Abstract: The key mission of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) is to defend the Iranian Islamic Revolution and create armed militias in the countries of its “Axis of Resistance.” Its organization is opaque and complex, coordinating combat operations with soft-power actions aimed at, among other initiatives, establishing a Pax Irania in the Middle East, a ‘peace’ of which it is the initiator and guarantor. Although the Quds Force’s apparatus in Syria has been under pressure from Israeli airstrikes, Tehran is sticking to its mission set: infiltrating Syrian civil society and sending fighters to the north, where the civil war will one day end, and to the south, on the edge of the Golan Heights, to establish a base against Israel if necessary.

Irregular warfare—a deliberately asymmetric approach to the enemy to surprise and destabilize1—is not just a tactic in Iranian military doctrine; it is also an established operational model of the “Islamic Revolution.” The day after taking power, the regime set up a “headquarters for irregular warfare,”2 which it used against its enemy then, Iraq. From the start, the aim was to have a force on the fringes of a conventional force, offering a wide range of interventions: combat, intelligence, special operations, and soft power, among others.

The IRGC3 was born out of the desire to protect the gains of the Islamic Revolution4 against internal and external enemies and to export the ideology of the regime, whatever the means and modus operandi. Mostly confined, in terms of external operations, to southern Lebanon and a few operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina5 in the years following its establishment after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran,6 it became, during the Syrian civil war, a textbook case illustrating Iran’s expansionist strategy.

To understand the IRGC is to understand the deeper realities of the regime. Before being killed in a U.S. strike, the then Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani declared in 2018: “The IRGC has a structure, statutes, rules and regulations, but in reality [it is] an intellectual system”7 in which every action is sacred. The aim of Soleimani was summarized as: “to create opportunities out of dark crises.”8 This phrase exemplified the modus operandi of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operating in the Syrian theater. It used the Syrian crisis to create opportunities for itself.

Tehran’s axes of intervention in Syria are: 1) To protect the Shi`a minorities in Syria; 2) to create a corridor to the shores of the Mediterranean by eliminating the American presence; and 3) to create the conditions for an encirclement maneuver of the Israeli state if necessary, pre-positioning men and military equipment on the outskirts of the Golan Heights without opening fire on Israeli positions.9 There is no time limit on any of the objectives. It is not a question of conquering an area and then withdrawing as soon as peace is signed. The Quds Force wants to establish Pax Irania in Syria and in all the countries of the “Axis of Resistance.”a The aim is to create a transnational peace that transcends flags and borders, a space of shared theological values and strategic cohesion where Tehran, as the epicenter of the edifice, is the guarantor of everyone’s security.

After supplying law enforcement equipment to Damascus in 201110 and training officers in the management of pre-insurgency situations,11 the Quds Force quickly moved on to its core business: establishing militias12 tasked with spreading the message of the “Islamic Revolution” among the civilian population.13 An Iranian major general close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has estimated that the IRGC has created 82 fighting units in Syria since the beginning of its intervention, amounting to some 70,000 armed men.b

The first part of this article focuses on the human organization of the Quds Force, from the rank-and-file to the senior officers who plan the Iranian presence in Syria. It then distinguishes between the Force’s units and locally created militias. It takes a close look at recruitment operations, the nature of military confrontations, infiltration attempts, and soft-power work aimed at increasing Tehran’s influence in Syria. Before offering concluding observations, particular attention is paid to the failure of Iranian intelligence, which, by dint of proselytizing, forgets to be discreet.

This article is largely based on Iranian and Arab sources that reflect either the positions of governments or opposition movements operating in the region. The daily reading and study of sources likely to have biases and agendas is cross-referenced with factual events reported by Western sources and analyses, which, depending on the vector and country of origin, may also be biased. Cross-referencing these sources provides a mine of knowledge. The exaggerations of certain sources conceal weaknesses. Silence reveals embarrassment. Shameless lies reveal the dynamics of propaganda. The paradox is that some sources are more interesting in their silence than they are in their content. This article is mainly based on open-source information. The author has been closely following the activities of the Quds Force in Syria for over 10 years. This tracking is cited when the author is not aware of relevant open-source information. The protection of human sources on this extremely sensitive issue imposes a duty of care on those who take the risk of providing foreign analysts with information about the IRGC’s actions.

The staff of the Quds Force has the peculiarity of being open and official at the top and utterly secretive when it comes to the men on the ground, the real linchpins of Tehran’s policy in Syria. The identification of the actors of the Iranian presence in Syria in this article is based on Iranian sources, both pro-government and political opposition.

Leaders and Combatants
Quds is one of the four units that make up the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), along with the ground, air, and naval forces. A recruitment website in Iran explains that its mission is to “organize Islamic movements,” raise funds, and oversee external relations.14 Young recruits undergo nine to 12 months of training at the Mashhad center in northeast Iran, known by the code name 4000, or at the Ben Ali barracks (code name 320).15 Ideological and theological training is provided at the Imam Hossein University in Tehran (District Babaei Hwy).

