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III. Iran’s Vietnam

Iran's vietnamContents of this chapter:
At any cost
‘Eat just once a day or fast’
Iran’s ‘resistance economy’
Update on the economic costs of the war in Syria to Iran and Hezbollah
Counting the dead
Update on Iranian and Hezbollah casualties in Syria
New case study: Aleppo, the ‘graveyard’ of Iranian commanders
Bleeding Iran in Syria
How long can the Iranian regime bleed?
Update on the US policy on Iran and Syria
Notes & References
New: Russia dragged into Syria quagmire

III. Iran’s Vietnam

Most observers today agree that the Iranian regime’s adventure in Syria is costing it a great deal – politically, economically and even socially. Indeed, many have started using the term ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ (in reference to the catastrophic consequences of the Vietnam war for the US) to describe the ‘Syrian swamp’ in which the Iranian regime appears to be slowly drowning.1 This chapter will shed some light on two main aspects of this ‘Syrian Vietnam’, namely the economic and human costs to Iran of the war in Syria and how it is impacting on the Iranian economy and ordinary Iranians.

While it may be obvious that 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 deliberate policy by the US administration and its allies, which we describe here as a strategy of ‘bleeding Iran in Syria.’ The chapter will examine and assess this strategy and will argue that this ‘slow 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, we will argue that Western hopes that a proxy war with the Iranian regime in Syria, coupled with 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.

At any cost

After three and a half years of war, the Syrian economy is unsurprisingly in a state of acute distress. The full extent of economic losses is difficult to measure since the Syrian government has stopped gathering and releasing any meaningful statistics since 2011. Nevertheless, unofficial estimates indicate that Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) has dropped by at least 40-50 per cent during 2011-2013, with an estimated loss of 145 billion US dollars.2

Yet the Syrian regime has not collapsed economically, as many analysts were expecting it to do, basing their analysis on the experience of Iraq in the wake of the US invasion in 2003, among other examples. And that is mainly thanks to the Iranian regime, and to a lesser extent to Russia and China, which have been propping up the Syrian regime over the past three and a half years.

Chapter I examined in considerable detail the Iranian regime’s military involvement in Syria. In addition to Iranian commanders and fighters, there are also all the pro-regime militias fighting in Syria, which have been largely controlled and financed by Sepah Pasdaran. This includes the Syrian shabbiha and National Defence Forces (NDF). According to Iranian officials and commanders themselves, the NDF has some 70,000 members. They are not volunteers, however, as these officials often describe them. They are, rather, mercenaries who receive regular salaries and financial rewards, as many of them have confessed (see chapter I).

The monthly salary of a normal NDF member is said to range between 100 to 160 US dollars. Multiply that by 70,000 and you will get a rough idea of how much this force alone is costing the Syrian and Iranian regimes every month. According to one regime defector, their salaries are paid through a “slush fund replenished with US dollars flown in from Iran.”3 A US Treasury sanctions designation in December 2012 claimed that the Iranian regime was providing the NDF with “routine funding worth millions of dollars.”4

Then there are all Iranian-backed Iraqi militias fighting in Syria. At least fighters from ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq are known to be paid 500 dollars a month, according to confessions of Iraqi militiamen captured by Syrian rebels.5 The money is allegedly sent to them through Iraq by the militia’s leader Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali, who is said to be based in Iran. Similarly, Afghan fighters are being offered 500 US dollars a month by Sepah Pasdaran to fight in Syria on the regime’s side.6

With regard to Hezbollah Lebanon, the force is known to have been receiving at least 100 million US dollars per year from the Iranian regime in supplies and weaponry, according to US estimates.7 Then there are all the running costs of the Syria operations, which are likely to be paid for by the Iranian regime too (food, training, transport, fuel, etc.). Add to that the militiamen’s salaries and the money offered to the families of those killed in battle. In early 2014, Naame Shaam’s correspondent in southern Lebanon was told by a number of families of Hezbollah members who had died in Syria that “the prize of martyrdom in Syria” was $50,000 for each young and unmarried fighter. The families of older men with children are apparently paid even more, and orphaned children are supported by Hezbollah for years.8

The weapons used by these fighters also cost money. As detailed in chapter I, Iranian weapons have been shipped to Syria, despite a UN embargo, since the start of the war. In March 2013, Reuters described this as a “weapons lifeline to al-Assad.”9 But in addition to Iranian weapons, Tehran has reportedly also been footing the bill for at least some of the Russian weapons supplied to the Syrian regime.

A quick look at available estimates of the Syrian regime’s known stocks of weapons shows an increase in most types of weapons.10 Most appear to be Russian-made and many are believed to be paid for by Iran. For instance, according to Russian newspapers, part of the MiG aircraft deal between Russia and Syria was financed by Iran as “a back-door purchase” of similar aircraft by Iran (to circumvent sanctions).11 No further details are known owing to the secrecy surrounding such deals. As David Butter, an associate fellow at Chatham House, put it in September 2013, “Syria has never paid for its weapons from Russia – it doesn’t have any money… There is a pipeline of resupply of weapons going from Russia to Syria, possibly with Iran involved in that, but it’s pretty obscure.”12

The Syrian regime’s economic ‘resilience’ is most obvious in loyalist areas in Syria. Despite three years of war and economic decline, most areas under regime control continue to enjoy a good level of provision of many of their basic needs and services, such as water, electricity, fuel, food supplies and so on. The regime has even been able to pay the salaries of most state employees in these areas, not to mention those of soldiers and militia fighters.

The answer to this apparent puzzle lies in another aspect of ‘help’ offered by Iran to the Syrian regime: financial loans and credit lines.

Iranian money to Syria

Iran deposited $500 million in Syria’s Central Bank vaults in January 2013 to prop up the Syrian pound, which was on the brink of crashing. The Syrian regime has also been borrowing 500 million US dollars a month from Iran.

As early as July 2011, media reports revealed that Iran was considering offering the Syrian regime financial assistance worth 5.8 billion US dollars in the form of cash and oil supplies. According to French business daily Les Echos, citing a confidential report by a think-tank linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader called the Strategic Research Center, the plan was approved by Khamenei himself.13 The offer reportedly included a three-month loan worth 1.5 billion US dollars to be made available immediately. Iran would also provide Syria with 290,000 barrels of oil every day over the following month, the report said.

In January 2013, Iran deposited 500 million US dollars in Syria’s Central Bank vaults to prop up the Syrian pound, which was on the brink of crashing. In July 2013, Tehran granted Damascus two credit lines worth 4.6 billion US dollars. The first, worth 1 billion US dollars, was intended to fund imports. The second, worth 3.6 billion US dollars, was dedicated to the procurement of oil products. In return, Iran would acquire equity stakes in investments in Syria.14

In an interview with the Financial Times in June 2013, Qadri Jamil, then Deputy Prime Minister for the economy, said that Syria actually had “an unlimited credit line with Tehran for food and oil-product imports,” adding that his government was borrowing 500 million US dollars a month.15 A Syrian government consultant confirmed this in another interview in July 2013.16

As to how these credit facilities were used, Syrian Minister of Oil Suleiman Al-Abbas provided a clue when he announced, in December 2013, that three Iranian oil tankers were docking in Syrian ports every month, paid for by the Iranian oil credit line. Around the same time, the Syrian General Foreign Trade Organization also issued two tenders to buy large quantities of food products, such as flour, sugar and rice, to be paid for through the other Iranian credit line (meaning sellers had to accept payment through Iranian funds under an agreement between the Commercial Bank of Syria and the Export Development Bank of Iran).17 Mostly Iranian companies, offering food products “available inside Iran,” took part in both tenders. In April 2014, Iran shipped 30,000 tonnes of food supplies to Syria to “help the Syrian government deal with shortages.”18

Iranian food to Syria

Iran shipped 30,000 tons of food supplies to Syria in April 2014 to “help the Syrian government deal with shortages.”

Needless to say, none of this food made its way to the people who need it most: people in destroyed or besieged areas. It may also be interesting to compare the above-mentioned amounts to the level of bilateral trade between Syria and Iran before the current war, which stood at 316 million US dollars in 2010, according to official Syrian statistics.19

In addition to money to buy (Iranian) food and oil, the Iranian regime has also been helping the Syrian regime get cheep oil from elsewhere, mainly for military purposes (diesel for military vehicles, etc.). An investigation by Reuters in December 2013 revealed that “millions of barrels” of Iraqi crude oil had been delivered that year, under the radar, to the Syrian regime through Lebanese and Egyptian trading companies, on board Iranian ships.20 The investigation, based on an examination of previously undisclosed shipping and payment documents, said these previously unknown shipments, in addition to more known ones of Iranian crude oil, kept the Assad armed forces “running” in spite of the international sanctions.

Iranian oil tanker

Three Iranian oil tankers have been docking in Syrian ports every month, paid for by an Iranian oil credit line.

Syria has lost almost all its oil exports, primarily because the regime surrendered or handed over the main oil wells in Syria to Islamist armed groups. So it has been depending mostly on Iran for its fuel needs, in addition to buying some oil from these Islamist groups, as detailed in chapter I.

So how much exactly has the Iranian regime spent on its Syria adventure so far, and where is this money coming from?

In August 2013, French newspaper Libération reported, citing the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies as a source, that Iran had already “wasted around 17 billion dollars of its foreign currency reserves” on the war in Syria.21 Other sources estimate that the Iranian military efforts in Syria are costing about 1.5 billion US dollars per month.22 But how are these estimates calculated? And do they include all the aspects mentioned above?

An obvious place to start looking is military expenditure databases. However, the data on Iran in most of these databases is often not only unreliable or unavailable (owing to Iran’s secrecy regarding its military activities), it also does not include spending on paramilitary forces. For instance, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Military Expenditure Database states in a footnote: “The figures for Iran do not include spending on paramilitary forces such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).”23 Given that this force, Sepah Pasdaran, and its external arm Sepah Qods are the ones that are in charge of most of the Syria operations (save for some technical assistance provided by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, as indicated in chapter I), such databases are of little use for our purposes.

Sepah Pasdaran’s declared budget is allocated by the Iranian government every year and must be approved by parliament, like all other government spending. The budget allocated to the force this year was just over 44 trillion Iranian rials (around 1.7 billion US dollars), a 30 per cent increase compared to the year before.24 Sepah’s budget has been constantly increasing in the last few years, which is presumably to do with the force’s adventures in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. As to how this money is divided within the force (e.g. how much goes to Sepah Qods and external operations), that is a well-guarded secret.

To put things in perspective, 44 trillion Iranian rials is nearly equivalent to the budgets allocated to health and education combined. The health budget for the current year is 25 trillion rials and the education budget is 21 trillion.25

In addition to the official budget allocated by the government, eight per cent of Iran’s infrastructure budget also goes to Sepah Pasdaran. This is, in fact, only what is publicly announced; in reality it may be as high as 60 per cent. Sepah or its affiliates are often the sole winners of the most profitable construction and oil-related contracts in Iran. The force also controls much of the import-export industry and has a monopoly over many other vital economic sectors in the country. Nonetheless, the force is not subject to the Iranian tax law.

Like Sepah, the Supreme Leader also controls a massive economic empire known as Setad, or the Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam (Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam). Setad manages and sells properties ‘abandoned’ or expropriated mainly from members of the opposition. The company’s holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and other assets are estimated to be worth about 95 billion US dollars, according to calculations by Reuters in November 2013.26

Finally, there are also many foundations and businesses affiliated with or close to Sepah and Khamenei, many of which are known to give generous ‘donations’ to the force. There is no space here to look into this but it is worth mentioning in the context of who is funding the Iranian regime’s adventure in Syria and how Iranian public and private money is being wasted.

‘Eat just once a day or fast’

The impact of the war in Syria on the Iranian economy and ordinary Iranians cannot be separated from that of the international sanctions on Iran and Iran’s nuclear programme. There are intrinsic reasons for this.

The main reason for the Iranian regime’s uncompromising determination to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime at any cost is to maintain its ability to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza via Syria, so as to keep these strong deterrents against any possible Israeli and/or Western attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Together, these two ‘lines of defence’ (Hezbollah and Hamas and the nuclear bomb) are meant to secure the Iranian regime’s survival. If the Assad regime falls, Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah are likely to stop and Hezbollah would no longer be the threatening deterrence against Israel that it is now. The Iranian regime would therefore feel more vulnerable and would not be able to negotiate from a strong position during nuclear talks with the E3+3 powers in Vienna and Geneva, as it is doing now. It may even have to give up its nuclear dreams for a while. All available resources (human, economic, military) must therefore be mobilised to achieve this strategic aim.

Thus, if we add all the above costs (hundreds of billions of dollars) to the costs of Iran’s nuclear programme (which is estimated to have cost well over 100 billion US dollars so far 27) and the costs of the sanctions imposed on Iran because of the nuclear programme (which are estimated to be around 100 million US dollars each day 28), the burdens on the Iranian economy are enormous.

Iran food supplies

Iranians lining up for food supplies in southern Tehran in February 2014.

