Recent reports from Syria suggest the military forces of dictator Bashar Assad are crumbling under the strain of fighting a five-year-long civil war, and dealing with the rise of the Islamic State, which has been scoring military victories in Syria as well as Iraq.
Assad has supposedly appealed to his Iranian patrons for military assistance. If claims that Iranian officers are taking control of Syrian units, and even executing Syrian commanders for cowardice, are correct, the Iranian cavalry has arrived, and its leaders don’t like what they see.
Lebanon’s Now relates a claim from the London-based Arabic-language Al-Quds al-Arabi that Iranian commanders have executed three Sunni officers “who were among the regime troops that withdrew from the Mahmbel and Bsanqoul checkpoints following rebel advances in the southern Idlib province area on Saturday.”
Several soldiers under the command of these officers were also reportedly executed, on charges of “betraying the homeland.” Ominously, other Syrian troops present at the execution were unable to intervene on behalf of their colleagues, because Syrian forces in the Jourin area “are under the command of Iranian officers.”
A rebel commander from the Free Syrian Army claimed the Assad regime “has handed over the operations room to Iranian officers and leadership,” producing “a state of fear and terror among remaining regime troops.”
The likely result will be “more defections and more field executions” according to the FSA commander, as he expected Sunni soldiers and officers in the Syrian military to “receive humiliating treatment during the coming period” from their Shiite Iranian handlers.
Another source in the region said morale among Syrian troops has “become non-existent since the Iranian officers took over the operations room.” Even the Alawite officers – members of the Shia sect Assad himself belongs to, a numerical minority but politically powerful in Syria – have been “reduced to handing out tea and coffee.”
The command-and-control handover to Iranian officers is said to have begun after Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani visited the Jourin region in May. This tracks with a Wall Street Journal report from last week, in which the Assad regime, reeling from defeats such as the ISIS sack of Palmyra, and losing troop strength to defections and draft dodging as well as enemy action, began “aggressively sweeping up men in neighborhood raids, at road checkpoints and at border crossings — and sending them to the front lines.”
When even those conscription tactics failed to produce enough cannon fodder, the Syrian foreign minister “asked Iran to send 100,000 fighters.” Iran reportedly denied this request, possibly fearing so many of its troops on top of Shiite militia forces already poured into Syria from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would detonate the Syrian sectarian powder keg. Perhaps they were even worried about the international diplomatic repercussions, although sending an army to help battle the scourge of ISIS seems like the sort of power projection Iran normally relishes.
Tehran might be about ready to write Syria off as a lost cause. The Wall Street Journal notes that the Assad regime is now thought to control only a quarter of Syria, with the rest held by “the extremist Islamic State, myriad opposition rebels and Kurdish groups.” The Syrian army is down to well under 200,000 troops, half its size before the civil war began, bolstered by some 80,000 militia. The latter have not been faring well against ISIS, and new recruits appear to be balancing the offer of a $100 monthly salary against the fate of captives in Islamic State murder videos and deciding the money is not good enough.
The fall of Palmyra appears to have dealt a far more staggering blow to Syrian military morale than originally believed. Regime forces have been pulled back to can’t-lose cities, such as the capital of Damascus, and coastal strongholds of the favored Alawite majority. Perhaps the remaining Sunni troops will lose their appetite for fighting to protect those Alawaite towns, especially if they grow as fearful of Iranian “advisers” as they are of rebel fighters and the Islamic State.