At the top of the Quds organization is a cenacle of staff officers. Each zone of intervention (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon) is headed by a commander. The position gives access to the Council, a forum of exchange and consultation, who reports on their specific activities in Syria to General Esmail Qaani, head of the Quds Force.16

Commander Khalil Zahedi, nicknamed Abu Mahdi al-Zahdi, is currently the linchpin of the Iranian presence in Syria. There is no photograph or official biography of him. Nor is there any evidence that the Iranians are communicating the identity of this man, who is apparently in the sights of Israeli and American special forces.17

Commander Zahedi’s prerogatives are many and varied. He manages subordinates assigned to geographical areas, such as Commander Hajj Kumait, responsible for eastern Syria (Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah, Raqqa, and Badia).18 He has solved logistical problems concerning ammunition stocks and fuel by receiving emissaries from Behnam Shahriyari, identified by the United States as the head of an oil smuggling network.19 Lower-ranking Iranian officers deployed on the ground organize the purchase of Syrian houses, apartments, shops, and farmland, which they then provide to pro-Iranian fighters.20

Commander Zahedi has to ensure that the field visits of his superior, General Qaani, go smoothly—for example, when the latter came to oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid to the victims of the February 6, 2023, earthquake.21 Zahedi is also responsible for the maintenance of Shi`a places of worship and the security of religious festivals and recreational activities. For example, he oversaw the inauguration of a school for children to learn to speak Persian22 and ensured that a mosque in the al-Tamou district of al-Mayadeen, which had been converted into an IRGC command post, could be used as a hall for religious ceremonies.23

If General Qassem Soleimani, killed in early 2020, still embodies the mission of the Quds Force in Syria in the Iranian imagination, other lesser-known officers have played important roles, albeit less high-profile, but still leaving an operational footprint.24 One example is General Hossein Hamdani25 who formed the first militias to support President Bashar al-Assad during the worst of the Syrian civil war, when gunfire could be heard in the corridors of the presidential palace. Inspired by the Basiji model,c Hamdani organized the embedding of fighters in civil society—by having them sleep in people’s homes rather than in barracks, for example—to create a human link with the civilian population.26

Two other generals contributed greatly to the internationalization of the force: Mohammad Hijazi, who had long worked with Hezbollah and whose connections were very useful in coordinating the arrival of Lebanese fighters, and Esmail Qaani,27 the current head of the Quds Force and an expert on Afghanistan and its Shi`a minorities (Hazaras), from which came the powerful Liwa Fatemiyoun group28 operating in Syria.29

The article’s appendix contains an organizational chart of the principal Iranian officials and officers currently involved in the Syrian file based on the author’s tracking of the Iranian presence in Syria since 2011.

General Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the IRGC, recently gave an update on his forces’ involvement in Syria. He put forward three key ideas that he said should guide Iran’s strategy in Syria.30

The fight against the West requires “one or two intermediate grounds” to fight on; by which he means Syria. The notion that Tehran’s security begins in Damascus is an old one in Iran.

The IRGC is to play “a decisive role in Iranian deterrence” in the Middle East. The Quds Force is an asymmetric force. No state or army has been able to defeat it or roll it back.

The IRGC forces are “transformational.” They do not exist in a static reality. They are constantly evolving.

Units and Militias
The Quds Force is made up of units operating in particular in the Syrian theater. They operate in complete secrecy and are never mentioned in official media from the authorities in Tehran.d Thanks to Syrian opposition sources, the presence of some of them on the ground in Syria has been confirmed, as have some of their activities. Local testimony from digital sources (e.g., social networks, armed factions’ channels, disaffected militants’ channels, and local press) allows the presence of IRGC units to be established through a long process of cross-checking, without the author claiming that the following list is complete:

IRGC, Quds Force, Unit 400
Identified activities: Transport and logistics
Led by Abdallahi Hamed, the unit is mentioned in connection with arms transfers on the Iraq-Syria axis under the guise of humanitarian aid convoys.31

IRGC, Quds Force, Unit 190
Identified activities: Financing
Led by Behnam Shahriyari, the unit is involved in oil smuggling32 and money laundering.33

IRGC, Unit 1500
Known activities: Counterintelligence
Led by Ruhollah Bazquandi, the unit is cited in cases of neutralization of Iranian opponents or Israeli interests (in Turkey).34

Non-IRGC units have also operated in Syria. From 2014 to 2016, an Iranian force known as the Green Berets from Iran’s 65th Airborne Brigade was reported to be conducting advisory missions in Syria.35 The “Green Berets,” also known as the NOHED Brigade,e do not belong to the IRGC but to the Iranian army’s special forces unit. Officers from Iran’s Ranger Brigades (45th, 258th, 58th [Zulfiqar]) were present.

With the end of the Islamic State’s hold on Syrian territory and the stabilization of the frontlines, the Quds Force has regained mobility for its men and logistics convoys. It manages the conflict—of medium to low intensity—through dispersed attacks and carefully planned operations. The aim is not to hold positions, to be entrenched on the frontlines, but to exert a potentially coercive influence on regional areas.36

The visible face of the Iranian edifice in Syria is made up of the large and well-documented militias: Liwa al-Quds, Lebanese Hezbollah, Fatemiyoun Brigade, Zainebiyoun Brigade, Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Liwa al-Baqir, and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali.37

And then there are the others, the unknown and the ephemeral, those who are obscure (al-Ghaybat in Shi`a culture).f Some have a technical vocation, such as protecting military sites. The Fajr al-Islam militia38 was created to secure the former Russian military bases, which were recovered in 2022 after the “repositioning” of the Russian apparatus, according to Safinaz Mohamed Ahmed, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.39

Others are exclusively female: for example, the Field Women’s Battalion,g commanded by Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas in Al-Bukamal since August 2022.40 The women in the battalion carry out agricultural work for a monthly salary of around $100.41 They provide health care, run nurseries, or open kindergartens, such as the Khatwa kindergarten in the Villat al-Baladiya neighborhood of Deir ez-Zor.42 The aim of this battalion is twofold: first, to have the human skills to infiltrate Syrian civil society and second, to carry out intelligence missions.43 The IRGC may consider women to be more reliable than men, perhaps as men have more of tendency to confide in the first person they meet on social networks. Second, to develop a non-combatant force to transmit Islamic thought and promote the idea of the “holy defense” of the countries of the Axis of Resistance.44

The Quds Force also created the Imam Brigade in 2022 to adapt to the pressure of Israeli airstrikes.45 The Iranian officer Suleiman al-Abbasi has been put in charge of this small unit of less than 100 men,46 which aims to immerse itself in Syrian society. His two deputies belong to the Lebanese Hezbollah.47 After a few weeks of training in the desert (As-Suwayda), they were deployed in a large area, from As-Suwayda to the outskirts of Quneitra, in 2022.48 This tactic seems to respond to the desire to discreetly pre-position forces on the outskirts of the Golan Heights.

