IRGC Shows Its (True) Hand in Syria
Forty-eight Iranians held captive by Syrian rebels since August 2012 arrived in Tehran on January 9, 2013, after a prisoner exchange between rebels and Bashar al Assad’s government led to their release.[i] Iran has consistently claimed that these hostages were “pilgrims” en route to the Sayyida Zeynab shrine in Damascus.[ii] Their captors, in contrast, have insisted that they are Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) personnel.[iii] The Syrian rebels’ claims were vindicated when Iranian media revealed the names of some of the hostages who hold active positions within the IRGC Ground Forces (IRGC-GF). We can now confirm that Iran has been deploying training teams to Syria, drawn from some of its elite regular combat formations, similar in some respects to the advisory units the U.S. has sent to help train Iraqi and Afghan forces. Tehran is actively assisting and mentoring Bashar al Assad’s military in the suppression of its people.
The nature and significance of the hostages were apparent from the official party that met them on their return to Iran. Its members included Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular, Parliamentary and Expatriate Affairs Hassan Qashqavi and National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission Chairman Alaeddin Boroujerdi.[iv] Also on hand were several key commanders from the IRGC-GF, including its commander, Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, its deputy commander, Brigadier General Abdollah Eraghi, and the commander of its Artillery and Missiles formations, Brigadier General 2nd Class Mahmoud Chaharbaqi. Brigadier General Esmail Kowsari, a member of Iran’s parliament and a former commander of the strategically-vital IRGC unit stationed in Tehran, the Mohammad Rasoul-Allah unit, was also there.[v] The hostages were apparently important senior leaders in the IRGC-GF.
Indeed they were: Brigadier General 2nd Class Abbedin Khorram commands the IRGC Shohada unit in West Azerbaijan province. Colonel Mohammad Taghi Saffari commands the 14th Imam Sadegh Operational Brigade in Bushehr. Hojjat al-Eslam Karim Hossein Khani is the Supreme Leader’s Representative to the IRGC Orumiyeh unit. Ali Javadian is an official with the 33rd al Mahdi Brigade in Fars province.[vi] Imagery analysis of the hostages’ reception at Mehrabad Airport supports an assessment with moderate confidence that a former Shohada unit commander, Brigadier General 2nd Class Mehdi Moini, was also in this group.[vii]
The deep involvement of the IRGC-GF in Syria is noteworthy. Most Iranian covert military and terrorist operations abroad are conducted by the IRGC Quds Force commanded by Major General Qassem Suleimani. This incident demonstrates, however, that the Quds Force can be supplemented even in operations beyond Iran’s borders by elements of regular IRGC military units. That fact is important when we consider how much force Iran can potentially put into such clandestine military operations abroad, since the Ground Forces is the IRGC’s largest combat service and includes thirty-one provincial units, ten major operational bases, and several combat divisions and brigades.[viii] The IRGC-GF is responsible for defending Iran in the event of a ground invasion as well as for internal security operations. The latter has seemingly become the IRGC’s most important mandate since the post-election unrest in 2009 threatened to topple the regime.
The Ground Forces commanders present at the hostages’ return play key operational roles in the IRGC. Mohammad Pakpour is the current IRGC-GF Commander and Abdollah Eraghi is the Deputy Commander. Both have long and distinguished careers commanding regular units of the IRGC. Pakpour held a series of key command positions within the IRGC-GF before taking over as head of the force in April 2009, including: commander of the 31st Ashoura and 8th Najaf-e Ashraf divisions; commander of the Qadir and Nosrat operational bases, and; IRGC-GF Operations Deputy.[ix] Eraghi’s career is similarly illustrious. During the Iran-Iraq War, he commanded several different combat units and participated in key IRGC operations.[x] Following the war, he commanded the 17th Ali ibn-e Abi Taleb, 14th Imam Hossein and 10th Seyyed al Shohada divisions, and the Mohammad Rasoul-Allah (Greater Tehran) unit.[xi] Indeed, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Eraghi in 2011 for his role during the 2009 post-election crisis as commander of the Greater Tehran IRGC forces.[xii] Less is known of Chahrbaqi, although it is clear that as the IRGC-GF Artillery and Missile Commander he plays an important operational role in the force.[xiv] Their presence at Mehrabad Airport was likely both a show of support for their comrades returning from combat and a message to an internal and external audience that the IRGC-GF leadership stands firmly behind its mission in Syria.
