As the pro-Syrian government coalition began declaring victory in east Aleppo on Dec. 11, the Islamic State retook the ancient city of Palmyra in eastern Homs and attempted to storm the T4 military air base. The base is near a strategic crossroads of routes that lead to Deir Ezzour, Raqqa, Damascus, and other key cities, according to The Guardian. Following this development, Syrian president Bashar al Assad vowed to retake Palmyra, accusing the West of encouraging the jihadist group to launch the attack in Homs in retaliation for “defeat” in Aleppo.
Iran has confirmed the deaths of two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces officers in the latest Palmyra battles. Captain Ahmad Jalali-Nasab (photo 2), who was attached to the IRGC-GF Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb unit (Qom province), was announced killed in Palmyra on Dec. 13. The following day Hassan Akbari (photo 3), a Brigadier General or Brigadier General Second Class, was also declared killed. Akbari was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and was leading a sabotage battalion in Syria, according to state-affiliated Iranian media.
The IRGC-backed Afghan Fatemiyoun Division has been fighting in Palmyra alongside the Syrian military and pro-Assad militias. The Fatemiyoun’s “special forces” were dispatched to the ancient city on Dec. 10 in an attempt to evict the Islamic State, according to Fars News. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News published a report the same day after speaking with a Fatemiyoun commander, who claimed that units in tandem with the Syrian forces and Russian air power deflected the Islamic State’s attack. The following day, however, the Islamic State established full control over Palmyra. A photo posted on social media shows Islamic State fighters holding a Fatemiyoun flag (photo 4). Fighters also posted what appears to be a Pakistani Zeynabiyoun flag (photo 5), another IRGC-backed militia.
The Fatemiyoun commander said that four battalions of the Hazrat-e Abolfazl Brigade had been stationed near Palmyra since participating in the operation to take the city in March. In that offensive, Lebanese Hezbollah played a big role, with the support of Iraqi militias. The IRGC-backed Imam Ali Brigade had forces stationed near Palmyra last week, as well (photo 6), according to social media posts.
IRGC-GF officers have been on the ground in Syria since the early phases of the conflict, augmenting the Quds Force and advising and assisting pro-Assad Syrian forces. As the conflict devolved and Assad’s army dwindled, the IRGC mobilized its foreign Shiite proxies and eventually escalated the involvement of its own regular forces in coordination with Russia in September 2015. As the IRGC drew down its regular forces in May 2016 and relied more on Shiite proxies as foot soldiers, IRGC-GF officers from regular and Saberin special forces have continued to deploy to Syria. They can fill the vacuum of planning complex military operations against battle-hardened insurgents, and leading militias lacking that experience and knowledge. Elements of regular Iranian forces, however, continue to operate to Syria in support and direct combat roles.
The ongoing battle for Palmyra clearly illustrates that while the pro-Assad faction has achieved a significant victory in taking Aleppo, forces are both vulnerable and stretched. The Syrian war will continue to drain IRGC resources. The Guard can sustain its current model only as long as it can find foreign fighters and Iranians to volunteer.