One indicator of the economic burden is the inflation rate, which has more than tripled from 10 per cent in 2009 to over 30 per cent in 2014 and has increased by about 10 per cent since the start of the war in Syria.29 Official reports also indicate that Iranian household purchasing power has decreased by about 25 per cent. A price list of basic food items published by BBC Persian in March 2014 showed that consumer prices in Iran had at least tripled in the past four or five years.30 According to the Ministry of the Economy, in July 2014, almost a third of all families in Iran (31 per cent) lived below the poverty line.31 Three months before, in March 2014, Iranian MP Mousareza Servati said 15 million Iranians (about 20 per cent of the population) were living below the national poverty line. Seven million of them were not receiving assistance of any kind.32

Despite Iranian media’s celebration of President Hassan Rouhani’s economic ‘achievements’,33 the reality is 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.34

In March 2014, The New York Times published an article entitled “Hopes fade for surge in the economy.”35 The article argued that people in Iran had voted for President Hassan Rouhani in the hope for a revival of the country’s ailing economy. But more than six months after he took office, “hopes of a quick economic recovery are fading, while economists say the government is running out of cash.”

On taking office, he discovered that the government’s finances were in far worse condition than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had ever let on. Now, with a lack of petrodollars and declining tax revenues, Mr. Rouhani has little option but to take steps that in the short-run will only increase the pain for the voters who put him into office.36

The article also quotes Saeed Laylaz, an economist and an advisor to President Rouhani, saying Iran is heading to a “black spring” and only a “miracle” could save it from political damage caused by the economic problems. “I am worried we might witness turmoil,” he added.

But is it true, as this and other media reports claim, that Iran is so short of cash that the government has “no other option” but to take “painful steps” such as printing money (therefore pushing inflation further up) and cutting down on public spending? While phasing out energy subsidies, Iran has been sending millions of barrels of oil to Syria at discount prices, paid for by Iranian credit, as indicated above. While winding down social assistance payments to nearly 60 million poor Iranians (about 12 US dollars a month), Iran has been sending millions of tonnes of food and cash to Syria. It just doesn’t make sense, as more and more Iranians are starting to realise.

It is worth noting that Iranian officials generally tend to avoid blaming the sanctions or Iran’s foreign policy for economic hardship, as that might be interpreted as a victory for the West. Instead, they often focus on mismanagement, corruption and ‘unwise management’. Not that this is not true too.37

Iran’s ‘resistance economy’

Khamenei sandals

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wearing worn-out sandals, in a symbolic message that the Supreme Leader is ‘suffering’ like poor Iranians and he expects everybody to do the same – March 2014.

In February 2014, Ayatollah Khamenei renewed his call to implement a “parallel economic plan” that he had first announced in 2010, which he dubbed “resistance economy.”38 Based on the principle “self-sufficiency,” the plan is an attempt to thwart the impact of the sanctions. The Supreme Leader promised that his strategy would “lead to welfare and improving the condition of the life of all the people, especially the poor.” Except it didn’t. Rouhani nonetheless “endorsed” the plan and wrote to various government institutions urging them to implement it.39

Meanwhile, as Iran’s economy ‘deteriorated’ further and the new government proved unable to solve the country’s ‘chronic’ financial problems, Iranian officials seemed to raise the tone of their warnings to the Iranian public that things will only get worse, clearly preparing them for more inflation and more poverty and hardship. Here are a few examples:

∙ In March 2014, Ali Fallahian, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts and a former intelligence minister who is most famous for killing Iranian intellectuals in the 1990s, defied the Western sanctions and said, if they got harsher, “we will eat just once a day or fast.”40

∙ A few days before, Ali Saidi, Khamenei’s representative at Sepah Pasdaran in the Ahwaz region, had said: “We are heading toward many challenges and sanctions, but we are not going to give up what we have achieved with blood only to get some bread. The people of Iran should prepare themselves for more suffering.”41

∙ In that same month, Iranian state-controlled media published pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei wearing worn-out sandals, in a symbolic message that the Supreme Leader is ‘suffering’ like poor Iranians and he expects everybody to do the same.42

Update on the economic costs of the war in Syria to Iran and Hezbollah

There is no doubt that the Iranian economy has suffered a great deal over the past year or so as a result of falling oil prices, strict international sanctions and the cost of financing simultaneous military adventures in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iranian oil exports have fallen by some 60 percent since 2011, and the country’s budget deficit has reached 9 billion US dollars.

According to figures released by the Iranian government in December 2014, when the new budget bill was presented to parliament, the overall state budget for the current Iranian year (beginning 21 March 2015) is 8,379 trillion Iranian rials, or 294 billion US dollars.1 This means a mere 4 percent growth compared with the previous annual budget. In addition to privatisation and increasing tax revenues, one of the ways through which Hassan Rouhani’s government is planning to cut costs is by slashing the budget allocated for cash handouts to poor Iranians by 26 percent.

Yet, the budget allocated to defense and security expenditure will increase by 32 percent to 360 trillion rials (12.6 billion US dollars) compared with the previous budget. Part of this increase has been justified by the government by a 17 percent planned increase in the salaries of civil servants and military personnel.2 Another, not-talked-about part is certainly related to Sepah Pasdaran’s military adventures in the region.

Iran’s financial problems have naturally also affected Hezbollah Lebanon, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the Iranian regime. From the sudden closure of the English-language edition of Al-Akhbar newspaper in March 2015 due to insufficient funds, to cuts in party members’ wages and social provisions, such as medical care for fighters’ families, Hezbollah too appears to be suffering economically.3

A Newsweek article in January 2015 quoted Hezbollah officials and observers close to the party confirming that many such ‘austerity measures’ have lately been put in place, in addition to delays in paying wages.4 Similarly, a Christian Science Monitor article, also in January 2015, cited Lebanese sources close to Hezbollah saying the party has halved certain salaries and delayed payments to suppliers of commercial enterprises.5

Yet, despite all these difficulties, Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria, just like those of Sepah Pasdaran, are unlikely to be affected very much in the short term. One reason for this – in addition to the increase in Iran’s defence budget mentioned above – is that a big part of Hezbollah’s and Sepah Padaran’s funding comes not from the regular Iranian state budget but from a separate fund directly overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which does not appear in any official fiscal budgets. Khamenei’s private fund is mainly propped up by “certain religious associations” other than the official awqaf, or bonyads, according to Hezbollah’s representative in Iran, quoted in an article in Al-Akhbar newspaper in July 2012.6

Neither is it likely that the Iranian regime will significantly reduce its economic and military support to the Syrian regime for reasons to do solely with economic hardship. In July 2015, Iran provided the Syrian regime with yet another credit line worth one billion US dollars.7 According to the Syrian state news agency, SANA, the money would be used for funding imports of goods and commodities and implementing projects, without giving more details.

Some of these projects are likely to be reconstruction projects implemented by Iranian companies and old-new Syrian mafias linked to the inner circle of the regime.8 In March 2015, the advisor of Sepah Pasdaran’s commander in chief, Gen. Hossein Hamadani, revealed that “a reconstruction Basij”, named Jihad al-Bina, had been established in Syria with Iranian assistance.9 “The Syrian reconstruction Basij, like its Iranian model, has mobilised the youth and people of Syria to reconstruct the deprived regions and war-stricken areas,” Hamadani added.

In January 2015, Bloomberg quoted a spokeswoman for the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, saying the envoy estimates that Iran is spending 6 billion US dollars annually on al-Assad’s government.10 Nadim Shehadeh, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, is quoted in the same article saying his research shows that Iran spent between $14 and $15 billion in military and economic aid to the Damascus regime in 2012 and 2013. A Beirut-based diplomat “with extensive contacts in Syria” was quoted by The Christian Science Monitor in January 2015 estimating that Iran funnels between $1 billion to $2 billion a month into Syria to keep al-Assad in power.11 Of that, some $500 million is spent on military assistance, mostly for the Syrian regime militia known as the National Defense Forces, according to the source.12

Another reason why Iran’s and Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria are unlikely to be affected very much in the short term by economic hardship is the expected cash infusion from sanctions relief, as well as an immediate $30 to $50 billion bonus, resulting from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers reached in July 2015.13

There is no doubt that a big part of the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be released will be injected into Sepah Pasdaran’s coffers and spent on supporting the Assad regime and Hezbollah Lebanon in suppressing the Syrian people, and on destabilising Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.14

Indeed, President Bashar al-Assad was among the first to congratulate the Iranian regime the day the Vienna Deal was signed in July 2015 and to voice his confidence that Iran would step up its efforts to “support just causes,” suggesting he expects more financial and military aid from his allies in Tehran.15 In June 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said Iran would back the Syrian regime “until the end of the road.”16


1 See here. For English, see here.

2 Ibid.

3 See, for example, Alex Rowell, ‘Hezbollah’s fading finances back in spotlight’, Now, 19 March 2015.

4 Jeff Neumann, ‘Is Hezbollah Going Broke?’, Newsweek, 15 January 2015.

5 Nicholas Blanford, ‘How oil price slump is putting a squeeze on Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite ally’, The Christian Science Monitor, 4 January 2015.

6 Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, ‘Hezbollah’s Iran money trail: It’s complicated’, Al-Akhbar, 31 July 2012.

7 See here.

8 For more on this, see here.

9Reconstruction Basij formed in Syria’ (in Persian), Khaybar Online, 2 March 2015.

10 Eli Lake, ‘Iran Spends Billions to Prop Up Assad’, Bloomberg, 9 January 2015.

11 Nicholas Blanford, ‘How oil price slump is putting a squeeze on Hezbollah’, The Christian Science Monitor, idem.

12 For a more detailed overview of Iran’s expenditure on ‘funding terror’ in Syria and the wider region, see Naame Shaam’s report Financing Terror – The economic impact of Iran’s nuclear programme and its support to paramilitary groups across the Middle East, December 2015.

13 See here, for example. See also here.

14 For more on this, see here.

15 See here.

16 See here.

Counting the dead

Chapter I cited many examples of Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah Lebanon and Iraqi militia commanders and fighters killed in Syria and the official funerals held for them in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq respectively. A number of websites and blogs have collected pictures and videos of these funerals, along with their owners’ names and stories.43

Sepah funeral

Both Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon have been very cagey about their casualties in Syria from the beginning.

However, most of the Iranian and Lebanese funerals referred to above were for senior Sepah and Hezbollah commanders. Funerals for ordinary fighters were either held in secret or not held at all. This makes the task of assessing Sepah’s and Hezbollah’s losses in Syria very difficult, if not impossible.

In August 2014, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the death of 561 Hezbollah Lebanon fighters in Syria. The number of deaths from other Shia militias documented by the organisation was 1,854.44 However, as the report points out, the real figures are likely to be much higher as a result of the secrecy surrounding most of these forces’ casualties.

Following the publication of some of the above-referenced reports and the issue of Hezbollah Lebanon’s involvement in Syria and its mounting casualties there becoming a hot topic, the party reportedly started to ‘bribe’ the families of its ‘martyrs’ – allegedly offering them between 20,000 and 25,000 US dollars, according to some media reports – if they accepted not to announce the death in public and not to hold a public burial ceremony.45 Some funerals may have also been kept low-key and not publicised online, making it difficult for outside observers and researchers to document them.46

Hezbollah martyrs

Naame Shaam’s correspondent in Beirut toured several predominately Shia districts in the Lebanese capital in April 2014. In one area, near the ‘Amiliyeh school, within just 20 meters he saw posters of three Hezbollah and one Amal ‘martyrs’ who had died in Syria.

In March 2014, a Lebanese poll found that more than 70 per cent of the 600 participants queried, who were all residents of al-Dahiyeh, Beirut – a Hezbollah stronghold – knew someone (from their family, neighbourhood or village) who had been killed in Syria.47 In April 2014, Naame Shaam’s correspondent in Beirut conducted a short tour of several predominately Shia districts in the Lebanese capital. In one area alone (near the ‘Amiliyeh school), within approximately 20 metres he saw posters of one Amal and three Hezbollah ‘martyrs’ who had died in Syria.48

The number of Hezbollah fighters who have died in Syria since March 2011 is certainly higher than that publicly admitted by the party (a few hundred, at best). In the al-Qusayr battle alone, well over 100 Hezbollah fighters were killed, according to Syria opposition sources, of whom some 100 were confirmed by Hezbollah (see chapter I). In the Yabroud battle, at least as many were killed, if not more.49 In one week alone, Hezbollah held an official funeral for 56 of its fighters killed in Yabroud after their bodies were returned to Lebanon.

Moreover, many corpses were not retrieved, according to Syrian and Lebanese sources.50 In April 2014, a Free Syrian Army commander was quoted by Al-Hayat newspaper saying:

A big number of [corpses of] Hezbollah members who were killed in al-Qusayr are still in corpse refrigerators and Hezbollah cannot take them out. It is important to distinguish between the Shia and Hezbollah, because many honourable [Shiites] are opposed to Hezbollah and strongly refuse to send their sons to participate in the killing of the Syrian people. So the party [Hezbollah] has found itself in a trap. Families [of martyrs] are told their sons are in Southern Lebanon, at the border with Israel. That’s why there are more than 175 corpses in refrigerators in Hasbayya since the Qusayr battle, and the party cannot tell their families about them.51

Both Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon have been very cagey about their casualties in Syria, right from the start. Both have been doing all they can to keep this information hidden from the public because it could 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 demanding to ‘bring the boys back home’ before they too die out there.

Update on Iranian and Hezbollah casualties in Syria

The number of Iranian and Hezbollah casualties in Syria remains a subject of dispute. Syrian opposition sources sometimes exaggerate the figures, while Iranian and Hezbollah officials and media outlets deny or downplay reports about their casualties in Syria. This denial, which sometimes amounts to outright lies, is partly due to Sepah Pasdaran’s and Hezbollah’s attempts to conceal or obscure the numbers of fighters deployed in Syria, and partly due to attempts to understate their casualties so as not to lower their supporters’ morales. But the increasing number of Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria over the past year, and the more prominent role they have been playing in keys battles, has naturally meant that their casualties are also rising.