The creation of the Imam Brigade has been accompanied by intensive work with local tribes and dignitaries. The aim is to allow pro-Iranian fighters to move freely in the region and create human synergies.49 The Iranians seem to place their men among and grant material benefits to those who become their allies. One example among many: Agents of influence worked to promote a local figure, Abdul Aziz Al-Rifai, who was given the status of sheikh, a title of honor and respect in Syrian sociology. He was invited to Tehran and welcomed at the People’s Assembly in 2022.50 Members of his extended family were also helped in gaining privileged administrative positions.51

The Quds Force has intimate knowledge of local power relations. It knows who to appoint, who to promote, and who to sack for disobedience.52 This work, which has been going on for more than a decade, is based on a chain of command that gives the field officer a level of responsibility that allows for local initiatives,53 such as the temporary opening of a recruitment center in Deir ez-Zor with the support of a sheikh from the Bakara tribe, which confers honor, respect, and influence in traditional Syrian society.54 The sheikh’s Iranian handlers did not have to promise anything in return. They have been known in the region for a long time. Asking is enough.h

The infiltration of traditional organization of local communities is an ongoing concern. Still in the area of Deir ez-Zor, a meeting was held in March 2023 to create a new militia with tribal roots in the al-Mashada clan.55 Command was given to one Akram Akram, whose identity should be treated with caution.56 It may be an alias. The brigade is not yet operational—or at least it has not made itself known through military operations.

The human and material reality of the militias is sometimes haphazard. Names of groups appear and disappear at the spur of the moment. According to the Washington Institute, these are “façade groups,”57 names used to cover tracks or to saturate the analysis of intelligence services trying to understand their activities. A recent example is the claim of an attack on an American garrison at the “Ru’ailan” airport signed by an almost unknown group, the Brigade Al-Ghaliboun, according to the pro-government source, Arth Press.58 This is either a real group, a nascent group, or a front group. The Iranian tactic is to make its activities in Syria so opaque that only a handful of specialists and analysts can accurately track them.

Recruitment, Operations, and Logistics
The creation of the militias requires an intensive recruitment policy.59 Offices have been opened in Deir ez-Zor, Palmyra, Deraa, Qamishli, and the Damascus suburbs.60 Each fighter receives training, a weapon, and a monthly salary of between $60 and $80.i Officers earn about $100, have access to health care, and can take days off.61

Iran benefits from the influence of Shi`a communities around the world. The Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun militia recruits through clerics, both within the Afghan Shi`a community and in refugee camps.62 Salaries in U.S. dollars and charity cards (food donations) are promised to those who go to Syria. Recruitment is easier now than during the Islamic State era (2014-2019). At the height of the Syrian civil war, Fatemiyoun acknowledged significant losses: 2,000 dead and 8,000 wounded.63 This estimate, which could not be independently verified, seems to indicate that the group wanted to emphasize the sacrifices made.

These recruitments serve to aggregate diverse military skills from different countries in the service of a single objective: supporting Tehran. Again, on the ground, militia formations are complex to dissect, sometimes even convoluted due to a large number of actors, but they deserve to be examined in order to understand the IRGC’s modus operandi. Below are some concrete examples.

The Quds Force has tasked the Iraqi militia Saraya Tala’a al-Khorasani, which specializes in drone warfare in the al-Hasakah governorate, with expanding its activities into Syria in 2022.64 Lebanese Hezbollah has helped to set up these activities and organize recruitment; 1,500 militiamen are expected.65 It has been agreed that the troops will be spread over several towns to avoid Israeli strikes.66 As for future training camps, four different sites have been identified for military training and ideological courses for the new recruits.67

Regardless of the militia and its geographical location on the Syrian-Iraqi axis, the movement of fighters to the contact zonesj is discreet, sometimes hidden in pilgrims’ buses or unmarked vehicles.

In the summer of 2022, Fatemiyoun fighters were sent by road in small groups to al-Soueïda and to the south of the Jebel el-Druze, a mountainous area better protected from the threat of Israeli airstrikes.68 Those coming from al-Mayedeen were fleeing Israeli airstrikes.69 The crossing was set up by a branch of the Military Security (Fajr Forces), administratively linked to Branch 291 of Syrian Military Intelligence, but under Iranian influence.70

Southern Syria is strategic because it is a two-hour drive from the Golan Heights and close to the Jordanian border, and is very lucrative thanks to the captagon drug trade.71 The other advantage is its divided political environment. At least seven armed groups are registered there: the Men of Dignity Movement, Ahrar al-Arab Gathering (opposition), and As-Suwayda Popular Resistance (pro-Damascus), among others. This is in line with the late General Soleimani’s view that “dark crises”72 create opportunities. In this case, the objective is infiltrating a Druze area that is demanding recognition in the future Syrian constitution.73 It is likely that when the time is judged right, Iranian soft power will position itself as a mediator with Damascus aspiring to be the guardian power of the Middle East peace process. This mediating power posture was observed during the round of quadripartite meetings held in Moscow74 in the presence of Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian delegations. Iran always sees itself as a “moderate”75 power that “mediates peace.”76 Tehran believes it can compete with the great powers because its regime is structured, stable, and de facto resilient in the face of an angry population. Unlike the hyper-powers that come and go in the Middle East according to the vagaries of geopolitics, Iran relies on its operational endurance and the maintenance, come what may, of its strategy of influence.

