Iranians Sustain Casualties in Syria Despite Russian Bombardment
In Part 2 of my series Why is Russia in Syria? I had mentioned that while the Russians are reporting that their air strikes are having a tremendous effect on ISIL, that ISIL appears to be far from routed. To support my counterpoint I told of the deaths of three Iranian commanders in Syria and how ISIL was able to sever a key supply route south of Aleppo. Well, the Iranian situation is far more serious than I had previously indicated.
It has been revealed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) that 30 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers have been recently killed in Syria. These casualties have been officially reported by the IRGC-affiliated website Mashregh, so we can be certain that this is not Western propaganda. IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami has stated in an interview that Iranian troops are not in combat in Syria and that the recent increase in casualties is due to Iranian troops providing more support to the Syrian Army and as a result they are in closer proximity to harm. However, this explanation does not seem tenable, given Assad’s lack of man power, the thousands of Iranian troops that have been sent to Syria and the increased casualty rate, it is much more likely that Iranian troops are participating in combat in Syria.
According to DEBKAfile IRGC troops, fighting along side Hezbollah and the Syrian Army and backed by Russian air support, have been “routed” by ISIL and Jabat al-Nusra at Al-Safira, which is 20 kilometers south of Aleppo. Apparently six elite IRGC units were deployed there and were expected to capture Al-Safira thereby enabling the retaking of Aleppo. But instead they suffered “the most humiliating defeat” in Revolutionary Iran’s history. Of course with DEBKAfile being an Israeli source, it is likely that they are exaggerating so as to bad-mouth their Iranian foes, but I have no doubt that the gist of what they are reporting is true. The bottom line is that Iranian forces are experiences difficulties in the fight against ISIL, with the latter holding its ground and even advancing in certain cases.
That ISIL is putting up a stern resistance, in spite of the Russian aerial bombardment, does not support the official Russian and Syrian contention that ISIL is now in disarray. Undoubtedly ISIL is being adversely affected by Russian air strikes and maybe it is true that some of their soldiers are leaving the battlefield with the intention of temporarily blending into the civilian population so as to live to fight another day. But to truly defeat ISIL and the other jihadi groups in Syria will require a serious and prolonged effort. The casualties that the Iranians are suffering are just the beginning. This is going to be a vicious battle to the death between Shiite and Sunni.
What will be interesting to see is how Russia responds if ISIL maintains its stubborn resistance. Will Putin send in more aircraft and increase the number of bombing sorties against rebel groups? If the situation gets worsens further, will he send in ground troops to support the Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian forces already engaged in combat? Regardless of Putin’s future response, the only guarantee is that the Syrian Civil War will continue and it will most likely intensify.