Sepah Pasdaran’s casualties

In late June 2015, the official Iranian news agency IRNA noted in a photo caption that 400 funerals had been held in Iran for “martyred defenders of the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine” killed in Syria, of whom 56 were Iranians and the rest Afghani Shia fighters.1 A couple of weeks before, Hossein Mashreghian, a member of the organisation formed to celebrate ‘shrine defender martyrs’, was quoted by Iranian media saying 52 shrine defender martyrs had been buried in Qom thus far, with another two to be buried soon, while five bodies had not been retrieved from the battlefield. Thus, “altogether 59 shrine defender martyrs have come from Qom,” he added.2

Around the same time, footage of the bodies of 65 Iranian and Afghan fighters killed in southern Syria, which were exchanged for 24 Syrian opposition prisoners of war held by the Syrian regime, was also broadcast by Iranian media.3 In late November 2015, a senior Sepah Qods advisor, General Hassan Karimpour, said in a speech in Rafsanjan that “180 Shia Iranians have been martyred in Syria.”4

But these rare admissions appear to significantly understate the actual numbers of Iranian casualties in Syria. A survey by The Washington Institute of funerals held in Iran for Shia fighters killed in Syria, published in August 2015, documents the cases of 113 Iranians, 121 Afghans and 20 Pakistanis killed in Syria since January 2013 and buried in Iran.5 Breaking down the casualties by the Sepah Pasdaran branch they served in, 8 of the Iranian ‘martyrs’ were identified as members of Sepah Qods, 8 served in Sepah’s Ground Forces, while 3 served in the Basij force. Funeral photos and online biographical material suggest that the remaining 94 were active-duty Sepah Pasdaran members as well, though the branch in which they had served is not known.

In contrast to the Afghan and Pakistani Shia fighters killed in Syria, most of whom appear to have served as foot soldiers, the 113 Iranians include 10 who were commemorated as sardar, a Persian word that refers to a high military rank equivalent to general. Judging by readers’ comments on the websites commemorating them, the study notes, most of the Iranian casualties appear to have been technical advisors, combat advisors, trainers, combat personnel (including one tank driver), special operations forces, intelligence officers, and even journalists and filmmakers.

Significantly, the study says that published accounts since July 2014 indicate an increasing number of casualties from Sepah Pasdaran’s Ground Forces. This is clear when analysing their place of burial in Iran, according to the survey: Sepah Qods members are recruited from all over the country and are buried individually in their native province, while the Ground Forces are organised according to the country’s administrative divisions, with a local Sepah Pasdaran unit serving each province. Thus, mass funeral services in one province indicate that a Ground Forces unit from that province had been sent to Syria.

Naame Shaam has separately documented many of these funerals. The names of over 200 Sepah Pasdaran and Basij fighters and commanders killed in Syria and buried in Iran since the beginning of 2012 are produced in Appendix 1, along with the dates and places of their burial. A report by Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who is also the author of The Washington Institute report mentioned above, prepared for the US Congress Foreign Affairs Committee in December 2015, gives a similar figure (201) over the same period of time.6

While funerals may be a good way of assessing Sepah Pasdaran’s casualties in Syria – especially that the Iranian regime and the media outlets affiliated with it appear to have become more open about such events in recent months – they are by no means conclusive as funerals may not be held, or they may be held secretly and not reported by the media. For instance, as mentioned in Chapter I, the number of Sepah Pasdaran members killed in an Israeli air strike on an Iranian-Hezbollah convoy near al-Qunaytira on 18 January 2015 was six according to some media reports, but only the name of General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was mentioned in official Iranian statements.

Hezbollah Lebanon’s casualties

Like Sepah Pasdarn, Hezbollah too has been cagey about its casualties, despite a growing number of reports on this issue emerging since the first edition of this report was published. The reason, according to a social worker “on good terms with Hezbollah circles” quoted by a Lebanese website in October 2014, is “to do with keeping the morales of fighters and their families high.”7 The unnamed source adds that “there is not a single [Shia] village in the South [of Lebanon] that does not have at least a martyr or two if it is a small village (less than 5,000 inhabitants). For larger villages and towns, the number easily rises to 4 or 5 martyrs.” There are around 300 Shia villages and towns in southern Lebanon, not to mention the Hezbollah strongholds in the upper Bekaa valley and the southern suburb of Beirut known as al-Dahiyeh.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the death of 903 Hezbollah fighters in Syria until 5 August 2015.8 Prior to the recent battles in al-Zabadani and al-Qalamon (see Chapter I), the figure was around 700. Other observers have reported slightly higher numbers. In October 2014, a Lebanese website estimated Hezbollah’s casualties in Syria to be 840 dead and some 2,400 injured.9 The latter estimates were said to be based on information provided by sources within Hezbollah’s own ‘War Ambulance Service’ and ‘Islamic Healthcare Commission’.

On 16 May 2015, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed that only 13 of his fighters had been killed in the Qalamon battles over the previous two weeks.10 A pro-Hezbollah website listed 47 Hezbollah casualties in al-Qalamon in May and 30 in June 2015.11 But the figures have been widely disputed by many observers. For instance, on 20 April, Lebanese daily Annahar published a list of names of 23 Hezbollah fighters killed in the battle, which is 10 casualties more than the 13 claimed by Nasrallah.12 Similarly, Al-Arabiya published a report on 30 July 2015 claiming that 200 Hezbollah fighters had been killed in the Zabadani battles in 26 days alone.13

Even Iranian state-controlled media have reported higher figures than Hezbollah’s ones. In August 2015, an Iranian website said the number of Hezbollah’s ‘martyrs’ in July was 37, most of whom had been killed in al-Zabadani. In the three months of May to July 2015, the report added, 108 Hezbollah members died in different parts of Syria, and the total number of Hezbollah’s ‘martyrs’ in Syria since the war started “probably mounts to 800 or 900.”14

Similar media wars took place around Hezbollah’s casualties in southern Syria (Daraa and al-Qunaytira) in February 2015, when Syrian opposition sources estimated Hezbollah’s casualties there to be somewhere between 60 and 80 fighters.15 Many were reportedly transported back to Lebanon via Beirut airport.16 Other bodies are allegedly kept in fridges or reported as ‘traffic accidents’.17

So, taking the above-mentioned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights figure as a basis, the number of Hezbollah Lebanon’s casualties in Syria would have now reached at least 1,000 in the most conservative estimates. This is close to the 1,284 fighters that the group lost over 18 years of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon (1982-2000).18

Hezbollah’s rising death toll may not represent a “crippling blow” for the group, but it does “underscore the rising costs of an open-ended campaign [in support of] a regime that is gradually losing ground,” in the words of one commentator.19 And this should come as no surprise as Hezbollah has been increasingly playing a leading role in the fight against Syrian rebels, while the faltering Syrian regime forces are at best playing a supporting role. The ongoing battles in al-Qalamon and the South are two clear examples of this.

Hezbollah ‘overstretched’ in Syria

To make up for its growing losses, Hezbollah has recently intensified its recruitment efforts among the Lebanese Shia and non-Shia communities alike. In October 2014, a Lebanese website revealed that many Shia employees in a number of companies and institutions in Lebanon were resigning or taking long-term ‘vacations’ to joint the fight in Syria as part of a general mobilisation by Hezbollah.20 In May 2015, another Lebanese website reported that many Lebanese Shia students were being drafted by Hezbollah to go and fight in Syria.21 These recruitment efforts have been so intensive that a Lebanese military source was quoted by Al-Monitor in May 2015 saying the number of Hezbollah fighters in Syria “has doubled since 2013” and that the group is in fact “becoming bigger.”22

However, it is also an indicator that Hezbollah is increasingly overstreached in Syria that the group has been reportedly drafting ever younger conscripts. In April 2015, a public funeral was held for a 15-year-old Hezbollah fighter who died while performing his “jihad duty” in Syria.23 The following month, in May 2015, another young Hezbollah fighter, aged 16, was also killed in Syria.24 In July 2015, media reports claimed Hezbollah arrested 175 of its own members for refusing to go and fight in al-Zabadani after it emerged that 120 of its fighters had been killed there.25

These developments, coupled with the growing numbers of ‘martyrs’ dying in al-Qalamon and the South, have led to what appears to be a growing state of resentment and anger within the Shia community in Lebanon. In July 2015, a number of Hezbollah MP’s reportedly threatened, during a closed meeting with Hassan Nasrallah, to resign if Hezbollah’s leadership did not stop sending its members to “the Syrian swamp.”26 One MP, Nawwaf al-Mousawi, apparently said: “Everyday we lose between 8 and 10 martyrs. Until when can we endure this situation?” In response, Nasrallah allegedly promised to scale down the group’s involvement in battles in Syria after they are “done with al-Zabadani.” He also promised to “ask Iran” to send more fighters from elsewhere to support Hezbollah fighters in Syria.

A couple of days later, Lebanese Shia mothers, whose sons had died in Syria, were reportedly planning to form a delegation and “visit” Nasrallah to “protest against the deaths in Syria.”27 The month before, in June 2015, a group of Shia clerics, activists and intellectuals publicly rejected Nasrallah’s strategy in Syria, saying their loyalties lie with Lebanon and the Lebanese Army rather than Hezbollah.28 One of the key speakers at the rally, Sheikh Abbas al-Jawhari, said no Lebanese party should be fighting in Syria. Even the euphoria that followed the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers did not manage to overshadow this growing resentment.29

In July 2015, Lebanese NGO Hayya Bina published the results of a survey of the Shia communities in Lebanon about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and its impact on the Shia of Lebanon.30 81.3 percent of Lebanon’s Shia think “things are moving in the wrong direction,” according to the study, yet 78.7 percent nevertheless support Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and 57.2 percent consider the takfiri threat to be “the most important issue facing the community.” More than half of the 1,000 respondents surveyed (53.2 percent) said they knew someone from their neighborhood, village or family who had been killed in Syria. In other words, many Lebanese Shia may not be happy with what Hezbollah is doing in Syria, but they nevertheless feel safer and more protected under its wings, regardless of how delusional this may be.31

New rhetoric

Faced with growing resentment and criticism, both inside and outside the party, Hezbollah appears to have become more aggressive towards its critics, accusing them of being “American embassy agents,” “traitors,” “stupid” and such like.32

More importantly, to justify their continued involvement in the ‘Syrian swamp’ and to be able to recruit more supporters and fighters, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime appear to have adopted a new rhetoric and a new raison d’être other than ‘resistance against Israel’, namely, fighting Sunni ‘takfiris’ and ‘terrorists’.

Iranian and Hezbollah mourners at funerals now typically follow the traditional chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” with “Death to the takfiris.”33 In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir in April 2014, Nasrallah said the “takfiri threat and the Israeli threat go hand in hand.”34 In another televised speech in July 2014, he described Daesh as “an existential threat” to Lebanon and the region.35

In an interview with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV channel on 25 August 2015, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad echoed the same idea: “Today, the main Israeli tool that is more important than [Israel’s strikes on Syrian territory] is the terrorists in Syria, meaning that what they do is much more dangerous than what Israel does from time to time to support them. They are the basis of the problem. So, if we want to confront Israel, first we have to confront its tools within Syria.”36

Whatever the Iranian regime and Hezbollah may say to appease or scare their supporters, the reality is that their ‘Syrian Vietnam’ is becoming more and more costly by the day. As one commentator put it, Iran and Hezbollah are “plung[ing] ever deeper into a potential quagmire.”37


1 The original report appears to have been removed from IRNA’s website. However, a screenshot of it is available here. For English, see: ‘Iran admits to 400 funerals for Syria fighters’, The Daily Star Lebanon, 30 June 2015.

2A ceremony to honor the innocent martyrs of the front of honor and manhood’ (in Persian), Fars News, 13 June 2015.

3 See here and here, for example.

4Sepah Qods advisor: Iran has 14 underground missile depots / 180 Iranians killed in Syria’ (in Persian), Asr Iran, 26 November 2015.

5 Ali Alfoneh, ‘Shiite combat casualties show the depth of Iran’s involvement in Syria’, The Washington Institute, 3 August 2015.

6 Available here.

7Hezbollah’s dead and wounded: 4,000 or 8,000?’ (in Arabic), Janoubia, 12 October 2014.

8 See here.

9 ‘Hezbollah’s dead and wounded: 4,000 or 8,000?’, Janoubia, idem. See also this report by the same website from November 2014.

10 See here.

11 See here.

12 See here.

13 See here. See also here.

14What is the number of Hezbollah Lebanon’s martyrs in the Syria war’ (in Persian), Parsine, 2 August 2015.

15Hezbollah’s dead and wounded arrived from Daraa battles to Beirut airport’ (in Arabic), Al-Hal, 21 February 2015.

16 Ibid.

17 See here, for example.

18 Nicholas Blanford, ‘Syria as Vietnam? Why the war could be making Hezbollah stronger’, The Christian Science Monitor, 12 March 2015. See also: Dan De Luce, ‘Syrian war takes rising toll on Hezbollah’, Foreign Policy, 9 July 2015.

19 Ibid.

20They resigned from their jobs to join Hezbollah’s mobilisation’ (in Arabic), Lebanon Debate, 13 October 2014.