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), much of the equipment for the IRGC in Syria is transported by road or by airlines accustomed to working with the IRGC: Pouya Air Cargo (also known as Yas Air), Mahan Air, and its subsidiary Qeshm Fars Air. Small and medium-caliber weapons that are not purchased or stolen in the field come from Iranian companies such as the Armament Industries Group (AIG).77 They are transported to the field by middlemen who specialize in illegal transport (Behineh Trading Co.).78 When the IRGC wants to construct civil-military buildings in Syria requiring engineering skills, it turns to Iranian companies such as Khatam al Anbiya (KAA), known for its involvement in the construction of the Qom/Fordow nuclear facility.79

Soft Power
The Quds Force is also an effective instrument of Iran’s soft power,80 as taught in contemporary military manuals that theorize the need to win hearts and minds.k Tehran is seeking a political and theological sphere of influence81 rather than territorial conquest in the strict sense.82

This soft power correlates two temporalities: the emergency and the long term, that are discussed below in turn.

Two days after the devastating February 6, 2023, earthquake in Syria and Turkey, Quds Force Commander General Qaani made a whirlwind visit to Aleppo to oversee the delivery of humanitarian aid, as confirmed by Salman Nawab Nouri, the Consul General of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Aleppo.83 Excavators and heavy equipment were promised.84 Local pro-Iranian militias were invited to host affected families in their compounds. The Imam al-Baqir Brigade, the Zain al-Abidin Brigade, Dushka, and the Aleppo Defenders Corps were all invited to help.85 Food is still being distributed to those most in need. Discreetly, military reinforcements of Iraqi origin (from the Badr Brigade) are being brought into Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid and are settling in the cantonments of the 80th Brigade, which is based near Aleppo International Airport.86

Meanwhile, the Quds Force continues the pursuit of its long-term objectives. The education ministers of Iran and Syria have been working together since 2018.87 Tehran has pledged to restore 250 Syrian schools at a cost of $3 million.88 The “Ja’fariya” Shi`a law school teaches bara’em al-Atfal (children buds),89 who are given free access to an Islamic library network and digital training to help develop an Iranian “virtually unified nation”90 from southern Lebanon through Iraq, Syria, and Gaza.

Intelligence Failure
Iranian forces are operating in a Syria where they have many enemies, especially among Sunnis. The actions of their militias are spied on and reported.

According to the Syrian opposition online newspaper Jesr Press:
The head of the “Dir’ al-Akidat” militia, Hashem Masoud al-Sattam, has been recruiting people for the Iranian militias in the towns of Dhiban and al-Hawaij (…) The recruits receive 300,000 Syrian pounds a month in exchange for planting bombs on roads used by US forces and providing the Iranian militias with information about the “SDF” and coalition forces.91

According to the Syrian opposition online newspaper Deirezzor24:
“Al-Bashir” is one of the leaders of the local Revolutionary Guard militia and heads the clan militia that moves from the T2 station, Muaizila, and Al-Salihiya, in the Al-Bukamal countryside.92

Operational intelligence, once the prerogative of intelligence services, is available to the average person. A man, a smartphone, and an internet connection are all it takes to spread information that makes Iranian movements in Syria visible. Technological advances have closed gaps in operational intelligence gathering,93 making such intelligence collection much easier.

The following reports, openly published by the Syrian media opposed to Iran’s presence in Syria, the Thiqa Agency, demonstrate the accuracy of OSINT (open-source intelligence):

September 4, 2022
A military convoy arrived at the headquarters of Abu Rama Al-Iraqi in the village of Al-Hari (Bukamal). It included 7 military vehicles belonging to the Iraqi Hezbollah militia, including the leaders Akram Abu Rama Al-Iraqi and Haj Hussein, who are the two economic heads of the militia. The convoy headed to the house of the Iranian Hajj Sajjad in the Al-Ma’ari street area in the centre of Al-Bukamal, where a security meeting was held in the presence of the Iranian Hajj Askar.94

March 22, 2023
The Revolutionary Guard Corps moved the checkpoint (Al-Hirasa) to another position near the new headquarters in their areas near Al-Bala’om Square at the entrance to Al-Mayadin.95

This flow of information records from open sources the comings and goings of militias, the creation of operation rooms (alliances of armed groups), the names of militia leaders, the transport of weapons or raw materials (oil, copper), the production of logistical vehicles, and so forth. The revelation of the secret activities of the Quds Force has the potential to affect the changing balance of power on the ground. The Syrian opposition press has described the creation of a faction led by Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (Adnan al-Bass, known as al-Zuzu) whose mission is to infiltrate the areas held by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in order to discreetly introduce a pro-Iranian presence.96

The Liwa Fatemiyoun militia was forced to dismiss some 20 of its fighters. They were suspected of providing information to outsiders, presumably Israel. Their weapons and cards were confiscated.97 Rahim Aghdam, commander of the Quds Hazrat Zeinab Force camp in Syria, sounded the alarm in March 2023 about the “decrease in operational and intelligence capacity,”98 with the risk that IRGC fighters will sell information to satisfy their personal material needs.l

Arrests are regular. Among the most significant figures taken into custody was General Ali Nasiri, a senior IRGC commander, who was arrested in June 2022 for “spying for Israel”99 and Ali Esmailzadeh,100 commander of the 840th Brigade, who died under suspicious circumstances in June 2022, supposedly having ‘committed suicide’101 for his treason. According to the official Iranian press, “Ali Esmailzadeh died after falling from the terrace of his house, which was not adequately protected.”102 The event came a few weeks after the shooting of Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei by unidentified men on a motorbike outside his home in Tehran on May 22, 2022. Hussein Tayeb, who headed the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, was dismissed in 2022 for his services’ inability to protect nuclear and military sites.103

Concluding Observations
The Quds Force is currently making a push toward northern Syria, both to protect itself from Israeli strikes harassing its positions, but also to approach Shi`a urban areas (Al-Zahraa, Nubl)104 and position itself close to the disputed areas where the fighting will take place in the coming months: Idlib, Tal Rifaat, Raqqah, Hasakah.105

