On Feb. 11, the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar agreed in Munich to a ceasefire in Syria. But the Russian Foreign Minister announced that his country would not stop its bombing against “terrorists.” (Russia’s definition of “terrorists” includes most rebel organizations, not just Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State, and other jihadist groups.) Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to retake the whole country, warning it could “take a long time.” These statements hardly signal good faith.
Assad’s allies, including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has a central role in ongoing operations in northern Aleppo, do not appear to be interested in serious negotiations. The Assad-Iran axis believes momentum on the ground is on their side.
On the same day as Geneva III talks started on Feb. 3, the Syrian Arab Army, Syrian National Defense forces and pro-Assad fighters backed by Russian air power launched a major offensive in northern Aleppo. They broke the siege of the predominantly Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahraa and captured the surrounding area, cutting off the opposition’s primary supply route from Turkey. They continue to push the offensive, encircling the rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
Since the operation started on Jan. 31, the IRGC has announced at least 42 fatalities, a significant spike in the death toll. The rate is comparable to October 2015, when Russia began its military intervention and pro-government forces launched a major offensive in southern Aleppo.
Like the October offensive, the IRGC members killed in the past week were from regular ground force units from across Iran. They included several senior officers: three brigadier generals, a colonel, and two lieutenants. Iranian media also reported the presence of officers and operatives from the IRGC’s Qods Force. The unit is not known to publicly report its fatalities.
A senior non-Syrian security official close to Damascus told Reuters that Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani was in the area supervising the operation, which is intended to preserve Bashar Assad’s regime. Soleimani helped convince the Kremlin to intervene militarily and deploy its air force, which has given the pro-Assad forces a huge edge. Soleimani oversees all of the Shiite militias active in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Shiite Fatemiyoun Brigade, and the Iraqi Shiite Badr Corps have all played significant roles in the recent operations in northern Aleppo.
It is worth noting that at least one dozen of the IRGC’s recent fatalities were from its Khuzestan province unit, which hails from Iran’s Arabic-speaking province. These troops are valued for their language skills, as they can embed and communicate with Arab forces fighting on Assad’s side. These reported fatalities strongly suggest that regular IRGC ground forces have integrated with the international Shiite brigades commanded by Soleimani.
The IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency published on Feb. 3 a revealing radio communication between pro-government forces in the besieged towns and the advancing units that aided them. Two men are heard having an exchange about battlefield conditions. Then the fighter on the advancing side switched from his not-fully-Syrian Arabic accent to fluent Farsi. The unidentified man addressed his “brothers and sister in Nubl and Zahra,” instructing them to “be ready.” He proclaimed, “We are coming! We are very close! Have tea ready! Victory is ours with blessings upon the Prophet and his Household!” The message was clear: although this was the liberation of Syrian towns held by Syrian rebels, the glory was owed to the IRGC. A photo posted on social media similarly shows the Islamic Republic of Iran’s flag waving in Nubl.
Top Iranian leaders and IRGC commanders have tried to explain to the Iranian public the necessity of their presence in Syria. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with several families who lost their fathers, sons, and brothers in the recent offensive, telling them that this fight keeps Iran’s enemies far from the country’s borders. IRGC chief commander Mohammad Ali Jafari echoed this view on Feb. 11 when he addressed forces mourning the deaths of Brigadier General Mohsen Ghajarian and five other fighters on the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution. IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami gave a live televised interview on Feb. 7 to explain the recent fatalities to the broader Iranian public. He likewise said the IRGC’s involvement keeps the fight away from Iran’s borders. Salami boasted that the recent victories “broke the backs” of rebels in Aleppo and “change political calculations in the Syrian government’s favor.”
Pro-Assad forces, including the IRGC and Soleimani’s international Shiite brigades, are continuing to advance with Russian air support and encircle Aleppo. This would give the Syrian regime an advantage in any negotiations, while also putting significant pressure on the mixed opposition in northern Syria. Assad and his allies want to dictate the terms of any talks, setting demands that the rebels may not be able to accept. If the insurgents reject the terms offered, then pro-Assad forces could press harder, attempting to use conditions on the ground to their favor. The battle for Aleppo province does not bode well for the prospect of a political settlement.