Commanders in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), part of the opposition forces which have fought for years against the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, claimed that without Iranian intervention they would have won the war.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Fateh Hassoun and Bashar al-Zoubi both cited the strong rebel gains being made in the war’s early stages as proof that the opposition had the advantage and were close to toppling Assad’s forces. In 2012, just as Iranian involvement was beginning to increase, mass defections and collapsing territory had effectively pushed the Syrian army into a corner. According to the rebels, without Iran, government forces were doomed.
It is no secret that Iran has been heavily invested in the success of Assad, with conflicting reports of just how significant that investment has been. Iran’s own state-run media has openly claimed that thousands of its soldiers have died fighting in Syria and Iraq in recent years.
Iranian logistics and intelligence support has also played a key role by funneling Shia militia groups and Hezbollah fighters into Syria to fight on behalf of Assad, groups which have taken thousands of casualties. As an example, Iranian sources have claimed that up to 20,000 Afghan ‘volunteers,’ who compose the so-called ‘Fatemiyoun Division,’ have fought in Syria. Officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s covert paramilitary wing, reportedly train and lead these units.
But more significantly were the creation of the so-called National Defense Forces, a Shiite pro-government militia. According to Scott Lucas, a professor at the University of Birmingham and founder of EA WorldView, Iran spearheaded an effort to reconsolidate and reorganize pro-government forces along sectarian lines, after such distinctions provided more effective and cohesive units on the battlefield. The result was a 90,000-strong force which effectively tipped the balance in favor of Assad.
Add on a significant Russian intervention in 2015, and the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups could not muster a qualitative response. While the war is still far from over, it is now apparent that Assad will be victorious and remain in power. Although what he will control will be disputed and contested for years to come, Iran will undoubtedly continue to have significant pull in any future Assad government.
Image courtesy of Tasnim News Agency via Wikipedia