The Iranians have concentrated three drone launch sites on the Nairab/Aleppo axis and at the Jirah and Kuweires airbases.106 Weapons depots have been moved to Jibreen, northeast of Hama. Others are dispersed in the areas of Qalamoun, Deir Attia, Al-Qaryatayn, Al-Sukhna, Hama, and the oil-rich area of Al-Tabqa.107 In addition to this movement, fighters are spread throughout the country, with infiltration points in the south toward the Jordanian border and the Golan Heights, which remains a major objective as it offers the possibility of opening a front with Israel if necessary.108 In April 2023, the pro-Iranian militia Liwa al-Quds fired several rockets south of this Israeli-held area, toward the towns of Netur and Avni Eitan.109

Apart from Israel, the favorite target of the militias is the American contingent stationed in Syria, comprised of some 900 personnel; U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin revealed on March 29, 2023, that 83 attacks had been carried out against their positions since the beginning of President Biden’s term of office.110 Although this suggests an increase in tension,111 as illustrated by the increased U.S. naval patrols in the Strait of Hormuz112 and confirmed by the February 2023 Annual Threat Assessment Report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that noted Iran’s desire “to erode U.S. influence in the Middle East,”113 it should be pointed out that Tehran does not dare to confront U.S. forces directly. Iranian diplomats are invited to Moscow to take part in quadripartite talks with officials from Syria, Turkey, and Russia, four countries114 that have many differences but all agree on one objective: to reduce American influence in the Middle East. While Tehran, Damascus, and Moscow all want to expel American forces from the Middle East, Ankara appears to want a significant reduction in American influence so that it can pursue its Middle East policy without constraints.115

The unknown factor remains the autonomy of action that the IRGC will reserve for itself in the coming months in the face of Tehran’s new orientations. The IRGC’s media silence following the signing of the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement on March 10, 2023, has been interpreted in various ways, with some suggesting that the Pasdaranm fears that this new diplomatic axis will limit Iran’s operational freedom in Syria.116 How will it deal with Syria’s return to the Arab League and the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Nothing suggests that Damascus wants to commit itself permanently to Iran as an ally. Relations between Damascus and the IRGC are in flux. Javad Ghaffari, the commander-in-chief of IRGC forces in Syria, was dismissed by order of Bashar al-Assad in 2021. He was suspected of corruption and human trafficking.117 According to Iranian sources quoted by the Tasnim news agency, which is close to the IRGC, this departure was normal and was not the result of any disagreement between Damascus and Tehran.118 The monitoring of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards suggests that its objective is less to keep the Assad clan in Damascus in power than to spread the ‘Islamic revolutionary’ spirit in the sub-region. For Tehran, Damascus is a transactional ally, a step toward establishing Pax Irania in the Middle East.     CTC

Pierre Boussel is a French researcher based in North Africa since 1999 whose research focus is the Arab world and Islamist extremism. He is an associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS). His research and analysis have been published by public policy centers in Europe, the United States, and the Gulf.

© 2023 Pierre Boussel


Substantive Notes
[a] The countries of the “Axis of Resistance” (mehwar-e moqawemat in Farsi) are Israel, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestinian territory of Gaza.

[b] Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi is one of the head military advisors to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. “Khamenei Senior Advisor: Soleimani Established 82 Brigades in Syria, Iraq,” Asharq Al-Awsat (Ar), January 12, 2021.

[c] Founded by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution, the Niruyeh Moghavemat Basij, known as the Bassidj, is a paramilitary auxiliary force responsible for internal security and enforcing the regime’s orders. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the militia for “recruiting, training, and using child soldiers to fight in conflicts fuelled by the Revolutionary Guard throughout the region.” For more information, see “Treasury Sanctions Vast Financial Network Supporting Iranian Paramilitary Force That Recruits and Trains Child Soldiers,” U.S. Department of State, October 16, 2018. For more information about the Basij Militia, see Saeid Golkar, “Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran,” Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Columbia University Press, 2015.

[d] The IRGC is also active in other parts of the world. For more on the mapping of IRGC activities around the world since 1979, see “Making the Case for the UK to Proscribe Iran’s IRGC,” Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, January 17, 2023.

[e] NOHED is the acronym for “Airborne Special Forces,” which in Persian is called Nīrūhāye Vīzheye Havābord.

[f] Ghaybah means “concealment” or “absence.” On this concept in the Shi`a branch of Islam, see Naser Ghobadzadeh, “The Minor Occultation: Collaboration and Survival” in Theocratic Secularism: Religion and Government in Shi’I Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[g] On a similar model, the Houthi militia (Yemen) has created a female battalion called Zainabiyat. Its appearance is mentioned by open sources from 2018. Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi, “The Houthis use a female battalion to oppress Yemeni women,” Al-Mashareq, August 16, 2018.

[h] The IRGC is constantly reflecting on the relations that need to be developed between its militias and the local population, who need to be convinced of the merits of the “Islamic Revolution.” “IRGC plays a role on the Syrian battlefield,” Basirat (Ir), June 23, 2016.

[i] Depending on the source, the average salary in Syria is between 70 and 130 dollars per month. This amount does not include the devaluation of the currency. According to “the dollar exceeded 9,200 pounds, the euro reached 10,200, and the price of a gram of 21-carat gold exceeded 540,000 Syrian pounds.” Adnan Abdul Razzaq “La livre syrienne est au prix le plus bas de son histoire, et la Banque centrale tente de le réduire,” New Arab, May 11, 2023. On the issue of salaries and payments, see Wissam Selim, “Low salaries push Iranian militiamen out of Syria,” New Arab (Ar), April 15, 2021.

