Implications of Iran Accepting Military Role in Syria, Lebanon

Nevin Mos’ad: Implications of Iran Accepting Military Role in Syria, Lebanon

  • 7 October 2012

It is wrong to assume that the remarks made by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on September 16, were a misstatement or a misquote. It is wrong because the essence of these remarks is consistent with Iran’s explicit and pronounced support to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and because there is no difference between these remarks and previous ones made by Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a senior military adviser to the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, who said that Lebanon and Syria give strategic depth to Iran and that Hezbollah would retaliate if Israel attacked his country.

Earlier Jafari had said that “some members of the Quds Force are currently in Lebanon and Syria.” Since the Quds Force is the extraterritorial operational arm of the Revolutionary Guards, its deployment in the areas which Iran considers as its strategic depth is self-evident and could be applied to Syria, Lebanon as well as Iraq. “This does not mean that Iran has military presence there [in those two countries]. Iran’s aid is limited to providing consultative support in a number of areas where Iran has experience,” Jafari said. However, this does not make any difference because whether it is members of the Revolutionary Guards involved in military operations or in offering advice in the field of communications, sniping, security etc., the military nature of Iran’s presence cannot be negated. The Revolutionary Guards supports Iranian military and according to its commandment it provides “support to freedom movements in the world,” which is ranked third among its tasks. Jafari’s statements are also consistent with those made by other Iranian officials, who have said that the support for Syria is meant to defend resistance to Israel. This puts the Iranian support for Syria within the context of “protection of liberation movements in the world”.

Some media reports revealed aspects of the role of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria. Quoting the Der Spiegel magazine, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported on September 17, that the Syrian regime conducted experiments using poison gas bombs in August, in the presence of Iranian officers. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Major General Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the Quds Force, secretly visited Damascus last January to secure the dispatch of more Iranian military assistance.

In addition, reports by elements of the Free Syrian Army point to the involvement of members of the Revolutionary Guards in fight alongside the Syrian military. In this regard, Brigadier Ahmed Hejazi, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, responded to Jafari’s remarks by saying: “Iran, since the beginning of the revolution, has been sending fighters whether from the Revolutionary Guards, the Muqtada Al-Sadr group and Hezbollah… The Syrian Free Army has captured some of them and killed others.”

The timing of Jafari’s remarks was important to assert that Bashar Al-Assad is not alone. This message was sent after confrontations in Syria escalated and the attacks of the Syrian Free Army extended to some of the regime’s most critical strongholds as was the case in the bombing that targeted the National Security Headquarters, killing the Minister of Defense, his deputy, Bashar’s brother-in-law, and Bashar’s deputy assistant for security affairs.

The message comes at a time of growing regional and Arab pressure for reaching a settlement with the ouster of Bashar. It also coincides with the new mission of Lakhdar Brahimi, the Arab and international envoy to Syria, although Iran is apparently attempting to set limits on his mission and cap his powers. If Iran gets a role in the Quartet, as proposed by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, then it would have achieved a two-pronged approach. The first aim for Iran would be to attain political legitimacy for its role in spite of the Syrian opposition’s rejection of it for it considers Iran to be part of the problem, not the solution. The second relates to the expansion of its role in the Quartet to offset the influence of the three countries that appear supportive of the Syrian opposition — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.

It is in this context that we notice Jafari’s statement went far in linking the role of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Lebanon; a statement that undoubtedly underscores the close relationship between the approaches of the two countries and suggests that there could be no stability in Lebanon if Syria remained unstable.

Any observer of the internal debate in Lebanon over Jafari’s remarks will recognize how Syrian affairs can exacerbate an already tense situation inside Lebanon. The March 14 alliance used Jafari’s remarks to embarrass Hezbollah which has always urged the Lebanese government to steer away from the Syrian issue in international forums by maintaining impartiality when asked to vote against Syria. This development led to a rare occurrence where Hezbollah allowed the army and intelligence services to enter the Southern suburb, its stronghold in Beirut, to free four Syrians abducted by Al-Meqdad family over their support for the revolution. The issue of the presence of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon interfered with the elections’ issues, the anti-Islam film, taxes, and electricity to deepen the political and sectarian polarization between the March 8 Alliance and March 15 Alliance.

While the first message behind Jafari’s remarks related to the Syrian issue and its regional intricacies, the second message pertained to Iran’s nuclear program. Again, the timing was significant. The faltering of the three rounds of negotiations between Iran and the international community from April till June in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow was not the issue, neither was the recurrent criticism of Iran by Yukio Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon, because of its noncooperation.

There are two new things which called for this shocking interference through Jafari’s remarks, the first one is that Netanyahu, for the first time, urged the US administration to set a red line for Iran; namely asking it to define a verifiable indicator to measure the Iranian threat. This request embarrassed the US which was busy preparing for the presidential elections because once it decides that Iranian nuclear technology has reached the critical threshold, launching military strikes against it would become an imperative. Second, possessing the capability of enriching uranium up to 20 percent or close to that target would change the bargaining and negotiation position of Tehran vis-à-vis the international community and raise questions on whether this is the red line that must not be breached or is there still another one.

In his remarks, Jafari referred to Israeli attempts to urge the US to launch a joint operation against Iranian nuclear installations, and in response threatened to employ Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon and Syria and boasted of long-range missiles that can hit strategic US targets. In addition, he referred to what he called “Muslims support to the Islamic Republic,” a loose expression that has many connotations.

Iranian officials are prone to employing doublespeak and in finding way to evade and backtrack from their statements. But when it comes to the remarks made by the commander of the Iran Revolutionary Guards, the message was more than clear. It was an attempt to project power at a time when Iranian interests face mounting threats, when the siege around Iran is tightening — politically and economically — especially with the rapid devaluation of the Iranian currency due to sanctions, and the possibility of Iranian opposition taking advantage of these developments.