According to Reuters, the “hundreds” of Iranian troops that have been arriving in Syria since the Russian deployment of air support assets have grown to “thousands” on the verge of a major offensive. This offensive is being led by Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and one of America’s most dangerous enemies. IranTruth reported on his trip to Moscow in violation of international travel bans in August, when we warned that planning a military offensive was the reason Suleimani himself would need to go.
Quds Force has apparently been put in the lead of Iran’s overall effort in Syria, aligning the deployment of conventional regular forces with the networks of proxy forces that Iran has erected in Syria. Two more top Iranian military officers, including a former head of Quds Force, were killed in Iran in recent days. The first was General Farshad Hasounizad, described as a “defender of the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine.” This shrine features heavily in Iranian recruitment efforts pointed at forming new Shia militias across Syria and Iraq, as it is a specifically Shi’ite shrine that is said to be in danger of destruction by both ISIS and non-Islamic forces. The other officer killed was Hassan Shemshadi, a regular from Iran’s 1st Brigade, 92nd Armored Division, considered the top armored unit in Iran’s regular forces. Their deaths follow the loss of the IRGC’s Hussein Hamdani earlier in the conflict. He was killed while in the role of military adviser to the Syrian army preparing to retake Aleppo.
“The big battle preparations in that area are clear,” said one of the officials. “There is a large mobilization of the Syrian army … elite Hezbollah fighters, and thousands of Iranians who arrived in stages in recent days,” said the official.
The second official, who is close to the Syrian government, said: “The decision to launch the battle of Aleppo has been taken … It is no longer hidden that thousands of Iranians are now in Syria and their role is fundamental.”
According to the Institute for the Study of War, initial gains have been limited. It will take some time to organize an effective system for unifying the command of the numerous proxy forces with regular troops. Russian airstrikes are intensifying, however, in what is likely battlespace preparation for a ground push. ISW predicts that the campaign will go on much longer than the “three or four months” that Russian command has publicly predicted.
Russian propaganda tells a different story. Russia Today is proclaiming that Russian airstrikes have destroyed “most” of the vehicles and ammunition stores of the Islamic State in their first weeks of operation. They cited Defence Ministry statements and provided published gun tape from bombing runs that allegedly show hits upon ISIS bunkers and other targets. However, a review of these tapes does not show evidence of secondary explosions, which would indicate a hit upon ammunition stores. It is unclear just how good Russian intelligence could be on ISIS’s stores and bunkers this early into their deployment. Unless Russia has prepared with a solid human intelligence campaign within ISIS- and rebel-held areas of Syria, it will be dependent on locally-provided information. American experience with such information in the Iraq war showed that it was often of questionable value until proper intelligence networks, including proper chains of custody and the services of analytical officers familiar with the sources and history of the conflict, were in place.
Given that ISIS was set up by a collection of former Ba’athist intelligence officers, it is unlikely that Russia will inherit a strong Syrian intelligence capacity. ISIS has a robust counterintelligence plan, and made a careful study of ties of loyalty in their areas of operation before openly seizing control of those areas. Purges of suspected enemies have been characteristic of ISIS operations. It is unlikely that Syria can therefore provide Russia with adequate intelligence for an effective air campaign.
Unless Russia deploys significant intelligence operators to the region, it will thus be dependent on aerial surveillance and the limited intelligence provided by its partners for the success of its operations. Of these, Quds Force proxies may provide the best information as they will be directly operating against ISIS and rebel forces. Quds Force certainly has practice generating proper intelligence from battlefield information, but it will leave the Russians dependent on Iran in this critical capacity. Iran will also control the overarching alignment of ground forces in these campaigns. It is thus Iran, and not the apparently more powerful Russia, that is in the driver’s seat in Syria.