[j] From the Al-Bukamal-Deir ez-Zor axis, the Iranians’ first axis of advance heads southwest (Al-Suwadaya) near the Jordanian and Israeli borders. The second axis heads east, toward Aleppo and its surroundings.

[k] The strategy of winning hearts and minds dates from the post-World War II era. The French used it during the Algerian War, as did U.S. forces in Vietnam. It is usually used in the context of counterinsurgency. P. Bao U. Nguyen, “An Analytical Model for the Strategy to Win Hearts and Minds,” DRDC – Centre for Operational Research and Analysis (Ca), Defence Research and Development Canada, August 2020; David Galula and David H. Petraeus (author of the preface), “Contre-insurrection – Théorie et pratique,” Economica, 2020.

[l] According to the Azadi Time Telegram channel, a former commander who operated in Syria, Nauaei Akbar, complained in 2022 about “leaked operational plans” to the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ali Khamenei. “Iranian fears and warnings about ‘selling’ information to Israel,” lebanese-forces.com (Ar), March 23, 2023.

[m] Pasdaran is the abbreviation for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Anthony Cordesman, “Iran’s Military Forces: 1988-1993,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 1994; Kenneth Katzman, The Warriors of Islam, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).

[1] On the issue of direct and indirect strikes, see Cole Livieratos, “Pulling Levers, Not Triggers: Beyond Direct and Indirect Approaches to Irregular Warfare,” Modern War Institute, West Point, July 4, 2021.

[2] “A general who fought in front of his soldiers – The documentary ‘Hamrazam,’” Tasnim News (Ir), March 31, 2022.

[3] On the IRGC from 2014-2017, see Afshon Ostovar, The Imam’s Avant-garde: Religion, Politics and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[4] Ervand Abrahamian, “Iran Between Two Revolutions,” Princeton Studies on the Near East, 1982.

[5] “Ex-general Says IRGC Was in Bosnia Disguised as Aid Workers,” Voice of America, April 17, 2019.

[6] Alireza Nader, “The Revolutionary Guards,” United States Institute of Peace, The Iran Primer, October 11, 2010; “The Rise of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Financial Empire: How the Supreme Leader and the IRGC Rob the People to Fund International Terror,” NCRI- U.S. Representative Office, March 8, 2017.

[7] “The unpublished text of Haj Qasim’s speech to the commanders,” Mashregh News (Ir), March 14, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jonathan Schanzer, “Iran’s Multifront Strategy Against Israel,” Commentary Magazine, June 2023; Assaf Orion, “The Response to the Iranian Proxy War: Jerusalem’s Power vs. the Quds Force,” Institute for National Security Studies, July 2018; J. Matthew McInnis, “Iranian Deterrence Strategy and Use of Proxies,” American Enterprise Institute (AEI), December 6, 2016.

[10] “Senior IRGC commanders who ordered military intervention in Syria,” Radio Farda (Ir), May 15, 2022.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ömer Behram Özdemir, “Iranian-backed militia in Syria: profiles and functions,” Orsam (Turk), September 20, 2022; Hamidreza Azizi, “Syria’s Militias: Continuity and Change After Regime Survival,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), March 22, 2023.

[13] Mohammed Amine, “Iran consolidates its influence in Syria Containing Arab rapprochement with Assad?” New Arab (Ar), April 28, 2023.

[14] “Recruitment in Qods Corps,” Rastin Masawar Telephone Counselling Centre (Ir), n.d.

[15] On the modes of recruitment, formation, and training of IRGC recruits, see “Specialized Counseling Center” Avije Danesh Counseling Center (Ir), n.d.; “Presentation of Corps training camps for soldiers,” Mohammad Javad Khalili (Ir), January 30, 2021.

[16] On the general organization of the IRGC, see Morad Veisi, “A Look At Three Decades Of Iran’s Secretive Quds Force,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 8, 2020; “The IRGC’s Al-Quds Force,” IranWire, April 9, 2019.

[17] Jared Szuba, “Top US general advocates targeting Iran’s IRGC Quds Force after Syria drone attack,” al-Monitor, March 29, 2023; “U.S.-Iran Confrontation in Syria,” The Iran Primer, March 25, 2023. On the tensions between Israel and IRGC in Syria, see Eden Kaduri, “The Campaign Between the Wars in Syria: What Was, What Is, and What Lies Ahead,” Institute for National Security Studies, March 6, 2023.

[18] “Successor to Ghafari: Iranian revolutionaries name new leader for Syria,” Almejas (Ir), March 15, 2022.

[19] “Treasury Targets Oil Smuggling Network Generating Hundreds of Millions of Dollars for Qods Force and Hizballah,” U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), May 25, 2022.

[20] “Iranian proxies buy large-scale properties near Damascus,” Iranian International Television (Ir), July 10, 2022.

[21] “Syria: General Qaani visits areas affected by Aleppo earthquake,” ISNA, February 11, 2023.

[22] “Syrian Observatory reveals the truth about Iranian cultural centers in Syria. This is what they do,” Hafrya (Ar), March 26, 2023.

[23] “Iranian military in Syria in May 2021 | Incentives to children and women to join Shiite community … Strengthening of presence in north and middle Syria … hectic movements near Syria-Lebanon border … three Israeli attacks …,” SOHR, June 19, 2021.

[24] “Getting to know the 17 great generals of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Miza Online (Ir), May 2018.

[25] Robin Wright, “Iran’s Generals Are Dying in Syria,” New Yorker, October 26, 2015; “Sardar Hamdani, un martyr dont les Syriens n’oublieront jamais le nom,” IRNA (Ir), May 18, 2022.

[26] “Senior IRGC commanders who ordered military intervention in Syria.”

[27] Ali Alfoneh, “Esmail Qaani: The Next Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Commander?” AEI, January 11, 2012.