21Al-Qalamon: New casualties for Hezbollah and drafting of students’ (in Arabic), Janoubia, 9 May 2015.

22 Ali Hashem, ‘Iran’s new strategy in Syria’, Al-Monitor, 13 May 2015.

23 See: For English, see:

24 See here.

25 See here. See also here.

26Screams against the death bill inside a Hezbollah meeting’ (in Arabic), Lebanon Debate, 11 July 2015.

27 See here.

28 See here.

29 See, for example, this article and this one published in Arabic by Janoubia.

30 Available here.

31 For more on this issue, see, for example, this article and this one in Arabic. See also this article by Ziad Majed, and this one in English by Nicholas Saidel.

32 See, for example, here and here.

33 Ben Hubbard, ‘Syrian fighting gives Hezbollah new but diffuse purpose’, The New York Times, 20 May 2014. See also this al-Jazeera debate in Arabic about the same issue.

34 See here.

35 See here.

36 See here.

37 Dan De Luce, ‘Syrian war takes rising toll on Hezbollah’, Foreign Policy, idem.

New case study: Aleppo, the ‘graveyard’ of Iranian commanders

Following the death of Brigadier-General Hossein Hamedani near Aleppo on 8 October 2015 (see chapter I), several other Iranian high-ranking commanders were killed in battle around the city’s countryside during the same month.

Gen. Farshad Hassounizadeh, the former commander of the Saberin Brigade, a Special Forces unit within Sepah Pasdaran, was killed on 12 October 2015, according to an Iranian pro-regime journalist based in Syria.1 Alongside Hasounizadeh, Colonel Haj Hamid Mokhtarband, the former chief-of-staff of the First Imam Mahdi Brigade in Ahvaz, was also killed.2

A few days later, on 18 October, Iranian media reported the death of Colonel Moslem Khizab.3 While Iranian state-controlled media repeated the usual obscure line of “martyred in Syria while defending the shrine,” Syrian opposition sources said Khizab was killed during battles in the southern countryside of Aleppo.4 Khizab was reportedly the commander of the Ya Zahraa battalion of the Imam Hossein Division of Sepah Pasdaran. According to media reports, he was the fifth senior Iranian commander, out of 21 Iranian casualties, to have died in Syria within two weeks.5

In addition to Sepah Padaran commanders, a number of Basij and militia commanders were also killed in the Aleppo battles in October and November 2015. These include Rasoul Pourmorad, a commander of the Bassij force in Qazvin, who died on 14 October. On 22 October, a senior commander and a founding member of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Bridage, Brigadier-General Reza Khavari, was killed near Aleppo.6 A day later, another founding member of Fatemiyoun was killed. Mostafa Sadrzadeh, AKA Seyyed Ebrahim, was the commander of the Ammar Battalion of the Fatemiyoun Brigade.7

Tens of less senior commanders and fighters were also killed near Aleppo during the same period. For example, on 8 October, Fars News published the pictures of five Sepah Pasdaran fighters, including one commander (Major Mosa Jamshidian), who had been killed in Syria.8 On 24 October, the same news agency reported the death of Milad Mostafavi during fighting in Aleppo. On 26 October, it reported the death of two other Sepah Pasdaran members, Sajjad Tahernia and Ruhollah Emadi.9

Other deaths that have particularly caught the media’s attention were those of members of Sepah Ansar, a special force charged with the protection of senior Iranian officials. On 23 October, Iranian media reported the death of two members of the force in Aleppo, including Abdollah Bagheri, a former bodyguard of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.10 The other one was named as Amin Karimi.11 Bagheri and Karimi were likely accompanying some senior Iranian commander(s) in the area.

It is difficult to independently confirm the exact number of Iranian commanders and fighters killed in Aleppo in October and November 2015. But they are certainly significantly higher than before.

For instance, Fars News reported on 23 October that seven Sepah members, mostly from Sepah Ansar, were killed in Syria in the previous two days alone.12 A state-run website called Asr Iran reported the death of 15 Sepah Pasdaran members in Syria on 22 October. The force denied the report and its public relations desk claimed only eight members had been killed in the whole of Syria in recent days.13

But Sepah Pasdaran is known to downplay its Syria casualties and give misleading figures. Sources in Hezbollah Lebanon, quoted by the Italian news agency AKI in early November 2015, claimed that Iran has lost “60 high-ranking generals” since the war started four and a half years ago.14 Of these, the sources added, Tehran has only officially admitted to 18 who were “close to the Iranian spiritual leadership.”

In any case, as numerous observers and commentators have noted, “Iran can no longer downplay its intervention in Syria’s civil war; there are too many public funerals these days.”15

Why so many?

In early October 2015, Iranian-led troops and militias, backed by Russian air strikes, launched a major offensive aimed at regaining territory from Daesh, al-Nusra Front and Syrian rebel factions in the northern parts of Syria, particularly in Hama’s northern countryside and Aleppo’s southern countryside.16 Hundreds of Sepah Pasdaran fighters had arrived with their weapons in the country over the previous 10 days to join the major ground offensive, according to two Lebanese sources quoted by Reuters.17

“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria,” one of the sources said. “Soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers… we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more.” In an interview with The Guardian during a visit to London on 20 October, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, admitted that Iran had boosted the number of “military advisers” it has sent to Syria.18 A few days later, Sepah Pasdaran’s Deputy Commander, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, was quoted by the media saying Iran “is increasing the quality and quantity of its presence in Syria.”19

After Hamedani’s death, Operation Greater Aleppo was renamed Operation Hard Revenge, in a clear indication of who is in charge of the Syrian regime’s military operations.20 The locations (on at least three different fronts) and the manner (in battle or from bombs or gunshots) in which the above Iranian generals and fighters died further indicate that Sepah Pasdaran is not only directing, but actually fighting these battles on behalf of the Assad regime. This obviously goes against the Iranian regime’s claims that it is only playing an ‘advisory’ role in Syria.

Media reports also claimed at the time that Gen. Qassem Soleimani had arrived in Syria to lead the new Aleppo offensive.21 A video posted on YouTube around the same time shows Soleimani addressing a crowd of Hezbollah and Sepah Pasdaran fighters, with a uniformed man with a Lebanese accent pledging allegiance to the Imam Khamenei in front of the Iranian general.22

Two Hezbollah prisoners of war captured by al-Nusra Front in the Aleppo countryside told a Syrian opposition TV channel in November 2015 that directing the military operations in the southern countryside of Aleppo was “totally in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” who “employ Iraqi, Afghan and Hezbollah [militiamen].”23 The Syrian military presence, they added, was “very, very little. There are some Syrian soldiers only at some checkpoints. On the ground and in the battlefield, there aren’t any.”

“The Iranians don’t trust anyone,” one of them adds. “They are in charge of the operation and directing it, and don’t allow anyone else to interfere. Everyone else just gets orders from them.”

The increase in the number of Sepah Pasdaran commanders and fighters deployed to the Aleppo front in October 2015, and the leading role they have taken on in this battle, seem to explain the increased number of their casualties. However, another factor may be the increased military support provided to Syrian rebels by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in the wake of the Russian military intervention in late September 2015 (See below for more on this).

Sources in Hezbollah Lebanon, quoted by the Italian news agency AKI in early November 2015, add another interesting angle. The reason for the high number of Iranian casualties is “the weakness of the Syrian army and the diversity of the militias, and the latter not sticking to the [military] plans devised by the Iranians in collaboration with high-ranking Syrian army officers.”24 The high number of Iranian generals dying in Syria, the sources add, has led Iran to “decrease the number of high-ranking generals and increase the number of lower-ranking ones.”

If true, this may in fact lead to further military losses suffered by Iranian troops and militias as the quality of their military plans and conduct will presumably decline even further.

‘Debate’ at home

The increasing number of senior Iranian commanders killed in Syria seems to have sparked a rare public debate back home, with many questioning the Iranian regime’s efforts to prop up the Assad regime. According to The Daily Star Lebanon, the mounting death toll has for the first time led some people in Iran to openly question the country’s four-year involvement in Syria, with concerns aired on social media.25

Meanwhile, the Persian-language opposition website Zamaneh launched a special page entitled “War in the Region and Iran’s Share of Responsibility,” where it collected quotes and statements from by Iranian intellectuals and celebrities expressing their concern and opposition to the Iranian role in the war in Syria.26 Similar initiatives and online campaigns have also been launched by Iranian activists on social media, including a Facebook page called “Iranians for Syria” and an online campaign titled “Sorry Syria”.27

It took almost five years of bloodshed in Syria for a public debate in Iran to start and for Iranian intellectuals and celebrities to start openly stating their opposition to what the Iranian regime is doing in Syria. But as the proverb goes, it’s better late than never.


1 See here.

2 See here.

3 See here.

4 See here, for example.

5 Ibid.

6 See here. See also here.

7 See here.

8 See here.

9 See here.

10 See here.

11 See here.

12 See here.

13 See here.

14 See here.

15 Robin Wright, ‘Iran’s Generals Are Dying in Syria’, The New Yorker, 26 October 2015. See also this article.

16Syrian troops launch ground offensive backed by Russian airstrikes’, The Guardian, 7 October 2015.

17Iran troops to join Syria war, Russia bombs group trained by CIA’, Reuters, 2 October 2015. See also this article and this one.

18Iran sending more advisers to Syria to defeat ‘terrorism’, says deputy minister’, The Guardian, 21 October 2015.

19 See here, for example.

20 See here, for example.

21 See here, for example. See also this picture of Soleimani in Syria from around the same time.

22 Available:

23 Available here.

24 See here.

25 See here.

26 Available here. Some of the testimonies are available in English here.

27 See here.

Bleeding Iran in Syria

In the wake of the Ghouta chemical massacre in August 2013, US President Barack Obama threatened to use military force to punish the Syrian regime for crossing his famous ‘red line’, only to seize on an offer by Russia whereby Syria would dismantle and surrender its chemical weapons stockpile to avoid the attack. The deal surprised and disappointed many people around the world. Yet, portraying Obama as a reluctant, indecisive president who is lacking a strategy on Syria, as numerous media reports and commentaries have been doing, seems to miss an important point.

It may be true that the US and its Western allies have so far not been willing to intervene in Syria in any decisive manner. But that has not been out of indecisiveness. Rather, Obama and his team appear to have adopted a policy of ‘slowly bleeding Iran and Hezbollah in Syria’ – that is, arming Syrian rebels just enough not to lose the war, but not to win either. A prolonged fight in Syria, according to this rationale, would not only weaken the Syrian army so that it is no longer a threat to Israel, both directly and indirectly, it would also significantly weaken the Iranian regime and Hezbollah Lebanon. Coupled with prolonged economic sanctions against Iran, this may eventually lead to the collapse of the Iranian regime, or at least weaken it to the point that it is no longer a threat and can be easily forced to comply with US agendas.

A report by The New York Times from October 2013, based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the US administration, foreign diplomats and Congressmen, sheds some light on the reasoning behind the Obama administration’s position on Syria.52 According to the report, three of Obama’s closest aides, who are said to have his ear on Syria, are all against direct military intervention in the country: Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff and a former deputy national security adviser, Tom Donilon, Obama’s former national security adviser, and Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations.

During a day trip with a group of senior lawmakers to the Guantánamo Bay naval base in early June 2013, McDonough reportedly argued that the status quo in Syria could “keep Iran pinned down for years.” In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would “work to America’s advantage.” The following month, Obama asked Rice, who had succeeded Donilon as national security adviser, to undertake a review of American policy in the Middle East and North Africa and to “make Syria part of a broader strategy involving both Iran and the Middle East peace process.”

The strategy was made clear by President Obama himself during a long interview about Israel and Palestine in March 2014:

I’m always darkly amused by this notion that somehow Iran has won in Syria. I mean, you hear sometimes people saying, ‘They’re winning in Syria’. And you say, ‘This was their one friend in the Arab world, a member of the Arab League, and it is now in rubble’. It’s bleeding them because they’re having to send in billions of dollars. Their key proxy, Hezbollah, which had a very comfortable and powerful perch in Lebanon, now finds itself attacked by Sunni extremists. This isn’t good for Iran. They’re losing as much as anybody. The Russians find their one friend in the region in rubble and delegitimized.53

As a number of commentators observed at the time, the implication here is that Obama and his team “could be seeking to intentionally prolong the war, despite the catastrophic scale of the death and destruction that is taking place as a result, because it is bad for Iran and Russia.”54

The President even “rebuffed” a detailed plan, presented to him in summer 2012 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then CIA Director David Petraeus, to arm and train Syrian rebels.55 After Petraeus resigned, his successor Michael J. Morell renewed his predecessor’s pitch to arm the rebels; Obama was still not convinced, despite new intelligence assessments warning that Syrian regime forces and militias were gaining the upper hand in the war, thanks largely to Iranian munitions shipments that had “replenished the stocks of [Syrian] army units,” while the rebels were running out of ammunition and supplies.

