Until now, Iran has maintained about 5,000 fighting men in Syria. While their commanders are officers of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the rank and file were a motley assortment of Shiite recruits from Muslim countries, most of them from Iraq and the Gulf Emirates.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian and military resources disclose that Tehran has now substantially beefed up its strength in Syria with an infusion of another 4,000 troops, all drawn from the IRGC, for fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian army. These figures do not include the 1,300 Iranian instructors already present for training Syrian army troops and the Popular Army Tehran established and trained for guerilla warfare against rebel forces.
Add to these numbers, 10,000 Hizballah militiamen, who are also under Iranian command.
Tehran was driven to consolidate its hold on Syria by the upheaval in Egypt. Despairing of any sort of détente with Cairo under military rule in the foreseeable future, Tehran is concerned that the loss of Syria would leave it without a leg to stand on in the Arab world, excepting only highly unstable Iraq.
There are two more considerations. Iran is alive to the wholehearted support Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates extended to the Egyptian army versus the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also watching America’s wavering reaction to the Assad regime’s use of poison chemicals in an unprecedented massacre of Syrian citizens.
Tehran is enlarging the Shiite imprint on Syria
If Bashar Assad were to fall, the Iranians fear, they would be exposed to more concentrated international pressure that ever before to give ground on their nuclear aspirations.
As an extra shield, Tehran has doubled its fighting strength in Syria with the transfer of the Vali-e-Asr Brigade, named eponymously for the Mahdi, which is a detachment of the IRGC’s elite Khatam-Al-Anbya Brigade.
Iran is also accentuating the Shiite imprint on the Syrian war.
HIzballah’s Hassan Nasrallah recently reacted to the destruction of the tomb of the Shiite saint Hojar Ben Adi Alkendi in Damascus, by offering to lay down his life to protect it.
A special Shiite unit is assigned by Iran to defending the shrines sacred to their faith and objects of pilgrimage. That unit also plays an active combat role in Syria’s civil war.
Syrian Sunni rebels have made Shiite shrines targets of attack, providing Tehran with yet another pretext for boosting its military presence in the Syrian war.
Not long ago, the tomb of Mohsein, son of Imam Hossein, was blown up in the Al-Mashad Quarter of Aleppo.
Protecting shrines as rallying-point for Shiite volunteers
It was followed by a heavy mortar attack on the revered Sayida Zeinab shrine outside Damascus. This ornate gold-domed mosque is used by Tehran and Hizballah as a rallying point to draw Shiite fighters to Bashar Assad’s flag. Shiite fighters were ready to die in the shrine’s defense against Sunni rebel attack.
The last two months have seen two thousand Shiite fighters joining up from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bahrain. They are mustered in the Abold-Fazl El-Abbas Division, commanded by an IRGC officer known as “Abu Seif.”
Among the recruits to this unit are also members of the Assaeb Ahl-e-Haq, known as the Iraqi Hizballah. Abu Seif took command after the former brigade commander, an Iraqi called Abd-el Amir Al-Rabi’i fell in battle.
So critical is the Syrian front to Tehran, that Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the half billion dollar monthly allocation for Iranian operations in Syria to be doubled.
The topped-up budget made it possible to start registering volunteers to fight in that country in the service of the Revolutionary Guards. So far, 2,500 volunteers have signed up.