Iran, Shattered by Heavy Losses, Ponders Downsizing Troop Level in Syria

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards find it imperative to put a stop to the swelling traffic of coffins of Iranian officers and soldiers shipped home from Syria’s battlefronts.
To work something out, AL Qods Chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iranian forces, was dispatched to Syria on July 3, fresh from the successful battle he led for the recovery of the Iraqi town of Fallujah from ISIS’ clutches, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
He went straight to Iranian military HQ outside Aleppo in northern Syria, which suggested to Western intelligence watchers that he was in a hurry to bring off another victory – this one over the Syrian rebels.
However, Soleimani stood aside from the battles for Syria’s second city, although fighting intensified this week when the Syrian army, buttressed by Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiite militias (like in Fallujah), managed to take control of the Castello Road, the rebels’ key supply route from Turkey, by capturing a hilltop that placed the route under their guns.
Tehran has never released precise casualty figures from its military intervention in the Syrian war. Last February, the death toll crossed the 1,000 bar, with several thousand more wounded, according to intelligence estimates.
One way of assessing the figures of the last six months is to count the number of military funerals taking place in Iran. The attached diagram dated to mid-June shows Iran’s surrogate, Hizballah, tops the chart of pro-Iranian fallen with 1,700 war dead, followed by Iran and the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistan militias mustered by Tehran coming last.
This order is surprising because the pro-Iranian militia fighters were recruited to act as the spearhead of the battles, with the Iranian forces holding the rear. But their combat abilities turned out to be so feeble that Iranian forces had to step into the breach and take the brunt of the fighting to save the day on the different fronts.
The only way to cut down on Iranian casualties would be to rapidly dilute the level of Iranian officers and soldiers on Syria’s active front lines and recall them to base, or send them home. But this would sharply undermine the morale of the various forces fighting for President Bashar Assad and worse Hizballah would also demand to draw down its contingents of some 10,000 men in view of their heavy losses and send them back to Lebanon.
DEBKA Weekly military sources reveal that, confronted with this predicament, Soleimani and Iranian leaders in Tehran are pondering three options:
1. To begin downsizing the total Iranian force in Syria.
2. To keep the bulk of Iranian troops, and especially officers and commanders, in their bases, away from Syria’s battles and send them in smaller numbers to fewer fronts. This tactic would borrow a leaf from Moscow’s method of keeping most Russian forces in Syria at two or three bases which are clustered together in close proximity for reciprocal defense.
The Russians therefore claim no more than 11 war casualties after eleven months of involvement in the war since September 2015 (although these official figures have not been independently confirmed).
3. To make over the Iranian units fighting in Syria and replace the infantry, special operations and armored forces currently in the field with air or marine units, which are better able to win battles without running the risk of close face-to-face combat with the Syrian rebels.
Our intelligence sources report that General Soleimani will return to Tehran in a few days and present recommendations to his bosses.

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