[28] Tobias Schneider, “The Fatemiyoun Division: Afghan fighters in the Syrian civil war,” Middle East Institute, October 15, 2018.

[29] “‘Ismail Qaani’ has experience and deep ties in Afghanistan and Central Asia / Afghanistan’s problem is bigger than it seems,” SNN (Ir), September 2021.

[30] “A fundamental change in the IRGC’s ground forces,” I-361 (Ir), August 1, 2022.

[31] “Iran sends arms to Syria and Lebanon under the guise of aid,” Al Arabiya (Farsi), May 22, 2023; Shahriar Kia, “Report: The Iranian Terrorist Network in Africa and its Implications,” National Council of Resistance of Iran, NCRI, December 6, 2021; “IRGC Quds Force Unit 400,” IFMAT, n.d.

[32] Details provided in interviews with the author. Names of interviewees, and dates and places of interviews withheld at interviewees’ request.

[33] Jennifer Griffin, “Secret Iranian unit fueling Mideast bloodshed with illicit arms shipments,” Fox News, January 12, 2017; Arfa Al Bandari, “Iran’s Unit 190: The special force smuggling weapons by land, sea and air,” Rassef22, November 11, 2016.

[34] “The role of three IRGC intelligence deputies in the Islamic Republic’s terrorist operations abroad,” Iranian International Television (Ir), May 28, 2022; “Iran’s Intelligence Shake-Up Points to Security Failure and Massive Corruption,” Rasanah, July 17, 2022; “Reports in Iran: Following the Embarrassment – Comprehensive Purge in the Intelligence Division of the Revolutionary Guards,” Limited Times, June 24, 2022.

[35] “Ayatollah Khamenei’s order to army special forces to enter Syria,” BBC Persian channel (Ir), April 25, 2016.

[36] Navvar Saban, “Factbox: Iranian influence and presence in Syria,” Atlantic Council, November 5, 2020.

[37] Nakissa Jahanbani and Suzanne Weedon Levy, Iran Entangled: Iran and Hezbollah’s Support to Proxies Operating in Syria (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2022).

[38] “Iran expands its militias and weapons in Syria,” Asharq al-Awsat (Ar), April 7, 2022.

[39] “Syria, after the Russian-Ukrainian war,” Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (Ar), May 3, 2023.

[40] “A new trend in Iranian recruitment operations in Syria,” Almejas, May 8, 2022.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[43] For more on the role of women in the Iranian armed forces, see Golnaz Esfandiari, “Iran Begins To Acknowledge Its Forgotten Women Of War,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 28, 2019.

[44] “Women’s jihad today is an explanation of the role of women in defending the sacred,” DEFA Press (Ir), March 3, 2022.

[45] “Imam Brigades… A new militia to strengthen Iran’s role in southern Syria,” Annaharar (Ar), May 8, 2022.

[46] “Brigades Imam; une nouvelle milice pour renforcer le rôle de l’Iran dans le sud de la Syrie,” Al-Nahar Al-Arabi (Ar), May 8, 2022.

[47] Ibid.

[48] “‘Al-Imam Brigades’ … a new Iranian militia in Syria … and a Thiqa journalist reveals its missions,” Thiqa Agency (Ar), 2022.

[49] For more on how the IRGC handles its relations with the tribes, see Mosab Al-Mujbel, “How did Iran penetrate Arab clans in Syria, including Deir Ezzor?” TRT Arabia (Ar), January 8, 2021; Dia Odeh, “A ‘dangerous’ step. Revolutionary Guards remove ‘tribal map’ in eastern Syria,” Al Hurra (Ar), February 8, 2021.

[50] “The axes of the Iranian project to extend its influence over Daraa,” Journal Zaman al Wasl (Ir), April 23, 2022.

[51] Ibid.

[52] For more on the Quds Force’s infiltration work, see this other example involving the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan: “Clan leaders in IRGC schools,” Jahan News (Ir), February 27, 1996.

[53] On chains of command and operational responsibility management in the Iranian armed forces, “Disciplinary Regulations of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Support (shenasname.ir), September 21, 2019.

[54] Diane M. Zorri, Houman A. Sadri, and David C. Ellis, “Iranian Proxy Groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen: A Principal-Agent Comparative Analysis,” JSOU University Press, November 6, 2020.

[55] “Iranian Revolutionary Guards tighten grip on Deir ez-Zor tribes by forming 2,000-strong ‘tribal force,’” Jesr Press (Ar), March 27, 2023.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Michael Knights, “How to Use Militia Spotlight: Profiles,” Militia Spotlight: Profiles, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, n.d.

[58] “Claims Of ‘The Victorious Brigade’ Targeting US Forces In Syria,” Arth Press (Ar), March 27, 2023.

[59] On recruitment assistance and logistical support during the period 2020-2021, see Jahanbani and Levy.

[60] On the recruitment process in Syria, see “Daraa: New recruitment operations for Iranian militias,” HFL (Ar), November 22, 2022, and “Regime’s ‘Revolutionary Guards’ hand over volunteers to lead them to conscription in Deir Ezzor,” Syria TV (Ar), September 9, 2022.

[61] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[62] “Iran sends Afghan immigrants to fight in Syria in exchange for money,” Radio Farda (Ir), May 16, 2022.

[63] “Zarif: We did not send Afghans to war in Syria, they left voluntarily,” Radio Farda (Ir), February, 2022.

[64] “‘Saraya al-Khorasani’ is an ‘Iranian’ militia whose mission is to target the international coalition with drones,” An-Nahar Al-Arabi (Ar), December 2022.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[68] Details provided in interviews to the author. Names of interviewees, and dates and places of interviews withheld at interviewees’ request.

[69] “Fatemiyoun Afghans withdraw from several Headquarters in the city of al-Mayadin, Deir Eizzor,” Almejas (Ar), January 12, 2023.

