The Jaysh al Fath and Fath Halab coalitions and their allies launched an anticipated major offensive today west of Aleppo in another bid to break the siege of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, according to Reuters. In early September forces allied with the Syrian government backed by Russian air power repelled the opposition’s first attempt to break the siege following a month-long battle. Pro-regime forces attempted to build upon their momentum and launched major offensives in late September to tighten their grip on Aleppo. They have made slow but steady gains on the city blocks of eastern Aleppo, and have attempted to push their gains in western and southwestern Aleppo to prevent the opposition from breaking the siege again.
The pro-government coalition includes the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the Shiite expeditionary forces led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Harakat al Nujaba, Afghan Fatemiyoun Division and the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun. Furthermore, the Palestinian Quds Brigade, which has effectively become Russia’s proxy, has made gains in the northern Aleppo sector alongside the SAA.
The Russian defense minister has reportedly asked President Vladimir Putin to resume airstrikes today in Aleppo following a 10-day hiatus, citing an upsurge in opposition activities, but Putin has said that airstrikes are unnecessary for now, according to Reuters citing Interfax News Agency. The IRGC provides intelligence to Russia for airstrikes in Syria.
A high-ranking former IRGC commander was killed in Syria on Oct. 26 during an “advisory mission” in Aleppo. according to Iranian media. He was buried in Mashhad, Iran, today along with two Afghan Fatemiyoun Division combatants killed in Syria this past week. The IRGC Qods Force deputy commander Brigadier General Esmail Gha’ani, who delivered remarks at the deceased commander’s funeral, said “the blood of martyrs strengthen the foundation of the Islamic Republic system.”
Qolam-Reza Samai was a retired commander with the rank of Brigadier General or Brigadier General Second Class who had volunteered to fight Syria, and will be buried in his home province of Khorasan. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), Samai held several command posts in artillery, intelligence, and operations capacities in several provincial Ground Forces units.
The IRGC has tapped into its retired and active duty Ground Forces, and special forces officer corps to augment the efforts led by the Qods Force in Syria and Iraq. The deployment pattern of Ground Forces commanders depends on the mission need and crisis at hand. For example, there was a surge of commanders in Iraq following the incursion of the Islamic State in mid-2014, and most were called back when the IRGC-backed Shiite militias were able to better manage the situation.
The IRGC Ground Forces have been present in Syria since as early as 2011. Their numbers have increased as the war deteriorated, peaking in Oct. 2015 as Iran deployed significant numbers of its regular forces in coordination with Russia’s military intervention, before spiking again in Feb. 2016 during a major offensive north of Aleppo. More than a dozen senior Guard commanders were killed in Syria during the past year, with the overwhelming majority in Aleppo. Fatalities and causalities of high-ranking officers have continued as the Guard has reduced regular Iranian forces since May and has relied more on Shiite proxies. Contrary to the insistence of the IRGC, commanders are engaged in more than just advising: they design and lead operations for the Iranian-led Shiite expeditionary forces.
The high fatality rate of Iranian commanders is explained by the tactically risk-tolerant and egalitarian culture of the Guard, which values martyrdom in battle as the highest honor and takes pride in fighting on the frontline. Whereas the IRGC is tactically risk-tolerant, it is strategically risk-averse and prefers to limit Iranian exposure, as discussed in depth by Ali Alfoneh and Michael Eisenstadt in The Washington Institute.
While employing foreign fighters minimizes domestic political backlash in Iran, it also serves a long-term strategic objective to develop capable Shiite proxies. A retired IRGC commander who has deployed to Syria recently claimed the formation of a “Shiite liberation army,” and IRGC commanders have openly discussed a global Basij paramilitary taking shape in the laboratory of Syria, with talks of laying the groundwork for the apocalypse and the Mahdi’s arrival in more intimate quarters. The IRGC, however, has not hesitated to inject regular Iranian soldiers and mid-ranked officers during major offensives and whenever the situation has demanded it, such as the offensive in southern Aleppo in October 2015 and the assault north of Aleppo in February 2016.