Tehran downplays its presence in Syria, but its volunteers are hard to hide.
The most obvious clue as to their presence is the fact that Iranian troops have died in the conflict, including high-profile commanders such as Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Iran’s Syrian military presence also heavily relies on the Basij — a paramilitary organization numbering between four to five million members. Ostensibly under IRGC control, the Basij reserves its greatest loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Basij is most well known in the West for its terrifying human-wave tactics during the Iran-Iraq War. While these historical tactics are well documented, this is a simplistic view that neglects the Basij’s enormous breadth and scope in present-day Iranian society.
“[The Basij] carries out military training and surveillance, supervises public behavior, runs businesses, educates members, and propagandizes through physical space and social media,” the Guardian noted in a 2015 article which referenced scholar Saeid Golkar’s book Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran.
We now have a better picture Basij’s presence in Syria — because it’s acknowledged in the Iranian press.
Shargh, a reformist newspaper based in Tehran, recently detailed the Basij’s volunteer pipeline to Syria. Officially, the Basij recruits fighters to defend the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, an important Shia holy site. Once in Syria, these volunteers serve as “advisers” or “religious pilgrims.”
Above and at top — Basij propaganda posters in Tehran. Ensie & Matthias/Flickr photo
But the volunteers are clearly doing much more. “ Twenty-eight Basij fighters from Tehran have died in Syria — indicating a more extensive combat role. As the Basij recruits volunteers from across Iran, the true number of dead is surely higher.
OE Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, took notice.
For several years, the Iranian government has described Iranians captured by Syrian opposition forces as religious pilgrims rather than fighters. The open discussion of the IRGC and Basij organizing volunteers to defend Shi‘ite shrines in Syria affirms the statements of Syrian opposition forces and belies earlier Iranian denials.
Nor does the portrayal of the volunteers as mere advisors seem plausible, as greater military expertise is a requirement for any advisor who seeks to make a qualitative difference; rather, it seems that the Basij is recruiting less experienced Iranians to engage more directly in the fight against Syrian opposition groups and perhaps the Islamic State as well. That 28 Basij-recruited volunteers have been killed fighting in Syria — and perhaps dozens more once Iran’s other provinces are factored in — further indicated that missions Iranian diplomats downplay as advisory only are far more engaged in combat.
That the IRGC must hold recruitment drives to man the fight in Syria raises questions regarding the broader Iranian deployment to Syria. While the Revolutionary Guards exists to protect not only Iran’s territory, but also its ideology, the fact that it must recruit volunteers rather than simply order members into Syria may raise questions about fissures within the organization between a more ideological leadership and a significant and perhaps majority portion who joined the Corps less for the ideology and more for the pay and privilege, especially in juxtaposition to service in the conscript army.