes a military occupation, as defined by the 1907 Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and whether the Iranian regime’s presence in Syria can be defined as a military occupation.
After outlining various pieces of evidence and case studies to back up this claim, including statements by Iranian officials, the author concludes that the war in Syria today has all the characteristics of an international conflict. Alternatively, he proposes that the Syrian case is treated as what is sometimes called ‘occupation with an indigenous government in post’.
The author also highlights the possibility of invoking Article 1 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, which provides that conflicts shall be qualified as international when they occur between a state and an authority representing a people “fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination.”
The author then examines how this Iranian occupation is enforced, both directly, through its armed forces and militias, and indirectly, through the puppet Syrian regime. The first requires a clear and identifiable Iranian command structure in Syria, which the author attempts to construct based on available information.
Another crucial question in this regard is who in the Syrian regime and in Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle has been liaising with the Iranian commanders and whether the latter’s involvement resulted in any changes in the Syrian command structure.
To answer this question, the author examines the exclusion and inclusion of senior Syrian government and army officials in accordance with Iranian desires or orders. As a case study, he re-examines the assassination of a number of top military and security officials from what was known as the Syrian regime’s ‘crisis cell’ in July 2012.
Based on information relayed to Naame Shaam by a prominent and reliable source in the Syrian opposition, quoting Western intelligence officials, as well as various pieces of circumstantial evidence, the author concludes that the high-profile operation had nothing to do with the Free Syrian Army or other opposition armed groups, as media reports claimed at the time. It was, rather, carried out by Sepah Pasdaran, possibly with direct orders from Major-Gen. Soleimani himself.
The reliable Syrian opposition source told Naame Shaam that some members in the ‘crisis cell’ had opened communication channels with Arab Gulf states and the US with the aim of making a deal behind Iran’s back. Sepah Pasdaran thus struck to prevent such a deal. Since then, Bashar al-Assad appears of be under the full control of the Iranian regime. He is practically their hostage.
Naame Shaam then proposes a new narrative about the Syrian revolution and the current situation in Syria, as well as a new set of demands in light of this new reality. The war in Syria, it says, should be regarded as an international conflict that warrants the application of the four Geneva Conventions and the regime-held areas of Syria should be considered occupied territory – not metaphorically but in the strict legal sense of the word.
Recognising the war in Syria as an international conflict that involves a foreign occupation and a people struggling for liberation may also provide a powerful ‘legal weapon’ against the Iranian regime, namely that it is committing “grave breaches” of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which are considered serious war crimes. This is because, as an occupying force, Iran has certain “duties” towards the Syrian population under its occupation.
There is abundant evidence, some of which is outlined in this report, that the Iranian regime and its forces and militias fighting in Syria have repeatedly violated many of these duties since March 2011.
For instance, the mass destruction of private and public properties in vast areas of Syria has not always been necessitated by the war (against the rebels) and is a clear and repeated breach of Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Similarly, the mass evacuations of entire villages and districts in Homs and elsewhere, and reports of evacuated properties being registered to Syrian and Iranian regime supporters from elsewhere (including foreigners such as Afghan fighters) are a clear and repeated breach of Article 49 and may even amount to ethnic cleansing.
Based on this new narrative, Naame Shaam proposes a new set of demands addressed to the European Union, the US and their allies in the Friends of Syria group, as well as the UN and other international bodies.
It is the view of the author that, unless the Syrian opposition is united in pushing for the war in Syria to be recognised as an international conflict, the US and other Western powers are likely to continue with their ‘slow bleeding’ policy towards Iran and not publicly admit that the war in Syria is one against the Iranian regime, so as to avoid being pressured into taking concrete steps to end the bloodshed in Syria and the wider region.
The third and last chapter sheds light on two main aspects of what is described as ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ in Syria, namely the economic and human costs to Iran of the war in Syria and what sort of impact it has on the Iranian economy and ordinary Iranians.
The author tracks the massive financial and economic support provided by the Iranian regime, which has prevented the Syrian regime from economic collapse, as many analysts were expecting it to do. In addition to the costs of the Iranian weapons, fighters and militias sent to Syria, particular attention is paid to Iranian financial loans and credit lines, worth billions of dollars, and how they have been used.
The author then looks at the impact of this expenditure on the Iranian economy and ordinary Iranians, coupled with the cost of international sanctions on Iran and Iran’s nuclear programme. As the author argues at length, this is because the three issues cannot be separated.
One indicator of this enormous burden on the Iranian economy is the inflation rate, which has more than tripled between 2009 and 2014 and has increased by about 10 per cent since the start of the war in Syria in 2011. As a result, almost a third of all families in Iran (31 per cent) lived below the poverty line in 2014.
Yet, while phasing out energy subsidies, Iran has been sending millions of barrels of oil to Syria at discount prices, paid for by Iranian credit. While winding down social assistance payments to nearly 60 million Iranians, Iran has been sending millions of tonnes of food and cash to Syria.
Despite the Iranian media’s celebration of President Hassan Rouhani’s economic ‘achievements’, the author argues that Iran’s economic problems are unlikely to go away any time soon unless there are fundamental shifts in its foreign policies. And that is certainly not in the president’s power. The same applies to Hezbollah Lebanon.
Another aspect of ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ is the mounting death tolls of Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah Lebanon and Iraqi militia commanders and fighters. The chapter examines available information on their casualties, which is admittedly limited.
The reason is that, right from the start, both Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon have been very cagey about their casualties in Syria. Both have been doing all they can to keep this information hidden from the public because it would show how heavily involved they are in the war there. It would also reveal how much they are losing, which could be damaging to the morale of their supporters. Suppressing such evidence is a classic war tactic aimed at avoiding public pressure to ‘bring the boys back home’ before they too die out there.
While the Iranian regime has made a choice to ‘go for it’ in Syria at any cost, this ‘Syrian Vietnam’ is not just a consequence of this choice. It is also a policy by the US administration and its allies, which the author describes as the strategy of ‘slowly bleeding Iran in Syria.’
Chapter III examines and assesses this strategy, quoting President Barak Obama and other US officials at length. The author argues that this ‘bleeding’ policy is being implemented at the disproportionate expense of the people of Syria and the wider region, and will inevitably lead to more instability and extremism in the region and beyond.
In other words, hopes that a proxy war with the Iranian regime in Syria, coupled with crippling economic sanctions, would eventually lead to the weakening and even collapse of the Iranian regime (‘winning the Syria war in the streets of Tehran’) are, at best, wishful thinking.
As the author puts it, it may be true that Syria has become ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ and that Iran is ‘bleeding’ in Syria. But the Iranian regime may be capable of bleeding for a long time to come, much longer than the Syrian people can endure.