Iran's Levantine strategy
In the aftermath of several controversial statements by two former IRGC Officers, a "pro-Hezbollah" forum recently became engulfed in a discussion of the organization's true allegiance. According to a statement obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, Qawem, the aforementioned forum, became host to debate over Hezbollah's role and perceptions of Lebanon's sovereignty. The online controversy also brought to the fore the Islamic Republic of Iran's thinking on Syria and other regional matters.
The comments, initially made on May 4 by IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Hamadani about Iran's involvement in Syria, shed light on the origins of Hezbollah. According to Mehr News Agency, Hamadani stated, "By the grace of God, Iranians created a second Hezbollah in Syria ...." Later, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty reported that Hamadani's statements were removed from the website of another prominent Iranian news outlet.
The impact of these comments was heightened due to earlier statements by a former IRGC commander, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi. According to the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN), Safavi said, "The influence of Iran and Iran's Islamic Revolution has spread to the borders of the Zionist regime ...." Back on the forum, one user took issue with the fact that the Lebanese government allegedly never responded to this charge.
Safavi, who presently serves as an adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, also revealed a powerful hypothetical. If the Assad regime fell, he noted, "... it will be the turn of Hezbollah of Lebanon, the Islamic government of Iraq, and finally the Islamic Republic of Iran ...." Safavi's formulation best explains why Iran is so invested in Syria. It's not just interests, it is a matter of regime survival.
Moreover, Iran's narrative of its role in Syria is continually evolving. Despite disavowals by Iran's Foreign Ministry in 2012 of an IRGC presence in Syria as reported by the Mehr News Agency, in 2013 Qassem Soleimani, the Commander of the IRGC's Quds-Force (IRGC-QF), claimed that, "We will defend Syria to the end," Hamshahri reported. More recently, in his controversial statements, Brigadier General Hamadani also specified that, "[i]n the present conditions, Iran is a hidden and unknown power in Syria ...."
The forces of Hezbollah in Syria, however, may not be so disguised. According to a recent piece in Haaretz, the number of Hezbollah fighters who have died in Syria is estimated to be around 500. In March, The New York Times cited an Israeli military source as claiming that "Hezbollah has 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers today in Syria."
Thus, what many analysts fear to be the emergence of a "Shiite axis" seems to already be taking place. Iran's involvement in Syria is presently widening. Recent reports, as described in The Wall Street Journal, indicate that Iran is actively soliciting Afghans to go to Syria and fight. Other Persian media reports cited by The Wall Street Journal reportedly claim that "an all-Afghan battalion ... is fighting in Syria to protect Shiite shrines."
Back on the Qawem forum, however, another user opined that, "I want the Lebanese to rule the land and not Iran or any other country." This sentiment is in direct contradiction to a previous statement by former IRGC Commander Safavi, who said that "Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are now under Iranian influence."