[70] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[71] “Tackling the illicit drug trade fuelling Assad’s war machine,” U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, March 28, 2023.

[72] “The unpublished text of Haj Qasim’s speech to the commanders.”

[73] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[74] “Quadrilateral foreign ministers’ meeting on Syria started in Moscow,” IRNA (Ir), May 20, 2023.

[75] “Tehran and its peace mediations. Why is Iran a moderate power in the Middle East?” Iranian Diplomacy (pro-government) (Ir), April 2015.

[76] Ibid.

[77] “Treasury Designates Iranian Military Firms,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, September 17, 2008.

[78] “UN Committee Adds More Names to Iran Sanctions List,” Haaretz, April 21, 2012; “Behineh Trading Co,” Iran Watch, July 1, 2012.

[79] Nasim Roshanaei, “Khatam Al-Anbiya, Central Headquarters: A Representation of the IRGC’s Political Ambitions and Economic Pursuits,” Zamaneh Media, June 14, 2022.

[80] Edward Wastnidge, “The Modalities of Iranian Soft Power: From Cultural Diplomacy to Soft War,” Politics, 2014; Ali Akbar, “Iran’s soft power in the Middle East via the promotion of the Persian language,” Mediterranean Politics, June 14, 2021.

[81] Philip Loft, “Iran’s influence in the Middle East,” Commons Library Parliament UK, April 14, 2023.

[82] Jahanbani and Levy.

[83] “Sardar Qaani visited the earthquake affected areas of Aleppo city,” IRNA (Ir), February 9, 2023.

[84] “A one-on-one meeting between the IRGC Commander-in-Chief and the victims of the Khoi earthquake / Major General Salami’s order to send IRGC facilities to the earthquake-hit areas,” Hadi News (Ir), February 15, 2023.

[85] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[86] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[87] “What are the details of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministers of Education of Iran and Syria?” PANA (Ir), February 5, 2018.

[88] Sawsan Muhanna, “Invasi budaya Iran dengan menyebarkan Syiah di sekolah-sekolah Suriah,” Al Arabiya (Ar), November 5, 2021.

[89] “Iranian military in Syria in May 2021 | Incentives to children and women to join Shiite community.”

[90] “The creation of an almost unified nation out of this scattered nation in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza and the 1948 lands through the axis of resistance,” Maher Basij (Ir), May 2020.

[91] “The ‘Revolutionary Guards’ are training cells to work for them in the areas controlled by the ‘SDF’ in Deir Ezzor,” Jesr Press, June 4, 2023.

[92] “Al-Bashir attracts new volunteers for the Revolutionary Guard militia,” Deirezzor24, June 3, 2023.

[93] Details provided in interviews to the author. Names of interviewees, and dates and places of interviews withheld at interviewees’ request.

[94] “Iranian movements in Syria in September (report),” Thiqa Agency (Ar), September 1, 2022.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[97] Details provided in interviews to the author. Names of interviewees, and dates and places of interviews withheld at interviewees’ request.

[98] “Concern over internal collapse of government at secret meeting of Islamic Republic officials,” Farsi Al Arabiya (Ir), March 20, 2023.

[99] “Former IRGC commander arrested on suspicion of spying for Israel,” Farsi Al Arabiya (Ir), June 30, 2022.

[100] “2nd senior IRGC officer dies, killed as suspected spy,” Times of Israel, June 3, 2022.

[101] Golnaz Esfandiari, «Accident or Assassination? ‘Suspicious’ Death Of Another IRGC Colonel Inside Iran Raises Eyebrows,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 3, 2022; “Iran reports death of another Revolutionary Guard colonel,” Associated Press, June 3, 2022.

[102] “2nd top IRGC officer dies within days; report claims he was killed as suspected spy,” Times of Israel-Associated Press, June 4, 2022.

[103] “Exclusive : IRGC Commanders Warn of ‘Spies’ and ‘Infiltrators,’” IranWire, March 31, 2023.

[104] “Iran expands its militias and weapons in Syria.”

[105] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[106] “UAV Sites Used by The Shia Axis in Syria,” Alma Research and Education Center, April 3, 2023.

[107] “Changes in the deployment of Iranian forces and the locations of its weapons depots in Aleppo,” Syria Today (Ar), April 13, 2022.

[108] “Iran and its militias in March: 50 killed in air and ground strikes … Escalation of military movements west of the Euphrates, violations and clashes in Damascus and Aleppo,” SOHR (Ar), April 5, 2023.

[109] “New rocket fire on the Golan Heights, and the ‘Qods Brigade’ claims responsibility for the attack,” Syria TV (Ar), April 9, 2023.

[110] “Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Department of Defense Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and the Future Years Defense Program,” United States Senate, March 28, 2023.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Eric Lipton, “U.S. Navy Steps Up Efforts to Curb Iran’s Ship Seizures in Strait of Hormuz,” New York Times, May 23, 2023.

[113] “Annual Threat Assessment Report (2023) of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, February 6, 2023.

[114] For analysis of these meetings from the perspective of the pro-government Iranian press, see “Proposing a regional agreement a common trick of the West and the Westerners,” Tehran Times, May 10, 2023.

[115] Raed Jabr Ankarak and Said Abdel Raze, “A ‘roadmap’ for the normalisation of Syrian-Turkish relations. A positive atmosphere prevailed in the ‘Quartet’ in Moscow … and it agreed to continue contacts,” Asharq Al-Awsat (Ar), May 10, 2023.

[116] Author tracking of Quds Force activity in Syria.

[117] Waleed Abu al-Khair, “Syria’s ‘humiliating’ expulsion of IRGC commander points to unravelling ties,” Diyaruma, February 10, 2022.

[118] “Iranian agency reports on Javad Ghaffari’s last days in Syria,” Syria TV (Ar), November 22, 2021.

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