By now, the debate had “shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it,” according to the above-mentioned New York Times article. So Obama decided to make the rebel training programme a “covert action” run by the CIA rather than the Pentagon. He reportedly signed a secret order allowing the agency to begin preparing to train and arm “small groups of rebels in Jordan.” Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continued to step up its military support to the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah Lebanon and Iraqi militias were “taking root” in Syria, as the CIA assessment presented to the President put it.56

In June 2014, Obama claimed that the existence of a moderate Syrian force that was able to defeat al-Assad was “simply not true.” The idea that they would suddenly be able to defeat “not only al-Assad but also highly trained jihadists” if the US “just sent them a few arms” was “a fantasy,” he added.57 In a longer interview in August 2014, Obama defended his position on Syria and repeated his ‘fantasy’ line, adding,

This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.58

Syrian rebels and opposition groups were clearly offended and disappointed by the US President’s remarks. A spokesman for the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition said Obama’s statement was “meant to cover up the inability of his administration to prevent the deterioration of the political and humanitarian situation in the Levant, and to evade the growing criticism of his policies regarding the Syrian crisis.”59

Many also disagreed with the President’s logic, including US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. In an interview with The Atlantic in August 2014, she said:

The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”60

Yet, in a speech on 10 September 2014 authorising the expansion of US air strikes against Daesh in Iraq as well as in Syria, Obama called on the Congress to authorise plans to “train and equip Syrian rebels” as part of a four-leg strategy to fight Daesh.61 Suddenly the “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” became good enough to be partners in fighting the “highly trained jihadists.” It remains to be seen whether the plan, which will apparently include training camps in Saudi Arabia, will go beyond two previous US promises to arm Syrian rebels and the small-scale, CIA-run training programme in Jordan mentioned above.

Refusing to coordinate with the Assad regime, which “will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” Obama said that supporting the Syrian opposition was “the best counter-weight to extremists like ISIS.”62 However, this will be done, he added, “while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis, once and for all.” (emphasis added)

There was no mention in Obama’s speech of Iran or any of the Iranian-backed militias fighting in Syria. Nothing about the wider wars in Syria and Iraq, in fact. It is likely therefore that the ‘slow bleeding’ policy against Iran and its proxies will continue until further notice.

Indeed, Obama’s different approaches to dealing with Daesh in Syria and in Iraq was a crystallisation of his strategy on Iran. In Iraq, after Daesh took over Mosul in June 2014 and started to advance towards Erbil, Obama was very quick and decisive in authorising air strikes against Daesh forces and positions and in providing the Kurdish armed forces fighting Daesh with all sorts of weapons and support. This gave them significant advantages over the Iranian-back government in Baghdad and the Shia militias controlled by Sepah Pasdaran. In Syria, however, over a year of massacres and military advances by Daesh have not prompted such reactions from the US administration, even though Syrian rebels have been battling Daesh as well as the regime and have been requesting similar assistance from the US and its allies.63

For a few weeks after the start of the US air strikes against Daesh in Iraq, US officials kept repeating that Obama still “did not have a strategy” on dealing with Daesh in Syria and was seeking a broad international coalition before acting. The political circumstances in Syria “are very different,” they added.64 All that is different, in our view, is that Obama appears to be in no rush to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria because it is bleeding Iran and Russia.

Interestingly, the developments in Iraq and the US war on Daesh were seized on by both the Syrian and the Iranian regimes as an opportunity to naturalise their troubled relationship with the US and reach a comprehensive agreement, offering to be part of the new international partnership to ‘fight terrorism’.65 In August 2014, a number of media outlets reported that Iranian Foreign Minister had even offered cooperating with the US in Iraq against Daesh if the sanctions on Iran are lifted.66 But the reports were apparently based on a misquote.67 Iran has always insisted on keeping the two issues separate during the nuclear negotiations.

In any case, the US did not seem interested in such offers, denying any cooperation with Damascus and Tehran.68 President Obama and his team appear to be determined to continue with their ‘slow bleeding’ policy towards Iran and its proxies.

How long can the Iranian regime bleed?

While one may understand the political rationale behind this policy (weakening the Iranian regime and its proxies as much and as long as possible until a confrontation is inevitable), the author of this report believes that the policy is immoral and politically dangerous, because it is being implemented at the disproportionate expense of the people of Syria and the wider region and because it will inevitably lead to more instability and extremism.

Furthermore, hoping that multiple conflicts or fronts with the Iranian regime, coupled with crippling economic sanctions, would eventually lead to the weakening and even collapse of the regime (i.e. winning the war against the Iranian regime in the streets of Tehran) is, at best, wishful thinking. Similar things were said about the Syrian regime at the beginning of the revolution. Sepah Pasdaran and the Basij have shown that they can and will ruthlessly crush any possible dissent movement inside Iran and that they can ‘bleed’ for much longer, so to speak. In fact, Sepah commanders are now arguably stronger than ever, militarily, politically and economically, not only in Iran but also in the whole Middle East.69

There is no sign that Obama’s ‘slow bleeding’ policy will change in the near future – unless all Syrian opposition groups unite in putting enough pressure on the US administration and its allies to change their position. It is 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.

Update on the US policy on Iran and Syria

In November 2014, US president Barack Obama reportedly ordered his national security team to conduct yet another review of his administration’s widely criticised policy on Syria. Various commentators and analysts interpreted that at the time as a “tacit admission” that the administration’s strategy of trying to confront Daesh without confronting Bashar al-Assad and his backers was “a miscalculation.”1

A year later, however, and despite major developments in the region (the expansion of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, signing a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015, the Iranian-backed coup by the Houthi militias in Yemen and the subsequent military campaign led by Saudi Arabia against them, and the Russian military intervention in Syria), little seems to have changed in this strategy. Naame Shaam describes this as a policy of slowly bleeding Iran and Hezbollah in Syria at the expense of continued bloodshed in Syria and rising extremism and instability in the region.

The Obama administration has consistently insisted – at least in public – on separating the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme from its military interventions in neighbouring countries, even though the two issues are intrinsically linked, as this report has argued above. Thus, Obama’s single most important foreign policy goal is the Middle East has been reaching a nuclear deal with Iran first, then dealing with ‘other issues’ later. A comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran was reached in July 2015, and was approved by the US Congress in September 2015. Obama finally got his deal, but now everything has to wait for its implementation.

This approach has meant not only ignoring what the Iranian regime is doing in the region, but also not taking any action that may ‘upset’ Iran while the nuclear negotiations are ongoing and then while the nuclear deal is being implemented in 2016. In other words, the Obama administration is in fact linking the two issues in its strategy on Iran, but only as a trade-off: letting the Iran regime pursue its interests in Syria in return for a nuclear deal.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, President Obama still insists that the nuclear deal and normalising relationships with Iran may push the Iranian regime to become more ‘moderate’ and end its destabilising policies in the region. In an interview with the National Public Radio network (NPR) in December 2014,2 Obama said Iran could become a “very successful regional power” if Tehran agreed to a long-term deal to curb its nuclear programme. “They’ve got a chance to get right with the world,” he said. “There’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication… inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody.”

In another interview with NPR in April 2015,3 Obama reiterated his hope that, “ideally, we would see a situation in which Iran, seeing sanctions reduced, would start focusing on its economy, on training its people, on reentering the world community, to lessening its provocative activities in the region. But if it doesn’t change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don’t.”

The basis of this wishful thinking appears to be a belief that there are two different trends inside the Iranian regime, according to the President: hard-liners who “seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon,” and others who “think that this is counterproductive.”4 So by reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama hopes to “strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.”

In another interview with The New York Times,5 also in April 2015, Obama explained his engagement strategy further, a strategy that has been dubbed “the Obama doctrine.”

The notion that Iran is undeterrable, it’s simply not the case. And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naïve — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place. … We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?

However, to get his nuclear deal with Iran, Obama made significant concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, contrary to previous US and EU positions, in addition to turning a blind eye to what the Iranian regime and its militias are doing in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.6 Iranian negotiators knew that Obama wanted a nuclear agreement with Iran so badly that he was ready to concede and compromise on many of his stated ‘red lines’, so much so that a Wall Street Journal OpEd in April 2015 described Obama’s policy on Iran’s nuclear as “whatever the Ayatollah wants.”7

Indeed, all these concessions and compromises were seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness on the part of the US administration and its Western allies, and that they fear a direct confrontation with Iran in the Middle East. In the words of one of Obama’s senior national security aides, “what we intended as caution, the Iranians saw as weakness.”8

The end result was that the Iranian regime was not only allowed to keep important aspects of its military nuclear programme, but was also given a free hand to continue with its destabilising policies in Syria and the wider region even more aggressively than before. As summed up in a Naame Shaam commentary on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and world powers regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, the so-called Vienna Deal signed in July 2015 could in fact “prevent the US and its allies from being able to put any serious pressure on the Iranian regime in the future to force it to end its destabilising policies in the region.”9

Then there was Daesh. And once again, the Syrian and the Iranian regimes were allowed to capitalise on the international focus on Daesh and the new war on terrorism. In fact, the Obama administration appears to have consciously and deliberately pushed for a pragmatic partnership with the Iranian regime on this front, in the hope that this would push it to sign and abide by a comprehensive nuclear deal.

In early November 2014, The Wall Street Journal revealed that President Obama secretly wrote to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in mid-October, urging him to recognise the two countries’ “shared interest” in fighting Daesh, adding that any cooperation in the campaign was “largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear programme.”10

Significantly, Obama’s letter also sought to assuage Iran’s concerns about the future of its ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. According to US officials briefed on the matter, the letter stated that the US military operations against Daesh in Syria “aren’t targeted at Mr Assad or his security forces.” A few months later, Ayatollah Khamenei wrote back to President Obama and his response was “respectful but noncommittal,” according to an Iranian diplomat.11

The important point here is that Obama’s letter to Khamenei tacitly acknowledged that his administration was treating the regime-held parts of Syria as an Iranian backyard – at least for now. And the Iranian regime surely got the message.

Several reports said that the US administration’s unwillingness to target Bashar al-Assad’s forces and positions in Syria stems from fears that this may have a negative impact on Iran’s position in the nuclear negotiations, and may also trigger Iranian retaliatory actions in Iraq, and elsewhere.12 In September 2013, US officials claimed that the US intelligence had intercepted a message from Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Sepah Qods, to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq ordering them to prepare for attacking the US embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria.13

Even if true, this is no longer sufficient to explain the US’s active cooperation with the Iranian regime in the fight against Daesh. While the US-led coalition’s airplanes continue to strike Daesh positions in Iraq and Syria, the main forces fighting them on the ground in Iraq are Iranian-backed Shia militias, in addition to the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and northern Syria. This was obvious in the battles to retake the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and al-Ramadi and the towns of Amirli and Jurf al-Sakher, to mention but a few examples.14

The “uncomfortable accommodation” by the US-led coalition of Iranian-backed and controlled militias in the campaign against Daesh has often been justified by the ill-preparedness of the Iraqi army and security forces.15 US officials also kept claiming that they were working with Iraqi Shia militias loyal to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad rather than Iran. The US military command centre was allegedly only opened to leaders of some Shia militias “not closely connected to Iran.”16 But everyone knows that both the central government and the Shia militias in Iraq are under the influence of the Iranian regime and are coordinating with it. Indeed, fighters on the ground in Tikrit and elsewhere have been quoted by the media saying Iranian-backed fighters remain on the battlefield.17

In December 2014, when Iranian jets carried out, for the first time, air strikes against Daesh positions in Iraq, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters: “I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL (Deash) in some particular place, and it’s confined to taking on ISIL, and it has an impact, its net effect is positive.” But that is “not something we’re coordinating,” he added.18 Yet, when asked how it was possible that American and Iranian airplanes were sharing the same airspace and targeting the same targets without coordinating, US officials have not been able to give a satisfactory answer.

According to David Cenciotti, a military aviation expert and editor of The Aviationist, it is unlikely that Iranian aircraft would fly inside Iraq without at least informing the US-led coalition of their presence and intentions. “Although it is theoretically possible for Iranian planes to fly inside Iraq without any coordination with other air forces operating in the same airspace, it would be suicidal,” he told the Business Insider.19 In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad revealed in an interview with the BBC in February 2015 that Washington was sharing information on coalition air strikes with his regime “through third parties.”20

Only three months before his “positive” comment, Kerry had said, in September 2014, that it would be “inappropriate” for Iran to join the international coalition against Daesh.21 Yet, in that same month, during a hearing of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry hinted that the task of defeating Daesh could be taken on by the Iranian and Syrian regimes if the current US strategy “failed miserably.”

You’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on Isil… I mean, who knows? I don’t know what’s going to happen here… If we’re failing, failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.22

In December 2014, American ambassador to Baghdad, Stuart Jones, told the Associated Press: “Let’s face it, Iran is an important neighbour to Iraq. There has to be cooperation between Iran and Iraq. The Iranians are talking to the Iraqi security forces and we’re talking to Iraqi security forces … We’re relying on them to do the deconfliction.”23

Obama’s strategy on fighting Daesh has been widely criticised for its ineffectiveness and shortsightedness. As Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, argued in February 2015, there are “two big holes” in the US strategy on Daesh: the growing Shia sectarianism and al-Assad’s atrocities in Syria, both of which are in fact strengthening Daesh.24 In other words, when one of the stated aims of the US campaign against Daesh is to build up a moderate Sunni alliance capable of fighting Daesh on the ground and driving Sunni communities away from the terrorist organisation,  aligning itself with the Iranian regime and its sectarian Shia militias is surely a recipe for failure, both in Iraq and in Syria.

