Voice of America News quotes Iranian media reports and spokesmen for the Syrian opposition to report that Iran is using the Syrian battleground to train its military officers.
Tehran-based Imam Hossein University, a school affiliated with The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said it recently deployed military leadership students to fight in Syria as part of an educational program designed for future officers, according to state-run media.
Tehran says its forces are in Syria to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus, a Shi’ite holy site. But since 2011, Iran has been a major backer of the Syrian regime in its war with rebel groups across the country, at first sending advisers, then forces from the IRGC expanding far beyond the shrine area.
Morteza Saffari, a senior IRGC commander who heads “the brass hat division” at Imam Hossein University, said at least 100 students from the school have been dispatched to Syria for training in combat situations.
“Some of the students sent for two-month training sessions got martyred (killed), many were injured and some have been deployed in Syria for a longer period,” he told Iran’s Danshjoo news agency in a recent interview.
VOA news observes that Syria presents Iran with its first opportunity to give military officers front-line combat experience since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties. Revolutionary Guards Corps deputy commander Brig. General Hossein Salami boasted his forces have “gained technical and tactical advancements, militarily and in terms of intelligence collection” from their deployment to Syria. Extensive field testing of Iranian weapons was another benefit.
Syrian rebel commanders enter the VOA story to confirm that IRGC units have been involved in heavy Syrian combat, particularly around the long-besieged city of Aleppo. One rebel leader said Iran sent “many reinforcements to Aleppo, mainly new officers and students from its military academy.” A significant IRGC presence was also reported in Homs and in the suburbs of Damascus.
In an op-ed for McClatchy News on February 14, Andrew Malcolm argues that Russia is “using the Syrian civil war as a live-fire boot camp to train Iranian troops as the region’s dominant military force.”
“Iran’s concerted buildup, including sophisticated new Russian missile defenses, is expanding its armed influence toward tipping the Middle East’s balance of power adversely to American interests,” Malcolm warns. He notes that both Russia and Iran have rapidly cycled troops through the Syrian theater, aiming to give as many soldiers and commanders a taste of live-fire military experience as possible.
Malcolm quotes work from the Institute for the Study of War that makes precisely the same point as Voice of America’s new coverage, arguing that experience in Syria is “dramatically increasing Tehran’s ability to plan and conduct complex conventional operations” as Iranian officers learn by “seeing and doing.”
The Institute warns that Iranians are learning important Russian military concepts such as “cauldron battles, multiple simultaneous and successive operations, and frontal aviation” by working closely with Russian forces in Syria. This will help Iran become “a formidable conventional military power in the Middle East in relatively short order, permanently changing the balance of power and the security environment in the region.”
According to the Institute’s analysis, Iran is on track to become one of the few nations in the world able to “conduct quasi-conventional warfare hundreds of miles from its borders,” an achievement that would disrupt the balance of power in the Middle East.
Iran will add these improved capabilities to a demonstrated aptitude for coordinating local allies and proxy forces, such as Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias. That’s the kind of force coordination President Trump’s new National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, has recommended the United States develop in a different way with different choices for local allies.
If Iran is already skilled at force coordination and weaponized politics, which it tends to exert through terrorism and subversion, and it’s also gaining advanced military training, battlefield experience, and battle-tested weapons by cooperating with Russia in Syria, it will become a formidable adversary for the United States and its regional allies.