Stabilizing the Resistance Axis
by Gary H. Johnson, Jr. and Caitlin Barthold
“A number of members of the Qods Force are present in Syria, but this does not constitute a military presence.” -Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari
Iranian military presence in Syria, even in an advisory and ‘intellectual’ role, has major implications for the region.
Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, has announced that IRGC and Quds Force operatives are in Syria and in Lebanon in an advisory capacity. Jafari has confirmed Iran is willing to take a more direct role in the Levant if Syria is attacked.
The full implications of Iran’s willingness to intervene in the case of Western-backed interference in Syria is at this point uncertain. Jafari did not promise a military response should foreign action proceed or the likelihood of carrying out the security agreement that the two countries have in such an eventuality. The “conditions” on the ground in Syria would determine whether Iran acted or not, he said, remaining aloof as to the full extent of the considerations at play.
To clarify the IRGC’s management of the developments thus far, Jafari volunteered that defending Syria is a “point of pride” for Iran. The Major General delivered the baseline reading of the situation from the perspective of the regime in Tehran:
“In comparison with the scale of support the Arab countries have given to opposition groups in Syria and their military presence, we haven’t taken any action there”.
Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and the tense situation in Lebanon, even in an advisory role is worrisome to Western officials. The Quds Force division of the IRGC has been responsible for Iran’s foreign operations. Initially designated a terrorist organization October 25, 2007, the IRGC, the Quds Force and its commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, are all listed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s July 2012 list of IRGC Affiliates.
Western officials have intelligence that Iran has been transferring weapons to Syria via Iraq, in violation of the terms of a UN arms embargo (part of international sanctions). U.S. policymakers are particularly concerned about this development. Lawmakers are promising to reconsider the aid sent to Iraq if the country continues to cooperate with the Islamic Establishment of Iran in the transfer of arms and personnel. Over the last five years, the Treasury Department has issued a number of sanctions on the IRGC, its Navy and Airforce and has blacklisted many of the aircraft used in the transit of the weapons in response to Iran’s actions.
Jafari’s announcement of the IRGC’s regional, extraterritorial activities, is particularly important because of the impact that the Iranian forces could have on the dynamics of conflict resolution in Syria. Sources confirm that transferring knowledge and experience to the Syrian army is not the limit of their advisory role. Iran has placed a physical presence in Syria to manage its interests, since the halls of Tehran’s political bureaus view Syria as a key in Tehran’s ‘axis of resistance’ against both the Sunnis, aligned in the GCC, Egypt and Turkey and against the Zionist entity housed in Israel. Iran’s strategic presence in Syria widens the impact of the actions and posture of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The IRGC presence in Syria confirms that the conflict has evolved, the opposition resistance has matured into a capable fighting force, and that solutions for stablizing the 18-month conflict are not yet in sight. Indeed, tensions are bound to rise.
With Iran’s involvement at the advisory level, Western officials cannot help but wonder if this overt move by the leadership in Tehran signifies that Iran, uncowed by U.S. and E.U. sanctions, is willing to extend its foreign presence through military means to defend its interests and increase the influence of its hand on the outcome of what can only be described as a Civil War in Syria.
Apparently the presence of Quds Force advisors in Lebanon was news to President Sleiman, who requested a formal explanation of what Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members were doing inside Lebanon. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, immediately denied the presence of the IRGC in Syria and Lebanon, claiming that Maj. General Jafari’s comments on the matter were twisted by Western and Arabic intelligentsia.
A scheduled meeting between Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, went forward on Monday, September 17 without Saudi representation. Egypt’s young President Morsi proposed the formation of a contact group of Islamic regional leaders for solving the Syrian problem. The initial stakeholder meeting of the concern provided the platform for Iran to announce a nine point plan to reconcile the opposition rebels with Bashar al Assad’s regime, indicating Iran’s belief that the solution for Syria “lies only with Syria and within the Syrian family, in partnership with international and regional organizations.”
After strenuously denying Iranian involvement in military aid to Syria, the Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi held talks with his Syrian FM counterpart, Walid Muallem on September 19. This ministerial level meeting laid the groundwork for Salehi’s meeting with Bashar al Assad.
Bashar Al Assad laid out the primary reason the Baathist regime should be saved to Salehi with “The ongoing battle is targeting the whole of the resistance axis, not just Syria.”
It is only in this light – through the lens of the axis of power against Israel made up of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – that the willingness of Assad to provide chemical weapons to Hezbollah becomes a serious concern.
The former head of Syria’s chemical arsenal, Major General Adnan Sillu, defected in June. In talks with The Times in Britain, Sillu asserted his reason for leaving the regime on moral grounds. “We were in a serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas. We discussed this as a last resort — such as if the regime lost control of an important area such as Aleppo.”
Adnan confirmed that the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah was on the table, “They wanted to place warheads with the chemical weapons on missiles — to transfer them this way to Hezbollah. It was for use against Israel, of course.”
Gary H. Johnson, Jr. is the Senior Advisor for International Security Affairs at the Victory Institute and a Level II Researcher at Wikistrat.
Caitlin Barthold is a Researcher at Wikistrat.
Hat tip: Jennifer Jackson, Wikistrat Researcher