Understanding the Syrian Civil War, Part 2: IRGC-, IRGC-Controlled and Hezbollah Units in Syria
The ‘Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (also ‘Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution’, or Sepah), was founded in May 1979. Originally, this was one of ill-equipped and ill-trained militias that came into being in the post-revolutionary chaos of Iran, with the purpose of ‘guarding the Islamic revolution’ — i.e. the rule of Shi’a clergy — from all sorts of internal- (including a number of other similar militias, but also coup attempts staged from within the military) and external threats. Officially established as a separate military branch in January 1981, the IRGC subsequently developed into a major armed force, concurrent to — and usually better funded than — the regular Iranian military. By the end of the war with Iraq, it was expanded in strength and importance to a level where it received its own ministry in Tehran (this was meanwhile disbanded and integrated into the Ministry of Defence).
Nowadays, the IRGC is operating its own ground forces, an air-space force (operating aircraft, helicopters, ballistic missiles, and air defences), its own navy, and lately it attempted to establish its own form of ‘army aviation’ (this effort was stopped over complaints that a ‘copy’ of the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Army Aviation — IRIAA — is unnecessary). It is also controlling significant portions of major segments of the Iranian economy.
Five years since the start of its direct involvement in Syria, and nearly four years since it launched its own military intervention in the country, the IRGC is estimated as having spent more than US$ 100 billion to save the Assad regime. It is not only maintaining its own military presence in the country, but has ordered the Hezbollah/Lebanon and Hezbollah/Iraq to deploy there, and then began establishing Hezbollah/Syria, which is meanwhile a sizeable armed force on its own (indeed, some of IRGC generals tend to brag this is larger than Hezbollah in Iraq and Lebanon — combined). Since early 2013, not one major successful offensive operation run by what is colloquially described as the ‘SAA’ — i.e. ‘regime/loyalist/Assadist’ forces — was undertaken without participation of the IRGC. Since summer of the same year, nearly all the regime/loyalist/Assadist forces in Syria are under the control of the IRGC, and since 2014, all offensive operations are exclusivelly undertaken by the IRGC and various of its surrogates.
Meanwhile, the IRGC or IRGC-controlled units have largely replaced loyalist forces on all the major frontlines (except in northern Hama). Overall, it could be said that the IRGC is in such a firm position, that it would remain perfectly in control of (currently) ‘regime-controlled’ parts of Syria even should the Assad regime fall.
IRGC’s operations in Syria are run by the Sepah-e Qods (Jerusalem Force, or IRGC-QF), officially confirmed as deployed in the country since 2012.
Established as a special force during the war with Iraq, the IRGC-QF was subsequently transformed into IRGC’s branch for operations abroad, and expanded into eight different directorates. Currently, the IRGC-QF is commanded by Major-General Mohammad Jafar Assadi, appointed to this position on 27 December 2015.
(Note 1: Assadi replaced Major-General Hossein Hamadani, KIA in Syria on 7 October 2015. Hamedani was the former commander of the Basiji Corps IRGC, deployed to Syria in 2013 to establish the National Defence Force, i.e. reorganized the disintegrating SAA and other armed groups into what is nowadays the hodgepodge of sectarian militias fighting ‘for’ or ‘on behalf’ of Assad. In turn, Hamedani replaced Major-General Qassem Soleimani when he was withdrawn to Iraq, in June 2015 — and then fell in disfavour, after proving unable to liberate Tikrit from Daesh without US support. Therefore, usual reports according to which Soleimani would still command the IRGC-QF are wrong. His current ‘function’ is that of ‘representation’, foremost ‘bolstering morale’.
Note 2: Another widespread misconception about the IRGC-QF is that it is reporting directly to the ‘Supreme Leader’ of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Actually, the commander of the IRGC-QF is reporting to Vahid Haghanian: an ‘administrative advisor’ to Khamenei, but actually a civilian officer serving as link between the Supreme Leader and IRGC’s top commanders. Despite this, it is currently unclear whether Maj-Gen Assadi is directly commanding IRGC-QF’s operations in Syria like Soleimani used to do.)
My own assessments about the IRGC-QF’s troop strength and dispositions in Syria are generally similar to what can be read in article Inside ‘the Glasshouse’: Iran ‘is running covert war in Syria costing BILLIONS from top secret spymaster HQ near Damascus airport’] — but there are quite some differences in detail. For example, I have found no evidence for the IRGC-QF having 60,000 own troops in the country. My conclusion is that this might be truth only if all the troops under its control — including regime/loyalists/Assadist militias — would be included.