Indeed, evidence suggests that this strategy is driving many Islamist anti-regime groups and fighters to support Daesh,25 and the flow of foreigners traveling to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh has skyrocketed, according to the UN.26

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been turning a blind eye to abundant evidence that the Syrian and Iranian regimes are not serious about fighting Daesh; that they are in fact utilising and directing it to serve their own agendas (see Chapter I for more on this). It has also been refusing to seriously support moderate Syrian rebels to fight Daesh and regime forces and militias at the same time, and turning a deaf ear to Syrian and regional demands for safe zones or no-fly zones that most observers think are crucial to tip the balance in favour of the rebels in this dual battle.

On 16 September 2015, US Central Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin revealed during a testimony in front of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee that “just four or five” Syrian rebel fighters trained and equipped by the US were currently fighting against Daesh in Syria.27 The Congress had passed a bill to train and equip Syrian rebels about a year before, and a programme costing $500 million was devised to train 5,400 fighters a year. Yet, instead of admitting failure, the Obama administration blamed others for the “abysmal failure” of the train-and-equip programme. The White House’s Press Secretary repeatedly noted at briefings that President Obama had always been “a skeptic” of training Syrian rebels. The finger, he implied, should instead be pointed at those who pressed him to attempt training incompetent Syrian rebels in the first place.28

But the main reason for the failure of the programme was the condition imposed by the US administration on all Syrian fighters and groups undergoing the training that none of the skills and weapons they would acquire under the programme could be used against Syrian and Iranian forces and militias in Syria, only against Daesh. They were even made to sign a statement to that effect. This led many Syrian rebels to abandon and boycott the programme.

Even within the US administration, many current and former officials have been critical of Obama’s approach in Syria. In October 2014, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote a private, “very blunt,” “sharply critical” two-page memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice “expressing concern about the overall Syria strategy.”29 The memo reportedly warned that the administration’s policy in Syria was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad. The US’ inaction was “indirectly aiding the Assad regime,” the Defence Secretary said in an interview with CBS a few days later.30 Hagel resigned under pressure in late November 2014.

All the above developments have led many observers and analysts to conclude that the Obama administration “does not understand” that the problem of Daesh cannot be addressed in isolation from other aspects of the wider conflicts in Syria and Iraq.31 Others have argued that the administration is in fact gradually warming up to Iran and pushing it to change into a ‘successful regional power’ and a ‘partner’ in the fight against Daesh and possibly other things.32 Anything else that distracts from this ‘strategic priority’, such as the continued bloodshed in Syria, is seen as a secondary issue.

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a former Director of the National Security Council, describes this US rapprochement toward the Iranian regime as “Obama’s secret Iran strategy,” adding that it is “central to his administration’s strategic thinking” and has been there “from the beginning.”33

A strategy has been in place from the start, and however clumsily it may on occasion have been implemented, and whatever resistance it has generated abroad or at home, Obama has doggedly adhered to the policies that have flowed from it.

Doran quotes David Sanger saying that, in the first year of Obama’s first term, “there were more [White House] meetings on Iran than there were on Iraq, Afghanistan and China. It was the thing we spent the most time on and talked about the least in public.”

The seeds of this strategy, according to Doran, date back to a 2006 report by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan US congressional commission. The so-called Baker-Hamilton report advised then-president George W. Bush on broader Middle East policies and urged him to take four major steps: withdraw American troops from Iraq; surge American troops in Afghanistan; reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli peace process; and launch a diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria.

Baker and Hamilton believed that the two regimes shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilising Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a new order in the region that comprises stable powers that could work together to contain the “worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.”

Doran claims that the Baker-Hamilton report became “the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle.” He therefore concludes that the Obama doctrine revolves around “disarming” the US’ enemies or rivals by “ensnaring them in a web of cooperation.”34

Naame Shaam slightly disagrees. It is our belief that, at least in Syria, the Obama administration’s strategy toward Iran has been revolving around ‘disarming’ the Iranian regime not only through cooperation, but also through ‘slow bleeding’, as this report has extensively argued. Thus, while it may be cooperating with the Iranian regime in the war on Daesh, it is also, at the same time, continuing with the slow military and economic bleeding of Sepah Pasdaran and its militias in Syria – just in case the rapprochement option fails. That, in a nutshell, is Obama’s doctrine.

Yet, both legs of the strategy appear to be based on a great deal of wishful thinking and misreading of developments: The Iranian regime does not seem to be interested in being an ally or partner in the first place, and it is not becoming weaker as a result of the slow bleeding; it is increasingly destablising the region.

Naame Shaam has published seven open letters to US President Barack Obama in the Washington Post newspaper between November 2014 and February 2016,35 in an attempt to convince him to change his Iran strategy:

  1. The first letter urges President Obama to recognize that the so-called regime-held areas of Syria are effectively occupied by the Iranian regime and the militias it controls, and to act decisively to end the    bloodshed in Syria.
  2. The second letter focuses on the role of the Syrian regime and its Iranian backers in mass demolitions and population transfers in Syria, urging President Obama to act to stop this ongoing ‘sectarian cleansing’ in Syria.
  3. The third letter focuses on the catastrophic consequences of the Obama administration’s ‘slow    bleeding’ policy towards Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and how it goes against US interests.
  4. The fourth letter highlights the link between Iran’s military nuclear plans and its intervention in Syria and other countries in the region. It also highlights the strategic importance of Hezbollah Lebanon in Iran’s military nuclear ambitions.
  5. The fifth letter focuses on the Iranian regime’s financing of terrorist activities and groups across the Middle East since the early 1980s. It urges President Obama to tackle the expected increase in Iran’s ‘financing of terror’ after economic sanctions on Iran are lifted in 2016 as part of the nuclear deal sign in July 2015.
  6. The sixth letter focuses on the Iranian regime’s military intervention in Syria to save the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and continue to be able to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But this intervention has been the   main cause of mass death and destruction in thecountry, and is fueling a violent sectarian strife, driving many Sunni Muslims into the arms of Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) and other Islamist extremist groups.
  7. The seventh letter explains how the Russian bombing of Syria is causing death and destruction, and how it is fueling extremism. It calls on the President Obama to pressure Russia to stop bombing Syria.


1Sources: Obama seeks new Syria strategy review to deal with ISIS, al-Assad’, CNN, 13 November 2014.

2 Available here.

3 Available here.

4 Ibid.

5 Available here.

6 This Washington Post editorial sums up some of the widespread concerns about the nuclear deal between the US and Iran and how it was reached.

7 Available here.

8 David E. Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, Broadway Paperbacks, 2012, p.164.

9 Available here.

10 See here.

11 See here.

12 See, for example, this article and this one.

13 See here.

14 See here, for example. See also here.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 See here.

19 See here.

20 See here.

21 See here.

22 Footage of the session is available here. See also here.

23 See here.

24 See here.

25 See here, for example. See also here and here.

26 See here.

27 See here. See also this article and this one.

28 See here.

29 See here and here.

30 See here.

31 See here, for example.

32 See here, for example.

33 Michael Doran, ‘Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy’, Mosaic, 2 February 2015.

34 Ibid.

35 The Naame Shaam open letters to US President Barak Obama November 2014-February 2016:

Notes & References

1 e.g. ‘Why Syria could turn out to be Iran’s Vietnam – not America’s’, Foreign Policy; ‘Syria’s shadow lurks behind Iran nuclear talks’, Deutsche Welle; ‘Is Syria becoming Iran’s Vietnam?’, War in Context; ‘The consequences of slow bleeding’, Al-Hayat (in Arabic).
Similar analogies have also been made about Hezbollah in Lebanon. e.g. ‘Hezbollah’s ‘Mini-Vietnam’ in Syria worsens on Beirut bombs’, Bloomberg, 6 March 2014.
It should be noted that Naame Shaam was probably the first media outlet to systematically use the term ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ to describe the Iranian regime’s adventure in Syria. See the site-specific search results for the term.

2 For more details on the state of the Syrian economy, see for example: Squandering Humanity: Socioeconomic Monitoring Report o n Syria, UNDP, UNRWA with the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, May 2014; Jihad Yazigi, Syria’s War Economy, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 2014; Mohsin Khan and Svetlana Milbert, ‘Syria’s economic glory days are gone’, Atlantic Council, 3 April 2014.

3 James Hider and Nate Wright, ‘Assad pays snipers “to murder protesters”’, The Times, 26 January 2012.

4 US Department of Treasury, ‘Treasury Sanctions Al-Nusrah Front Leadership in Syria and Militias Supporting the Asad Regime’, 11 December 2012.

5 ‘Confessions of Iraqi mercenaries captured by the rebels in the suburbs of Damascus’ (in Arabic), YouTube, 31 December 2013. See chapter I for more details.

6 Farnaz Fassihi, ‘Iran pays Afghans to fight for Assad’, The Wall Street Journal, 22 May 2014. See chapter I for more details.

7 Geneive Abdo, ‘How Iran keeps Assad in power in Syria’, Foreign Affairs, 25 August 2011.

8 ‘Pictures of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria’, Naame Shaam, 10 February 2014.

9 Louis Charbonneau, ‘Exclusive: Iran steps up weapons lifeline to Assad’, Reuters, 14 March 2013.

10 See here, for example. See also: ‘Arms transfers to Syria’, SIPRI Yearbook 2013; Jonathan Saul, ‘Exclusive: Russia steps up military lifeline to Syria’s Assad – sources’, Reuters, 17 January 2014.

11 ‘Syria’s Russian weapon buys’, Defense Industry Daily, 29 May 2014.

12 ‘How Putin’s Russia props up Assad’s military’, Channel 4, 10 September 2013.

13 Yves Bourdillon, ‘Téhéran apporte son soutien financier à Damas’, Les Echos, 15 July 2011. For English, see: ‘Tehran ready to give Syria $5.8 billion: report’, Reuters, 15 July 2011.

14 Suleiman Al-Khalidi, ‘Iran grants Syria $3.6 billion credit to buy oil products’, Reuters, 31 July 2013.

15 Michael Peel, ‘Iran, Russia and China prop up Assad economy’, Financial Times, 27 June 2013.

16 Anne Barnard, ‘Syria weighs its tactics as pillars of its economy continue to crumble’, The New York Times, 13 July 2013.

17 Maha El Dahan, ‘Syria issues second food tender using Iranian credit’, Reuters, 24 December 2013.

18 Barbara Surk, ‘Iran sends Syria 30,000 tons of food supplies’, AP, 8 April 2014.

19 Central Bureau of Statistics, ‘Statistical Abstract for 2011’ (in Arabic).

20 Julia Payne, ‘Exclusive: Assad’s secret oil lifeline: Iraqi crude from Egypt’, Reuters, 23 December 2013.

21 Jean-Pierre Perrin, ‘Téhéran devient tête de Syrie’, Libération, 25 August 2013.

22 Mohamad Amin, ‘Les dix fardeaux de l’économie en Iran’, Les Echos, 25 April 2014. For an English translation, see here.

23 ‘Military expenditure of Iran’, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

24 ‘Are Iranian families earning so little?’ (in Persian), Iranian Economy. See also: ‘Iranian military gets budget increase’, IHS Jane’s 360.

25 See here and here.

26 See Reuters‘ three-part investigation into SETAD: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

27 See, for example: Ali Vaez and Karim Sadjadpour, Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey: Costs and Risks, Carnegie, April 2013.

28 David Blair, ‘Sanctions costing Iran $100 million every day’, The Telegraph, 13 Nov 2012. See also this article. There are no relaible official Iranian figures for the impact of the sanctions on the economy because the Iranian government either denies altogether that the sanctions are having any impact on Iran, or they describe the impact in vague terms, such as “high costs”, etc.

29 See here. See also: IMF’s Country Report on Iran, April 2014.

30 ‘How expensive have food items been in Iran in the past five years’ (in Persian), BBC Farsi, 22 March 2014.

31 ‘Ministry of Economy: 31% of families below the poverty line’ (in Persian), TA Bank, 5 July 2014.

32 ‘15 million people below poverty line in Iran – think government incompetence’ (in Persian), Fars News, 5 March 2014.

33 e.g. ‘Iran puts end to economic stagnation: Rouhani’, Press TV, 7 September 2014.

34 See, for example, Ana Maria Luca, ‘The other costs of Hezbollah’s Syrian campaign’, Now, 28 April 2014.

35 Thomas Erdbrink, ‘In Iran, Hopes Fade for Surge in the Economy’, The New York Times, 20 March 2014.

36 Ibid.

37 See, for example, ‘President of the illiterate regrets reading critics’ (in Persian), Fars News, 11 March 2014.

38 ‘Resistance Economy: A model inspired by Islamic economic system and an opportunity to realise an economic epic’ (in Persian), Fars News, 19 February 2014. For English, see: Bijan Khajehpour, ‘Decoding Iran’s ‘resistance economy’’, Al-Monitor, 24 February 2014.

39 ‘Rouhani endorses Ayatollah Khamenei’s ‘resistance economy’’, Iran Pulse, 20 February 2014.

40 ‘Trends of resistance economy to confront the West and the sanctions’ (in Persian), Tasnim News Agency, 28 March 2014.

41 ‘Representative of Supreme Leader in Sepah in Ahwaz: The Iranian nation and leadership are on the side of the oppressed and the barefoot’, Basij Khozestan, 15 March 2014.

