Iranian politicians and media have reacted to a recent BBC Persian report about an officer and a filmmaker killed in Syria, dismissing claims that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are fighting in Syria.
BBC Persian took its lead from a Dutch TV report, which drew from — and, at points, mis-read — raw footage from a documentary project of cameraman Hadi Baghbani and Esmail Heydari, a Revolutionary Guards veteran.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chair of Parliament’s National Security Commission, and Commission members Esmail Kowsari — a former Guards commander — Ebrahim Agha Mohammadi said the allegation of IRGC fighting in Syria was a “ridiculous claim” and an “utter lie”.\\\
Kowsari added, “We do not send military forces to Syria. The only thing we do is to transfer our experience to Syria.”
The comments from the MPs do not add to our understanding about what happened in Aleppo Province on August 18-19, when Heydari and Baghbani were apparently killed in an ambush by insurgents on a Shia militia. However, they offer insights into the attitudes of Iranian factions to the Syrian conflict and the IRGC’s “transfer of experience” to pro-regime militias.
The political consensus is that: (1) the Western media has a vested interest in accusing Iran of providing military support to Assad; (2) the Assad regime has broad popular support, which is why the insurgency — which include sWestern-backed “terrorists and foreigners” — have not managed to overthrow him; and (3) the Western media reports do not succeed in showing that Iranians are fighting in Syria. Instead, the account verifies that the IRGC is acting as its commander Mohammad Ali Jafari described in a September 2012 press conference, i.e., providing the “transfer of experience” through advice and training.
Commission member Mohammadi said that the Syrian people had formed militias to support Assad against the insurgents. He accused Britain and the US of gathering Al Qae’da and Salafists and bringing the “aliens” into Syrian territory “to break the axis of resistance”.
Agha Mohammadi said the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria was a “pure lie” and that “not a single member of the IRGC is fighting” inside the country.
However, the MP added that, since pro-Assad “guerrillas and Basij” type fighters had entered the conflict, the West — trying to overthrow a government that was at the center of the “resistance” [against Israel] — the Western media was trying to create a story whereby Iran was working for Damascus.
He continued, “If Assad was not supported by a popular base, he would have been toppled a lot sooner, and it would not be possible to say that Assad is being kept afloat by the IRGC.”
Commission Chairman Boroujerdi accused the BBC of funding “terrorists” in Syria. He said that for two years, the West had tried to support the “Syrian rioters” in overthrowing a legitimate government, but their “schemes” had not worked because of the Syrian Arab Army.
Commission member and former Guards commander Kowsari said that the Syrian nation were fighting against outside elements in their country, and that this incentive was so great that they had no need to ask for help from the IRGC.
All three statements refer to and support the line taken by both IRGC commander Jafari and the commander of the Basij volunteer paramilitary force, Mohammad Reza Naqdi: Iran is exporting the concept of a spontaneous, popular (i.e. by the Syrian people, civilians) “resistance”, including non-professional militia, which supports President Assad.
In November 2012, Naqdi said, “The behavior of the Syrian popular forces [in the civil war] is very similar to that of the Iranian Basij, therefore it is assumed that Iranian forces are present,” Naghdi said.
That line — not just of the provision of military training but also of an IRGC/Basiji ideology around “the axis of resistance” and “exporting the revolution” — serves the Iranian factions in two ways.
If Iran can say that a “popular, Basij-like militia” has sprung up in Syria — a militia which may be trained in part by Iran, but which is inspired by Syria as the “axis of resistance” against Israeli and US interests and which is on the Iranian model of the Basij/IRGC — then the factions can say that they have successfully exported Tehran’s soft power.
The second reason is more practical.
Promoting the concept of a “popular militia” allows the Revolutionary Guards to have a role in training that militia in the fight against the insurgency. That, in turn, helps keep Assad — who for Iran is the President of a central country in the “axis of resistance” — in power.
Which is exactly what Hadi Baghbani and Esmail Heydari were seeking to establish, one by training a Syrian militia and one by filming, when they died last month.