I do agree that all the IRGC-related operations in Syria are controlled from a major HQ outside Damascus International Airport (IAP), so-called Maqar-e Shishe’i (‘The Glasshouse’). Contrary to the NCRI, which claims the IRGC-QF has established five major ‘fronts’ in the country, my information is that there are four of these: Damascus, South, East, and North. What the NCRI claims should be the ‘Western Front’ has so far been largely maintained by a conglomerate of Assadist units, with some support of the Russian Army and Russian military advisors.
To support its operations in Syria, the IRGC-QF has established a number of major military bases around the country, including (from north towards south):
- Mayer (NW Aleppo governorate)
- Aleppo (somewhere in the city)
- Mojanzarat base (Homs)
- Imam Hossein base (Damascus)
- Zainab base (southern Damascus)
That said, IRGC-QF’s ‘advisors’ are regularly present in a number of other major military facilities, including such like the Shayrat AB (south of Homs), or bases of the 155th and 156th Missile Brigades (major Syrian units equipped with ballistic- i.e. surface-to-surface missiles).
The IRGC-QF in Syria is usually including relatively few ‘genuine’ IRGC units — i.e. units staffed by Iranian nationals. The practice that can be monitored all the way back to early 2013 is for the IRGC to maintain a ‘minimal footprint’ in Syria — i.e. to have only about a dozen of small battalions (equivalent to two brigades in total) and few other, minor units deployed in the country, and to rotate these (i.e. withdraw them and replace them by fresh units) every 3–4 months. Curiously, right from the start of their deployment in Syria, these units — like the first IRGC brigade that arrived in Syria (this was a brigade consisting of different elements of the 8th Najaf Armoured Division) — have taken over most of heavy equipment of the Republican Guards division, including its T-72 TUSKs, BMP-2s, 2S1s and 2S3 self-propelled howitzers, and other armoured vehicles. Currently, presence of only one brigade-sized formation is known:
- 7–8 battalions of regular IRGC; deployed to Syria in July or August 2016; probably present in Damascus area only
(Note 3: earlier this year the IRGC used to have the Liwa Mazandaran — consisting of regular Pasdaran — and Liwa Shuhada Tel Aran — consisting of Kurdish Basiji from Iran — deployed in Syria. These seem to have been withdrawn.)
Otherwise, majority of IRGC officers in Syria are serving either as commanders for various surrogate- and allied units, or as advisors. Instead of own troops, the IRGC-QF therefore relies on two units that can at best be described as ‘IRGC’s Foreign Legion’: units consisting of non-Iranian citizens recruited, trained, equipped and paid by the IRGC to go fighting in Syria:
- Liwa Fatimioun (‘Brigade of Fatimah’; also ‘Hezbollah Afghanistan’; emblem; this unit is staffed by Afghan Hazaras, primarily Afghan refugees that either volunteered for service in Syria or were forced to go there by Iranian authorities; deployed in Syria since 2012; troop strength reported at between 4,000 and 20,000, commanded by IRGC officers; Fatimioun is meanwhile certainly a division-sized formation, including several brigades and a battalion equipped with T-72 tanks; ; lately, it was reported as deployed in eastern Homs, where it replaced various local militias, badly depleted after two years of intensive combat against the Daesh)
- Liwa Zainabiyoun (Brigade of Zainab; this unit is similar to the Liwa Fatimioun but consisting of up to 2,000 Pakistani Shi’a commanded by IRGC officers)
Between various ‘local’ or ‘native’ units said to be commanded by the IRGC-QF in Syria are several ‘loyalist’ outfits consisting of Syrian nationals too, like Fawj 47 and Liwa Shuhada Kfar as-Saghira, both of which are currently deployed in Aleppo, but have been discussed in earlier overview.
The ‘Party of God’ was established as a Shi’a Islamist militant group and political party with Iranian funding in reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in 1982. It espouses the Khomeinist ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), and is not only ‘closely cooperating with the IRGC’: it includes a significant number of Iranians serving with it. Allied with Assad regime since early 1980s, it received plentiful support from Syria while involved in war against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. During the Lebanon War of 2006, a number of Syrian military officers served on ‘exchange tours’ with Hezbollah too.