42 See here, for example.

43 For Iranian casualties, see: Y. Mansharof, ‘Despite denials by Iranian regime, statements by Majlis member and reports in Iran indicate involvement of Iranian troops in Syria fighting’, The Middle East Media Research Institute, 4 December 2013; Phillip Smyth, ‘Iran’s Losses In the “35th Province” (Syria), Part 1’, Jihadology, 14 June 2013.
For Hezbollah Lebanon’s casualties, see: ‘Pictures of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria’, Naame Shaam, 10 February 2014; ‘How many Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria?’, Naame Shaam, 16 April 2014.
For a round-up of Iraqi militants killed in Syria in 2013, see this three-part collection by Phillip Smyth on Jihadology: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

44 ‘More than 260 thousand killed and died in Syria since the outbreak of the revolution’ (in Arabic), Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 21 August 2014.

45 ‘Pictures of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria’, Naame Shaam, idem.

46 See, for example: ‘Hezbollah buries its Syria dead in secret’ (in Arabic), Al-Watan, 12 June 2014.

47 Available here.

48 ‘Posters of Hezbollah’s Syria ‘martyrs’ fill Beirut streets’, Naame Shaam, 29 April 2014.

49 See, for example, here, here and here.

50 ‘Hezbollah’s and regime’s dead in Yabroud number in tens and bodies have not been retrieved yet’ (in Arabic), CNN Arabic, 15 March 2014.

51 ‘Abu Uday: ISIS is selling grains to the regime while people are starving.. and we have infiltrated Hezbollah’ (in Arabic), Al-Hayat, 28 April 2014.

52 Mark Mazzetti, Robert f. Worth and Michael r. Gordon, ‘Obama’s uncertain path amid Syria bloodshed’, The New York Times, 22 October 2013.

53 Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘Obama to Israel — Time is running out’, Bloomberg View, 2 March 2014.

54 Omar Ghabra, ‘Is Washington purposely bleeding Syria?’, The Nation, 25 April 2014.

55 Michael r. Gordon and Mark Landler, ‘Backstage glimpses of Clinton as dogged diplomat, win or lose’, The New York Times, 2 February 2013.

56 ‘Obama’s uncertain path amid Syria bloodshed’, The New York Times, idem.

57 ‘Obama: Notion that Syrian opposition could have overthrown Assad with U.S. arms a “fantasy’’, CBS News, 20 June 2014.

58 Thomas l. Friedman, ‘Obama on the World’, The New York Times, 8 August 2014.

59 National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, ‘Syrian Coalition: Safi Regrets Obama’s Remarks on Syria’, 23 June 2014.

60 Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘Hillary Clinton: ‘Failure’ to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS’, The Atlantic, 10 August 2014.

61 Obama’s speech is available on YouTube. See also here and here.

62 Ibid.

63 See here, for example.

64 See, for example, ‘Obama says strategy not set to strike militants in Syria’, Bloomberg, 29 August 2014.

65 See, for example: ‘Iran ‘backs US military contacts’ to fight Islamic State’, BBC, 5 September 2014; ‘Syria offers to help fight Isis but warns against unilateral air strikes’, The Guardian, 26 August 2014.

66 See, for example, this report and this report.

67 ‘West media spin ‘Iraq’ yarn from Zarif’s remarks on ‘Arak’’, Press TV, 22 August 2014.

68 See, for example: US State Department, ‘Daily Press Briefing’, 21 August 2014. See also: ‘Washington denies cooperation with Tehran in Iraq: Al-Assad is part of the problem not the solution’ (in Arabic), Annahar, 22 August 2014.

69 See, for example, this poll of al-Dahiyeh, Beirut.


New: Russia dragged into Syria quagmire

Before the escalation of its military intervention in the Syria war in late September 2015, Russia had been supplying the Syrian regime with weapons and shielding it diplomatically by repeatedly using its veto powers at the UN Security Council. But all the Russian and Iranian support did not prevent rebels and Islamist factions from making significant military advances over the previous few months, especially in the southern and northern parts of the country.

Like their Iranian counterparts, Russian officials insist that the deployment of Russian airplanes and troops to Syria came as a result of “a formal request” from President Bashar al-Assad, whose exhausted army was losing ground.1 The fall of the northern towns of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour in May 2015 apparently served as a “wake-up call.”2 Some commentators even went further and claimed that it was the growing influence of Iran in Syria that prompted al-Assad to ask for Russia’s help.3

But it was the Iranian regime that asked Russia to intervene to prevent al-Assad’s fall and prevent further losses suffered by Iranian forces and militias fighting on his behalf.

According to regional officials quoted by Reuters in early October 2015, the chief commander of Sepah Qods, Major-General Qassel Soleimani, visited Moscow in July that year and convinced his Russian hosts of how a series of defeats could be turned into victory “with Russia’s help.”4

“Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table,” one of the officials told the news agency. “The Russians were very alarmed, and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime. The Iranians assured them there is still the possibility to reclaim the initiative. At that time, Soleimani played a role in assuring them that we haven’t lost all the cards.”

According to Reuters’ sources, Soleimani’s July 2015 trip was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contacts that produced a political agreement on “the need to pump in new support for Assad as his losses accelerated.” The decision for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria, they added, had been taken at a meeting between Russia’s foreign minister and Iran’s Supreme Leader a few months before. “Soleimani, assigned by Khamenei to run the Iranian side of the operation, traveled to Moscow to discuss details.” A week before Russian airplanes started bombing rebel-held positions in north-west Syria, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was quoted by Iranian media saying: “Meetings and negotiations between the two countries’ officials at various levels have provided a great opportunity for the promotion of cooperation, as well as efforts for more regional convergence.”5

Another clear indication of the Iranian role in Russia’s decision to directly intervene in the war in Syria is the coincidence of the Russian air strikes with a major Iranian-led ground offensive in the north. Shortly before the start of the Russian air strikes on 30 September 2015, hundreds of new Sepah Pasdaran ground troops started arriving in Syria in preparation for a major ground offensive against rebel-held areas in the north-western parts of the country, under the cover of Russian air strikes.6 In the words of the BBC, the new offensive “shed light on Iran’s growing role” and its “deepen[ing] involvement in Syria’s war.”7

In other words, the main aim of Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria was to provide air support for ground operations by Iranian forces and militias. The agreement between Moscow and Tehran, according to Reuters’ sources mentioned above, also included the provision of more sophisticated Russian weapons to the Syrian army and the establishment of joint operations rooms.

Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria may also help President Vladimir Putin to divert attention inside Russia from the deteriorating economic situation and corruption,8 as well as pressuring the US and the EU to lift their sanctions imposed on Russia following the latter’s annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Eastern Ukraine in 2014.9

But both of these goals are largely contingent on the success of the first one, that is, Iranian forces and militias, with Russian air support, achieving significant military gains on the ground. So far little has been achieved in this respect beyond Russian and Iranian war propaganda.

Disagreements? What disagreements?

Following Bashar al-Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow on 20 October 2015,10 many commentators and analysts started arguing that there was a disagreement or divergence between Moscow’s and Tehran’s stance on al-Assad, as well as on the fate of Hezbollah Lebanon.11

The speculations were largely based on smokescreen statements by Russian officials hinting that Moscow “will not insist” on Bashar al-Assad remaining in power,12 and on a statement by Sepah Pasdaran’s commander-in-chief, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who said: “The northern friend [Russia] came to Syria to provide military support recently [to serve] its own interests.” Moscow “may not care if al-Assad stays as we do,” he added.“In any case, [Moscow] is present [in Syria] now and may be compelled to stay there out of ‘embarrassment’ or for other reasons.”13

Although Jafari emphasised that Iran “does not see any alternative to al-Assad,” and that this position was shared by the country’s leadership and Sepah Pasdaran, his remarks were more rhetorical than a clear political message. The speech was delivered at the first “Anti-America Forum”, where Jafari was justifying and legitimising what the Iranian regime is doing in Syria, while also reassuring regime supporters that the anti-Western ‘resistance front’ was still going strong and Iran was not isolated in its fight against the ‘Great Satan’. “Al-Assad wholeheartedly believes in the [Islamic] resistance and stands against the arrogance of the West,” he reassured his audience.

Other Iranian officials – just like their Russian counterparts – have given contradictory messages regarding al-Assad’s fate. For instance, on the eve of the second round of the international Syria talks in Vienna in late October 2015, the Iranian diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by the media saying “Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever,” prompting various media outlets to interpret the remarks as a “signal” that Iran “might be willing to back away from its insistence that President Bashar al-Assad remain in power.”14

Such contradictory statements should not be over-interpreted or taken too seriously. They often serve as a smokescreen to confuse other players and buy time. In the words of Lebanese political satirist and commentator Nadim Koteich,

The Supreme Leader rejected foreign interference in determining the fate and future of Bashar al-Assad and said the Syrian crisis can only be resolved by ending the war and stopping arms from reaching all armed groups. The Supreme Leader is not remotely concerned that this talk, which resembles that of NGOs or the ambassadors of non-aligned countries to the UN, coincides with the increased number of Iranian casualties in Syria recently, casualties of increasingly higher ranks, which indicates deepening Iran’s military intervention to save al-Assad. There is no relation here between words and deeds. Each has its own role and function in the battle that Iran is fighting.15

The fact is, the Iranian regime does not care about al-Assad as long as its core interests in Syria are served. The same goes for Russia. And for the time being, al-Assad seems to still be a useful puppet in the hands of both. The Iranian regime’s strategy in Syria has hardly changed since 2011, a strategy that goes beyond saving al-Assad and includes preparations for a post-Assad era in which Iranian-controlled militias would exert influence on the ground and serve the Iranian regime’s interests. The recent Russian intervention has only reinforced this strategy.

Many commentators have also argued that Russia’s military strategy in Syria (to weaken rebel groups as quickly as possible in the hope of securing better leverage in a political settlement) differs fundamentally from that of the Iranian regime’s (securing strategically important areas that will ensure the survival of al-Assad and Hezbollah).16 But the two are not necessarily contradictory. In fact, they appear to complement each other.

An often-cited manifestation of this apparent divergence of military strategies is allegations that Russia wants to preserve Syrian state institutions, particularly the regular army, while the Iranian regime depends on, and acts through, paramilitary groups and militias.17 But developments on the ground seem to belie such claims.

As mentioned above, the Russian air strikes on northern Syria in late September and early October 2015 were accompanied by an Iranian-led ground offensive that involved fighters from Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah Lebanon, Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias. The Syrian army was hardly seen. If anything, the Russian intervention has increased and strengthened the Iranian military presence and control in Syria (see the ‘update on Iranian fighters’ above for more details). In the words of Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, during an interview with the group’s Al-Manar TV days before Russia started its bombing campaign in Syria, “We welcome any force which intervenes and supports the front in Syria, because through its participation, it will contribute to pushing away the major dangers that are threatening Syria and the region.”18

Moreover, Russia has reportedly been recruiting its own mercenaries and militiamen to fight in Syria. In late 2015, a Russian blog called “Military Volunteer Movement” was recruiting “volunteers” on a contractual basis to participate in “special missions” in Syria.19 The group was created in 2014 to recruit and organise pro-Russian mercenaries to fight in Crimea and eastern Ukraine following the massacres in Donbas in April 2014.

One should therefore be wary of taking Russian officials’ statements, and Russian, Iranian and Syrian state-controlled media claims, in this regard at face value. Moreover, such claims often assume that Russia can in fact do so, ignoring the fact that it is Sepah Pasdaran that funds, arms and controls all the Syrian and foreign militias fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

It is likewise important to distinguish between wishful thinking and facts-based analysis when talking about the convergence or divergence of Iran’s and Russia’s interests in Syria. Putin’s visit to Tehran in November 2015 and his meeting with Khamenei only go to show that the two countries are pushing more and more towards forging a unified front against Western and regional powers opposed to their policies in Syria. “The Americans have a long-term plot and are trying to dominate Syria and then the whole region … This is a threat to all countries, especially Russia and Iran,” Khamenei said at the meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) Summit in Tehran.20 Describing the 90-minute meeting as “quite constructive” and longer than planned, a Kremlin spokesman said the two countries had “unified views” on Syria.21 Putin reportedly described Iran as a “certain and reliable ally in the region and the world.”22 Follwoing Putin’s visit to Tehran, the Iranian leadership decided to “unify its stance with Russia’s in the push for a political deal to end Syria’s civil war,” according to Iranian officials quoted by Reuters in mid-December 2015.23

On the economic front, Russia and Iran are looking at business deals worth hundreds of billions once international sanctions on Iran are lifted under the July 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. The two countries have already agreed to $40 billion in projects in the last two years.24 A long-delayed delivery of an advanced Russian missile defence system, the S-300, started to arrive in Iran at the end of 2015, according to media reports.25 During Putin’s visit to Tehran, the Kremlin also announced lifting a ban on Russian firms working on uranium enrichment at Iran’s atomic sites.

Targeting everyone but Daesh

Like the Syrian and Iranian regimes before it, the Russian government insists – against all evidence to the contrary – that its aerial bombardment campaign in Syria in late 2015 was targeting Daesh (the so-called Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL). Soon after Russian airplanes started bombing on 30 September 2015, the country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, dismissed reports that they were targeting non-Daesh positions, describing “the rumours” as unfounded. “Our targets are solely the positions of objects and equipment belonging to the armed terrorist group ISIL (Daesh).”26

Yet, the majority of Russia’s air strikes have not been aimed at Daesh but have instead targeted other armed Syrian opposition groups, including moderate Syrian rebels supported by the US and its allies. A week into the bombing campaign, a spokesman for the US State Department claimed that “greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen [the Russians] take to date have not been against ISIL or al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.”27 Even a spokesman for Putin admitted on 1 October that Russia was going after other groups in addition to Daesh. “These organisations are well known and the targets are chosen in coordination with the armed forces of Syria,” the spokesman said.28 From “solely targeting Daesh,” the Russian line now changed to “targeting terrorists” – again, the same line reiterated by the Syrian and Iranian regimes over the past four years to describe all their opponents in Syria.

