The Syrian regime is gearing up for a counteroffensive that relies on Iran’s money and Shiite foreign fighters from as far away as Central Asia to push back against the Islamic State.
Both rebel forces and the Islamic State are on the march in Syria. Islamist opposition groups have advanced in the south near Daraa and in the north in Idlib; the Islamic State, meanwhile, last week conquered the central city of Palmyra. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is clearly under strain, but rumors of its impending demise are greatly overstated.
While Assad and his Iranian allies are increasingly struggling to field enough forces to protect strategically important areas, they have nonetheless moved aggressively to prevent regime collapse. Using cash and coercion, Assad has launched new efforts to bolster troop levels and engender further loyalty. Just last week, the Syrian regime announced its hope for a $1 billion credit line from Tehran to continue the fight. More importantly, Iranian-backed foreign-fighter recruitment and deployment have increased dramatically. With these efforts, the wheels are now in motion for the regime not only to contain rebel advances, but also to push them back.
Early in 2014, the deployment of pro-Assad foreign fighters hit a significant snag when thousands of Iraqi Shiite militiamen started returning to Iraq following the Islamic State’s gains there. However, the crown jewel of Iran’s proxy network — the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah — soon picked up the slack for the redeployed Iraqis. Hezbollah recruitment has increased, both within Lebanon and via the group’s affiliated proxies in Syria. The organization also boosted its influence by targeting not just Shiite Muslims for recruitment, but also other minorities, such as Druze and Christian groups, forming them into paramilitary organizations fitting the Hezbollah model.
Hezbollah’s military deployments within Syria have expanded along with its increased numbers. Not only is the group maintaining its advisory role with pro-Assad militia groups, but it has a significant combat presence in vital strategic areas. It played a leading role in an offensive in southern Syria, near the city of Daraa and in areas near the Golan Heights, and has reportedly taken casualties in the coastal area of Latakia. The most active front for Hezbollah, however, is the mountainous and strategically vital Qalamoun region, which links the northern coastal highlands to Damascus and directly abuts the organization’s Lebanese Bekaa Valley heartland. Following the melting of the winter snows, Hezbollah launched a major offensive in the area. These military advances have not been cost-free for the group: Since May 1, it has announced the deaths of 35 of its fighters.
Tehran also turned to entire new communities of foreign fighters to bolster the Assad regime. Starting in 2013, reports emerged of the funerals of tens of Afghan Shiite fighters in Iran, most originating from the Afghan Hazara refugee population in Iran. Some reports stated that the Iranian commanders viewed the Afghan Shiite troops as mere cannon fodder, reportedly sending criminals and paying them paltry sums. Regardless, since 2014 they have been active across Syria — in the Qalamoun region, Damascus, Latakia, Daraa in the south, and the restive city of Aleppo.
There have also been sporadic claims of Pakistani Shiite involvement in Syria since 2013. Only in the fall of 2014 was it confirmed, following funerals for three Pakistani Shiite fighters in Iran. Iraq saw the first publicized losses of Pakistani Shiite foreign fighters, with the first funeral occurring in June 2014.
Iraqi Shiite groups backed by Iran have also escalated their recruitment efforts targeting Pakistani Shiites. Starting in September 2014, the Iraqi Shiite Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed front group tied to the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, launched an Urdu-language recruitment program, calling on “the faithful brothers who wished to defend Iraq and the doctrine of Ali” to join the fight. The appeals for these volunteers were repeated in January 2015.
These Shiite fighters are not just more bodies for Iran to throw into the conflict — they also highlight Tehran’s growing geopolitical reach. Their presence indicates that Iran is trying to project its influence deep into communities in Central Asia. Its influence in Pakistan is particularly noteworthy, as the country is a close ally and potential nuclear partner of Iran’s regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia.
While many Iraqi Shiite fighters are still fighting in their home country, new organizations have also stepped in to recruit for the Syrian front. Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), an Iranian proxy group announced in early 2013, picked up much of the slack for the Syrian war, launching Internet- and ground-based recruitment drives less than a month after the Islamic State’s conquest of Mosul, Iraq. Since late 2014, KSS has posted photos and videos of its fighters posing in Daraa and has released statements promoting its defense of the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine south of Damascus to showcase its involvement and bring in more combatants.
While the defense of the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine has played a central role in the recruitment of Iranian-led Afghan, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Pakistani Shiite militia forces, these groups are now spread throughout most major strategic zones in Syria. Some Iraqi militias based near the shrine, for instance, have been sent to the Alawite heartland along the Syrian coast, which came under increasing threat from rebel advances in the north. The Rapid Reaction Forces and Liwa al-Imam al-Husayn, Damascus-based militias manned by Iraqi Shiites, sent fighters and representatives to visit the Assad family village of Qardaha, and the latter even claimed to have “donated” 50 fighters to the front near the village.
The Assad regime has also attempted to bolster the forces directly under its command through a variety of punishments and incentives. In late 2014, the regime initiated crackdowns on draft dodgers, while pro-rebel organizations even accused Assad of impressing young men into the armed services.
Assad has not simply used a heavy hand to increase numbers and build support. These efforts cost money, and Iran, in addition to paying for and sending thousands of militiamen, is also spending billions of dollars. For its part, the Assad regime has cut back on some subsidies, while refocusing its efforts on underwriting those who directly protect the regime.
In December 2014, Syria issued a law stating that half of open public-sector jobs should go to the families of fallen fighters and those who have been injured while fighting to protect Assad’s rule. In April 2015, the Assad government even distributed so-called “Honor Cards” for family members of those killed fighting for Assad; the cards give their holders access to free medical care and half-off public transportation. The regime has also reportedly doled out compensation for villages in Latakia attacked by rebel and jihadi forces. Another carrot for pro-Assad government workers has been the addition of a 4,000 Syrian pound (around $20) monthly bonus for state employees and retirees. These initiatives may seem meager, but in a country ravaged by near-endless conflict since 2011, a secure job and regular payments can do much to preserve loyalty.
The mechanisms put in place by Assad and Iran will allow for the continued survival of the regime. Attrition is taking its toll, but Tehran and Damascus are doing their best to stave off collapse and strike back at their foes.