Iran and Russia Are Defining the New Middle East

Nader Hamid, a commander in Iran’s Basij force, died of wounds suffered in Quneitra province, Syria, near the Israeli border.  The Basij are an all-volunteer paramilitary force established following the 1979 revolution, organized underneath the overall command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps rather than the regular Iranian army.

Much like the Maoist “Red Guards,” they are made up of ideological loyalists to the regime whose principle function is to enforce conformity with that ideology on the population of their own country.  Especially since Iran’s disputed elections of 2009, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been employing them to suppress regime opponents.  Deploying them to Syria thus means weakening Iran’s home defense against internal opponents at a time when Iran has had to ratchet up suppression efforts against those opponents.

The death of this commander follows the loss of several other ranking figures in the IRGC.  Hussein Hamdani, a top IRGC officer, and Farshad Hasounizad, another general officer, were both killed in the last weeks.  In addition, a top regular military officer, Hassan Shemshadi of the 1st Brigade, 92nd Armored division, has died in the fighting.  This underlines that while the Iranian strategy is still chiefly unconventional warfare, it is beginning to field thousands of regulars in support of the Syrian army.


Syrian president Assad has meanwhile flown to Moscow to meet with Kremlin officials about the war.  The Russian contribution to this effort is still in a support role.  They are providing especially air support and propaganda “shaping” efforts designed to influence the overall understanding of the nature of the conflict.  This week Russia’s propaganda machine has released a video of drone footage that claims to be of Syrian army forces fighting against “U.S.-backed Islamic terrorists.”

The footage frames the discussion in several ways useful to the Russian and Iranian interests.  First, it portrays Russia as technologically advanced, capable of fielding “drones” of the sort that have become symbolic of American power under Barack Obama.  Second, it shows Syrian regulars rather than Iranian-backed proxy forces.  That furthers the narrative that Vladimir Putin framed in his recent speech to the United Nations.  In his telling, the Syrian forces represent the stability and order of an established state, whereas the forces arrayed against Assad’s murderous regime are ‘terrorists.’  The United States’ role in the region, in Putin’s telling, has been nothing more than the establishment and furthering of Islamic terror.

America’s ability to further an alternative narrative seems to be on hold as it abandons support for the groups of Syrian moderates it failed to adequately recruit or train.  Rather than punish the failure, the Obama administration has elected to move its commander — Major General Nagata— to an even more important job requiring a promotion.  The anti-ISIS coalition that President Obama put together began to fray with the recent Canadian elections, too, as Canada’s new Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to withdraw support for anti-ISIS operations.  Between the incompetence and the failure of American diplomacy, there is space for these Russian efforts to define the conflict.  America’s limited operations in Iraq only further Iran’s interest by supporting from the east what Putin’s air support efforts are supporting from the west:  the success of Iranian-backed forces to wrest control of the crescent from Tehran to the Levant.