Email Kowsari is no longer an active commander in the IRGC; however, he still maintains strong ties to senior IRGC leadership. Kowsari commanded the 27th Mohammad Rasoul-Allah Division for three years during the Iran-Iraq War and, like Eraghi, participated in several major operations.[xv] Kowsari commanded the 27th Division for another ten years after the war, and was later appointed deputy commander of the Sarallah Operational Base, a headquarters responsible for commanding the IRGC units of Tehran province and Tehran’s greater metropolitan area, and Armed Forces General Staff Deputy for Security Affairs.[xvi] Kowsari was elected to parliament in 2008 and reelected in 2012.[xvii]
Equally important to Kowsari’s career trajectory is his role within the IRGC Command Network (IRGC-CN). The IRGC-CN is an informal influence network of key commanders with ties dating back to the Iran-Iraq War, and relationships that have persisted through several points of potential conflict or crisis.[xviii] Kowsari has expressed his affiliation with this network by signing two key open letters: the first, published in 1997, praised outgoing IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei, who many speculated had been dismissed for his harsh criticism of reformist presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami; the second, published in 1999, warned then-President Khatami to reign in reformist elements after violent clashes between security forces and student protestors at Tehran University prompted calls for significant political reform.[xix] The list of IRGC commanders who signed both of these letters is an elite group, and includes: IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari; IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani; IRGC Navy Commander Ali Fadavi, and; Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Gholam Ali Rashid, among other key commanders.[xx]
Kowsari’s move to politics in 2008 does not seem to have weakened his ties to the IRGC-CN. In 2012 Kowsari signed two letters addressed to former IRGC Navy Commander Hossein Alaei, who had implicitly criticized the Supreme Leader in an editorial. The signatories of this letter likewise comprise an elite group of IRGC commanders, including five who signed both the 1997 and 1999 letters: IRGC Quds Force Deputy Commander Esmail Ghaani; IRGC Quds Force Lebanon unit Commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi; Basij Forces Deputy Commander Ali Fazli; Passive Defense Organization chief Gholam Reza Jalali, and; Armed Forces General Staff Inspection Deputy Mohammad Jafar Assadi.[xxi] Kowsari’s presence at Mehrabad Airport last week may have been simple political opportunism, but the notable absence of most other government officials and MPs suggests otherwise. It is more likely that, as with Pakpour, Eraghi and Chaharbaqi, Kowsari was present to support his comrades, and to erase any doubt about the IRGC’s role in Syria. His presence also indicates that IRGC operations in Syria are conducted with the full knowledge and support of the IRGC Command Network.
It is a surprise to no one that the IRGC is active in Syria. The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned a number of Iranian entities for their support of the Assad regime, including the Quds Force and its commander, Qassem Suleimani.[xxii] Senior IRGC personnel have, themselves, admitted to the organization’s role in Syria. Quds Force Deputy Commander Esmail Ghaani said in May 2012 that the IRGC’s “physical and non-physical presence” had prevented massacres in Syria.[xxiii] IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari confirmed the Quds Force’s presence in Syria in remarks made September 2012, but suggested that the role was merely advisory.[xxiv]
By learning the positions of IRGC personnel operating in Syria, however, we can draw at least three important conclusions: first, the IRGC is deploying active duty combat commanders to Syria; second, the Quds Force is drawing from IRGC-GF personnel, indicating that they seek to draw on the Ground Forces’ training and experience conducting internal security and conventional or counter-insurgent operations; finally, several of the IRGC-GF personnel deployed to Syria hail from provincial units that face tribal and ethnic unrest (West Azerbaijan and Fars), further indicating that the Quds Force has tapped specific elements of the IRGC-GF for their unique experience in combating internal uprisings. The presence of three of the IRGC Ground Forces’ senior-most commanders at the highly symbolic homecoming of the forty-eight, further signifies the IRGC-GF’s support for Iran’s efforts in Syria. At a minimum, after this event Iran will find it much more difficult to deny the IRGC’s active role in supporting Assad in a conflict that, to date, has claimed the lives of more than 60,000.[xxv]