These days it’s not unusual to hear about some Iranian officer dying in Syria. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel are in the civil war-torn country to train—and in some cases, command—Shia forces fighting for the regime.
Usually, the IRGC fatalities are high-ranking commanders specializing in artillery, armor or infantry combat.
But not Sgt. Hossein Tabesteh, who perished recently in Syria and whose funeral in Iran is depicted in the IRNA photo above. Tabesteh was a member of the 10th Air Defense Group, a.k.a. Moharram, normally located in Iran’s Semnan province, east of Tehran.
Tabesteh’s death is evidence that Iran is helping to restore Syria’s badly-damaged air-defense capabilities.
The build-up has grave implications for the United States, as it considers expanding its attacks on Islamic State militants to include air raids on militant forces in Syria.
Moharram is an interesting unit. Unlike most Iranian air-defense units, Moharram isn’t a subordinate to the Iranian army, nor to the IRGC air force. Instead, it reports to the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps ground forces.
Semnan province is home to Iran’s space program and ballistic-missile research and development facilities. Naturally, it’s one of the most heavily defended areas in all of Iran. Moharram is just one of the air-defense groups defending Semnan, but its particular area of responsibility within the province—an area with many strategic installations—makes it one of Iran’s top anti-aircraft units.
The presence of an elite Iranian air-defense team in Syria probably means that Tehran is helping Damascus to repair its own air defenses. These defenses could pose a serious danger to American pilots, should the United States begin striking Islamic State militants in Syria.
Not because Damascus wants to defend Islamic State. Far from it. The regime and the militants are bitter enemies, just as Iran and Islamic State are also enemies—and the U.S. and the militants hate each other, too. But in the chaos and crisscrossing allegiances of Iraq and Syria, American air strikes could provoke a powerful backlash by the regime and the regime’s backers in Tehran.
After all, America’s main proxy in Syria is the rebel Free Syrian Army, which opposes the regime, Iran and Islamic State all at once. U.S. air raids in support of the Free Syrian Army would represent a direct threat to the regime, even if the planes were strictly targeting Islamic State fighters—in other words, the regime’s enemy.
The regime could very well attempt to shoot down American warplanes—and that could draw Iran’s air-defense units in Syria into combat with the U.S.
U.S. president Barack Obama has publicly ruled out American air strikes on the Syrian regime. But that doesn’t mean Damascus believes Obama. Especially considering Israel—America’s closest ally in the Middle East—has repeatedly launched its own air raids on regime forces.
In August last year, a huge explosion rocked the central province of Homs, as seen in the video above. The rebels took credit for the blast, claiming they had hit a regime ammo depot. But a year later, Business Insider reporter Rami Al Lolah found evidence that Israeli planes, not rebels, had struck the site in Homs—and that the target was a chemical weapons facility, not an ammo dump.
To be clear, the regime is vulnerable to U.S. air strikes.
The Syrian army depends on fortified checkpoints—mainly former military installations called hajiz—to stand a chance against relentless rebel assaults. Each castle-like check point houses a garrison of up to several thousand soldiers and all their heavy weaponry. The rebels lack the firepower to easily take down the hajiz.
An American 2,000-pound bomb, lobbed by a jet fighter from 20,000 feet, could pulverize a hajiz. Other possible regime targets are artillery positions, command centers and high value targets such as prominent Hezbollah leaders commanding units in Syria.
The only way for Syrian and Iranian forces to counter American air raids—which, again, Obama has publicly ruled out—is to bolster their air defenses in Syria.
Before the civil war began in 2011, the Syrian air-defense force was one of the best in the region, with interlocking radar, gun and missile sites across the western heartland. But three years of fighting have seriously degraded the anti-air infrastructure.
At the height of the rebels’ rampage through Syria in the summer of 2012, opposition forces captured several regime air-defense positions. And high casualties and desertions among Syrian troops forced Damascus to transfer personnel from anti-air units to the infantry. Many experienced air-defenders died in combat.
Syria uses Russian-made air defense systems. Buk-M1/2 and Pechora-2T missiles target high-altitude attackers while Pantsyr-S1 gun-and-missile combos defend against close-in threats at low level.
These systems include state-of-the-art Russian phased-array radars and optical tracking systems. Syria also acquired Chinese-made sensors. In two separate incidents in 2012, rebels captured Chinese JYL-1 and Type-120 radars from regime forces.
Many more Syrian air-defense systems got left behind as Syrian troops retreated. As opposition groups seized more and more land, the regime’s air-defense network began to collapse.
To restore Syria’s air defenses, Iran would need to provide hardware, manpower and training. Fully rebuilding Damascus’ anti-air network could be prohibitively expensive for Tehran. But even partial restoration could put American pilots at risk, should Obama order the U.S. military to strike militants in Syria.
Tabesteh’s death in Syria is evidence that the air-defense restoration is already underway.