Hezbollah/Lebanon became involved in the Syrian Civil War at least in summer 2012. First larger deployment took place only in early 2013, during the Battle of Qusayr, and then in Homs area. Ever since, this organization is maintaining three relatively small ‘brigades’ in Syria — variously reported as Liwas 101, 102, and 103, or Liwas 301, 302, and 303, at earlier times — most of which were usually deployed in Damascus area. By early 2014, these units were largely re-equipped with whatever heavy equipment they could take over from the Republican Guards Division — including T-72 MBTs, BMP-2s IFV and plenty of towed artillery pieces — once this was de-facto ‘disarmed’ by the IRGC. Since 2015, units of Hezbollah/Lebanon are regularly deployed in Aleppo area too. Currently, this organization should have two of its units deployed in the city:
- Liwa Ridawan
- Liwa Intiqam
Their presence in Aleppo area — foremost around the Artillery School, but lately in District 3000 — was widely reported, and can be seen on such photos like here, or here (showing them wearing Egyptian-made uniforms).
(Note 4: although named ‘Liwas’, both are actually battalion-sized formations; i.e. each is about 600 strong. Nevertheless, both are equipped with few T-72 MBTs, BMP-2 and BRDM-2 IFVs and other armoured vehicles, and well-supported by their own artillery; all of these are from ex-SAA stocks.)
Harakat Hezbollah is de-facto ‘Hezbollah/Iraq’, i.e. local Shi’a military wing directly subjected to the IRGC-QF. Like the IRGC and Hezbollah/Lebanon, its consists of the Shia’ that are espousing the Khomeinist ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih (‘Guardianship of the Jurist’). Far better (and foremost: longer) trained than any other Shi’a militias it is also far better equipped: Harakat Hezbollah became only the fourth unit deployed in Syria (after the Tiger Force, Liwa Suqour as-Sahra, and Harakat an-Nujba) to get 6 T-90s donated from the IRGC. All of other of its formations have been partially equipped with T-72s from the ex-SAA: their usual composition is thus that of 400–600 troops, 3–6 MBTs, up to 15 different other armoured vehicles, and 3–6 artillery pieces. Units known as currently deployed in Syria include:
- Kataib Hezbollah ([basic info] this is the major combat formation of Harakat Hezbollah, a brigade-sized formation that includes a company equipped with T-90s)
- Kataib as-Sabirun ([basic info]; this is a SWAT- or ‘special forces’ (SF) -type of unit, recruited, trained and modelled after the Saberin SF Brigade of the IRGC; several of my sources — all info provided on condition of anonymity — have confirmed it’s near-continuous presence in Syria since at least October 2015, but nobody would say where are they deployed ‘right now’)
- Harakat al-Abdal (this is a new appearance in Syria, already mentioned in the overview of Assadist Militias; let’s say that ‘there are ever more indications’ that it is indeed another unit of Harakat Hezbollah)
Two other units of Harakat Hezbollah — Liwa Ali al-Akbar, and Liwa al-Qahira — appear to have been rotated out of Syria, sometimes around April this year.
This can be described as ‘local branch’ of the IRGC in Syria. I’ll have to find precise links, but over the last two years I’ve read several articles by different IRGC’s officers — including the last interview given by Hamedani — where these are boasting that Hezbollah/Syria is meanwhile larger than either, Hezbollah/Lebanon or Hezbollah/Iraq, if not larger than both of these combined.
Official designation of this organization is ‘al-Ghalibun: Saraya al-Muqawama al-Islamiya fi Souryia’ (stands for ‘The Dominant Ones/Those Who Overcome: The Islamic Resistance Brigades in Syria’), though it seems the Assad regime has its own designations for them (including such like ‘Local Defence Forces’), while Assad-fans tend to describe them as ‘local tribes’ and similar. Here one of links showing some of Hezbollah/Syria troops after completing their training, earlier this year.
Like Hezbollah/Lebanon and Hezbollah/Iraq, Hezbollah/Syria is rather secretive, and it’s hard to find details about its specific units or their troop strength. What can be said is that this organization has over the time established units listed below, although it is not certain if all of them are still operational, or if they have been re-organized, re-named etc.:
- Liwa Sayyida Zaynab (est. 2012 and unclear if still operational)
- Quwwat ar-Ridha ([link to some details]; this unit suffered significant losses during fighting for Ariha and Idlib, in March 2015, and I’ve got no new information about it about it ever since)
- Liwa Imam al-Mahdi (link with basic info)
- Liwa as-Sayyida Ruqayya (link with good insight)
- Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (this is a unit of Syrian Shi’a from NW Aleppo Governorate, established in January 2016; it is not entirely clear if it is ‘only affiliated’ with or actually a part of Hezbollah/Syria)
- Jund al-Mahdi (another unit of Syrian Shi’a from Nubol/Zahra; at least affiliated with Hezbollah)