Using geolocation techniques, the independent investigative journalism initiative Bellingcat analysed the videos released by Russia’s Ministry of Defence showing their air strikes in Syria.29 The findings showed that the “overwhelming majority” of Russian air strikes targeted positions held by non- Daesh rebel groups posing “a more immediate threat to the Syrian regime.” Daesh strongholds were rarely attacked: out of the first 60 strikes recorded on video, only one was confirmed to have been both at the location indicated by the MoD and against Daesh. 14 other strikes said to target Daesh were geolocated to the claimed locations, but none of those areas were known to be under Daesh control.30

For instance, most of the governorates of Hama and Idlib, where the Russian strikes were concentrated, were known to not have any Daesh presence at the time. In the northern countryside of Aleppo, Russian air strikes targeted rebel-held towns, while avoiding nearby Daesh positions to the northeast of the city. In the words of Syrian citizen-journalist Rami Jarrah, who filmed several videos showing the aftermath of Russian air raids, as well as a video in which he asked residents in Aleppo whether Daesh was present in their city, “There is no ISIS (Daesh) in Aleppo, so whom is Russia bombing?”31

In addition to armed opposition groups, Russian air strikes targeted hospitals, medical and civil defence teams, markets, schools, and even bakeries.32 According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, Russian air strikes killed at least 329 civilians in Syria in the first month of the campaign (from 30 September to 30 October), including 88 children and 58 woman.33 The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the death of 254 civilians up until 26 October, including 42 women and 83 children.34

The Syrian opposition’s National Coalition described the Russian air strikes as “the leading killer of Syrian civilians now,” accounting for more than half of all civilian deaths in the country.35 Of course, Moscow was “outraged” at the “allegations” that its air strikes had killed civilians in Syria and destroyed civilian infrastructure.36

Russia has used all types of bombs and missiles at its disposal in its aerial bombardment campaign, from cluster, vacuum and phosphorus bombs, long-range cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea, to less-precise ‘dumb bombs’ dropped from airplanes at medium altitudes.37 In addition to the deaths, injuries and destruction caused by these bombs and missiles, the Russian military campaign also exacerbated the Syrian refugee crisis. In early November 2015, US officials estimated that, since the beginning of Russian strikes in Syria, “at least 120,000 Syrians have been displaced as a result of regime offensives aided by Russian air strikes in the cities of Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib.”38

Watching Putin ‘fail’ in Syria

On 8 October 2015, the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, speaking at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels, warned that Russia will soon “begin to suffer casualties” in Syria. Russia’s military campaign in Syria “will have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightly fearful of attacks,” he said. “In the coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer from casualties.”39

Carter’s words were interpreted by many observers and commentators as a message that the US and its regional allies have opted for a ‘slow bleeding’ policy towards Russia in Syria, similar to the one they have been following towards Iran and its militias. Indeed, numerous Western officials confirm – often behind closed doors – that the Obama administration has opted for a “watch them fail” policy towards Russia in Syria, in the words of a senior US official quoted by The Guardian in early November 2015. “We are not going to oppose them militarily in their support for Assad,” the official said. “So in that sense, yes, we are going to watch them fail and hope that brings them to reasonable terms and political negotiations.”40

Despite widespread criticisms of the Obama administration for its ‘reluctance’ and ‘inaction’ in confronting Russia – and Iran before it – in Syria,41 this ‘slow bleeding’ or ‘watch them fail’ policy is, in fact, not as passive as the American official presented it.

As soon as the Russian air strikes started, a number of Syrian opposition armed groups started receiving more weapons and ammunition from the US and/or Gulf countries through Turkey.42 Most notably, this included long-withheld American BGM-71 TOW missiles. According to media reports, TOWs were used by Syrian rebels in the northern parts of the country 82 times between 1 and 20 October 2015, compared to 13 times in September.43 In addition, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – following ‘emergency meetings’ with Syrian rebels in southern Turkey – also stepped up their provision of small arms, ammunition, mortars, tank shells, RBG multiple grenade launchers, and even Grad rockets.44 Unconfirmed reports also claimed that long-awaited man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) would soon start to arrive in Syria to counter Russian aircraft.45

This increase in military support unsurprisingly led to an increase in Syrian, Iranian and Russian casualties, despite concerted efforts by all three parties to hide their losses in Syria. For example, in late October 2015, Ukrainian intelligence sources claimed that the bodies of 26 Russian soldiers, who had died in Syria “as a result of poor sanitary or health conditions,” were secretly transported to a Crimean port city.46 Around the same time, a senior military source close to Damascus told Reuters that at least three Russian soldiers were killed and several wounded when a shell hit their position in the Lattakia province, noting that 20 Russian soldiers were in the targeted location in al-Nabi Younis.47

In early November 2015, US security officials estimated that Russia’s military force in Syria had grown to about 4,000 soldiers, up from an estimated 2,000 personnel when the Russian air strikes began on 30 September.48 However, many observers expect the number of Russian troops deployed to Syria to rise in 2016 as air strikes alone have achieved little territorial gains for Syrian and Iranian regime forces and militias. Moscow has consistently declined to comment on the size of its force or any casualties it has suffered in Syria.

The only Syria death the Russian government has reported was that of a “serviceman” who the military said “committed suicide.”49

Meanwhile, the economic cost of Russia’s military intervention in Syria is also becoming a strain on an already suffering economy. A combination of low oil prices, a weak Ruble and Western sanctions have caused the country’s economy to contract by 3.4 per cent in the first half of 2015.50 Yet, more than a quarter of the country’s budget has been earmarked for military expenditure, vast parts of which remain secret.

Data collated by IHS Jane’s for the Moscow Times estimated in October 2015 that Russian air strikes in Syria cost up to $4 million per day.51 The calculations were based on the assumption that Russia had 36 fighter aircraft and 20 helicopters at its Latakia air base, which flew an average of 30 sorties a day and dropped five bombs per sortie, in addition to some 1,500 soldiers and naval support. A few days after the report was published on 20 October, however, the number of Russian warplanes increased to at least 36, and the number of sorties to around 40. The number of Russian troops deployed to Syria is also believed to be much higher, as indicated above.

Nonetheless, compared to Russia’s $50 billion defense budget in 2015, this is a small fraction. According to calculations by IHS Jane’s and the Financial Times, even if Russia continued its air strikes at the current level for a full year, it would use less than 3 per cent of the funds budgeted for national defence in 2016. But Moscow may well see its Syria costs rocket as the conflict drags on and the US and its regional allies increase their military support to the opposition.52 Russia is unlikely to be able to bear the costs of continuing or expanding its military adventure in Syria for more than four months, according to the American intelligence think-tank Stratfor.53

The financial burden of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria, and the belt-tightening policies that it will inevitably lead to, are likely to shift public opinion inside Russia in the coming months, a public opinion that has so far largely been supportive of President Putin’s war propaganda. About a month into the Russian air strikes, the independent pollster Levada found that support among Russians for Moscow’s military action in Syria had soared from a mere 14 per cent in late September to more than 70 per cent.54

A second Afghanistan?

In addition to the financial burden, a mounting death toll is likely to reinforce the Russian public’s fears of Syria becoming “a new Afghanistan.”55 And there is a good chance that such fears could materialise in the near future.

In early October 2015, the Russian government estimated that its aerial bombardment campaign in Syria would only last three to four months. The head of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, told French radio station Europe1 that “there is always a risk of being bogged down, but in Moscow, we are talking about an operation of three to four months.”56

More then 6 months into the campaign, however, little concrete military gains have been achieved, as already mentioned. This is partly because air strikes alone cannot achieve any decisive military victory on the ground, as various experts have been arguing from the beginning, and because the US and its regional allies have stepped up their support to opposition armed groups. As the Russian and Iranian leaderships begin to realise this, they may well be forced to send in more ground troops; and as the losses and casualties mount without achieving much, Moscow is likely to extend its ‘mission’ in Syria. In other words, Syria may well gradually become Russia’s ‘second Afghanistan’, as numerous analysts and commentators have warned.57

Moreover, all of Moscow’s past efforts to broker a negotiated settlement appear to have gone to waste as Putin is now perceived by the Syrian opposition and the rest of the world as a representative of the Assad regime, alongside Sepah Pasdaran and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And like the latter two, Putin and other Russian military commanders are now seen as co-responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.58 They too will probably face calls for being brought to justice.


1 See here, for example.

2 ‘Wake-up call on Syrian army weakness prompted Russian intervention’, The Guardian, 1 October 2015.

3 See, for example, Christoph Reuter, ‘Why Assad has turned to Moscow for help’, Spiegel Online, 6 October 2015.

4 Laila Bassam and Tom Perry, ‘How Iranian general plotted out Syrian assault in Moscow’, Reuters, 6 October 2015.

5 See here.

6 See the ‘update on Iranian fighters’ above for more details. See also here.

7 ‘Iran quietly deepens involvement in Syria’s war’, BBC, 20 October 2015.

8 See here, for example.

9 See here, for example.

10 ‘Putin uses Assad visit to talk up Kremlin role as Syria broker’, Reuters, 21 October 2015.

11 See, for example, here and here.

12 See here, for example.

13 The remarks are available in Persian here.

14 ‘Iran signals readiness to compromise before key Syria talks – officials’, Reuters, 29 October 2015. See also here.

15 Nadim Koteich, ‘A strategy to expose Moscow’s and Tehran’s lies’ (in Arabic), Al-Modon, 2 November 2015.

16 See, for example, Haid Haid, ‘Looking to lock it down’, Now, 3 November 2015.

17 See, for example, here and here. See also this report in Arabic.

18 ‘Hezbollah welcomes Russian buildup in Syria, says U.S. has failed’, Reuters, 25 September 2015.

19 See here.

20 ‘Iran leader hosts Putin, says U.S. policies threaten Tehran, Moscow’, Reuters, 23 November 2015.

21 ‘Iran, Russia vow to oppose ‘external attempts’ to dump Assad’, AFP, 23 November 2015, available:

22 Arash Karami, ‘Will Putin, Khamenei negotiate Assad’s ouster?’, Al-Monitor, 23 November 2015.

23 ‘Exclusive: Iran to match stance with Russia in push for Syria deal’, Reuters, 18 December 2015, available:

24 See here.

25 See here.

26 ‘Lavrov refutes accusations that Russian airstrikes did not target ISIS’, RT, 30 September 2015.

27 ‘More than 90% of Russian airstrikes in Syria have not targeted ISIS, US says’, The Guardian, 7 October 2015.

28 ‘Russia admits targeting non-ISIS groups in Syria as airstrikes continue’, The Guardian, 1 October 2015.

29 See here.

30 For more details, see the project’s page.

31 ‘Eyewitness: ‘No IS group in Aleppo, so who is Russia bombing?’’, France 24, 27 November 2015.

32 See, for example, here and here and here.

33 ‘Russian Airstrikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians by Cluster Munitions and Vacuum Bombs’, Violations Documentation Center in Syria-VDC, November 2015.

34 ‘Russian bombardment causes death of 254 civilians’ (in Arabic), Syrian Network for Human Rights, 31 October 2015.

35 ‘Russia Now the Leading Killer of Syrian Civilians, Syrian National Coalition Warns Security Council’, 26 October 2015.

36 ‘Russia ‘outraged’ at accusations it killed civilians in Syria’, Reuters, 16 November 2015.

37 See, for example, here, here and here.

38 ‘At least 120,000 displaced in Syria since Russia strikes began: US’, AFP, 4 November 2015.

39 ‘Russia will pay price for Syrian airstrikes, says US defence secretary’, The Guardian, 8 October 2015.

40 ‘Syria and world await Putin’s reaction to apparent bombing of Russian jet’, The Guardian, 10 November 2015. See also this article and this one.

41 See, for example, this OpEd by Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates in the Washington Post on 8 October 2015. For a counter-perspective, see Thomas Friedman’s OpEd in The New York Times on 30 September 2015.

42 See, for example, here, here and here.

43 Charles Lister, ‘Russia’s Intervention in Syria: Protracting an Already Endless Conflict’, Huffington Post, 21 October 2015. See also this article.

44 Ibid.

45 See here, for example.

46 ‘Russia Struggles to Hide its Casualties in Syria’, 22 October 2015. Original Arabic published in Madar al-Yawm.

47 ‘Three Russians killed in Syria: pro-government source’, Reuters, 20 October 2015.

48 ‘Russia’s Syria force grows to 4,000, U.S. officials say’, Reuters, 4 November 2015.

49 ‘Russian serviceman commits suicide at Syrian airbase, Defense Ministry confirms’, RT, 27 October 2015.

50 ‘Russia defies recession to fund Syria conflict’, Financial Times, 25 October 2015.

51 ‘Calculating the Cost of Russia’s War in Syria’, Moscow Times, 20 October 2015.

52 See the Financial Times and Moscow Times reports cited above.

53 ‘Russia Prepares to Tighten Spending in 2016’, Stratfor, 3 November 2015. See also here.

54 See here. See also here.

55 See, for for example, here and here.

56 ‘Russian air strikes in Syria to last three-four months: Putin ally’, Reuters, 2 October 2015.

57 See here, for example.

58 See here, for example.