In the 18 months of the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, approximately 20,000 people have been killed and around 1.2 million people displaced. Perhaps more than any other country affected by the Arab-wide protests, Syria is both a strategic asset and concern for several regional and international powers alarmed by the threat of regime change within the ‘beating heart of Arabism’.
At present, an international consensus on how to resolve the conflict has been elusive. The initial UN suggestion involving a diplomatic coalition of concerned countries was rejected by the US on account of the inclusion of Iran, with the State Department reasoning that Iran was in fact part of the problem in Syria and could not be a credible part of the solution.
With the US unwilling to intervene directly as it did in Libya, it has fallen on the CIA and willing Gulf Cooperation Council members of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fund the growing rebel forces and tacitly endorse the Free Syrian Army. This economic and military assistance had a clear effect on the rebel force’s capability to counter-strike against Assad’s military. From May of this year, the proportion of the regime’s forces representing casualties in the conflict rose, as overall casualty rates between both sides dropped. This overt support for the opposition to Assad is unacceptable for Iranian political and regional aspirations in the Middle East. On September 16th, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard admitted for the first time that members of the force were operational in Syria in an advisory capacity, with the commander of the elite special forces branch Quds Force reportedly overseeing military operations in Syria since February.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an integrated part of Iran’s armed forces, numbering around 125,000 personnel. They are notoriously independent from the political leadership and exist essentially as a ‘state within a state’, and with estimated private business holdings of $12 billion, they are the third wealthiest Iranian institution. Within the IRGC is the Quds Brigade, the intelligence and extraterritorial operations arm of the revolutionary Guard and ultimately the unit that will operate in Syria. The group has a long history of effective activity within Iran’s borders and has apparently trained and assisted Muslim fighters in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The Brigade has been described as one of the most effective and dangerous special force units in existence.
A key detail in speculating on the intended domestic effect of Quds Brigade deployment in Syria is the posting of Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani. This career soldier made his reputation quelling Kurdish nationalist uprisings in the west of Iran in the 1980s and was the man in charge of infamously silencing the 2009 opposition protests of the Iranian presidential elections. The Brigade is adept at shutting down internet-based social network revolutions through Internet tracking and misinformation. That Syria would deem it prudent to take the advice of an expert in anti-separatist movements suggests that the Assad regime has moved beyond any thoughts of rapprochement with the rebels and will focus on outright destruction of opponents to its authority. It has enhanced the alienation felt by the opposition towards the regime and has ensured that Iran will not be welcome in Syria if Assad should ever fall, with the Syrian National Council announcing that Iran is at war with the Syrian people. Ominously, there have been reports of Iranian and North Korean observations of chemical weapons delivery systems tests at the Safira research facility in eastern Syria.
On a regional level it is vital for Iran to hold Syria as a transit for weapons and funds to Lebanon, where it is the main supplier of the Hezbollah group. This allows Iran to project its power onto Israel in an asymmetric fashion by providing a small guarantee against Israeli aggression over its nuclear program. This overt power play may eventually be the tipping point required to compel other regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily in order to check Iranian influence.
It is too soon to tell what effect the presence of the IRGC in Syria will have on the final outcome of the conflict. The presence of extremely competent special forces, whether in an overt, covert, or simply advisory role, is a factor that could bolster Assad into a position of enduring in a diminished capacity. Whatever the outcome, Iran has gambled its regional future and credibility on remaining an ally of Bashar al-Assad.
 Lina Sinjab, “Syrians Examine Prospects for Peace”, BBC, September 29, 2012, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7413437.stm
 David Enders, “Syrian military casualties rose in May while death toll overall dropped”, McClatchy, June 1st 2012http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/06/01/150925/civilian-deaths-down-army-casualties.html
 Robert Baer, The Devil we Know: Dealing with the new Iranian Superpower, Three Rivers Press,2008, p35
 Der Spiegel, ‘Syria Tested Chemical Weapons Systems, Witnesses Say’ September 17th 2012, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/syria-tested-chemical-weapons-in-desert-in-august-eyewitnesses-say-a-856206.html
 Ed Blanche, ‘Iran: Assad’s hope of survival’, The Middle East Reporter, July 30th 2011, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Iran%3A+Assad’s+hope+of+survival.-a0264175005