Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Iran’s military footprint in Syria has gradually increased. In the early days of the war, Tehran’s intervention was limited to sending military advisors to train Syrian forces. Today, it is recruiting and commanding a number of Shia militias which have become the dominant pro-regime forces on the ground.
In the spring and summer of 2013, as opposition forces advanced across Syria, it was the Iranian military effort that saved the Assad regime.
The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in 2014 allowed Tehran to legitimise its Syria involvement as a “war on terror” and increase its military presence. That year, the conventional military forces, the Artesh, joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias (the 14,000-strong Fatemiyoun Division and the 5,000-strong Zeynabiyoun Brigade, respectively) and Lebanese Hezbollah in a more visible fashion.
In the summer of 2015, Major-General Qasem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Brigade, the foreign arm of IRGC, visited Moscow. Three months later, Russia deployed on the ground in Syria, establishing air cover for the regime and boosting its air bombardment campaigns. The coordinated Russian-Iranian operation saved the Assad regime again.
But as body bags stream back home and the cost of maintaining the war effort increases, the Iranian regime has had to scramble for ways to justify its Syrian military operation to the Iranian public.
Public narratives, secret funerals
Although Iran was involved in the conflict in Syria from the very beginning, it was only after the rise of ISIL that official information started coming out about Iranians who had lost their lives in the war. In 2016, the number of military casualties officially passed 1,000, including high-ranking military officers whose deaths were harder to conceal. Today, the number is believed to have increased four-fold.
To justify deploying Iranian troops in Syria, the Iranian regime employed the usual “war on terror” narrative, which gained traction especially after ISIL expanded rapidly in 2014 and 2015.
Crucially, the Iranian “war on terror” rhymed seamlessly with the US-led one (the West preferred that Assad stay in power to fight ISIL). Both sides deliberately obscured the fact that Assad and ISIL are two sides of the same coin. For, Assad’s barbarity helped produce ISIL’s, which further legitimised his mass murder.
When addressing the Iranian public, the Islamic Republic has from the beginning of its Syrian intervention emphasised the need to protect shrines of Shia saints (central among them, the Sayidda Zeynab Mosque in southern Damascus, believed by Shia Muslims to house the grave of the daughter of the first Shia imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law) against “Wahhabi terrorists” – a sectarian discourse designed to appeal to the religious nationalism of Iranians.
At times, Iran’s military elite has also portrayed military involvement in Syria as part of its “export of the Islamic Revolution”. For instance, in February 2015, IRGC’s Soleimani declared: “Today, we see signs of the Islamic Revolution being exported throughout the region, from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa.”
Tehran has tried to avoid talking about the goal of defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad, although officials sometimes talk about “paying back” Damascus for its loyalty during the war with Iraq (1980-1988).
In contrast to the Iraq-Iran War, when the dead were celebrated in public funerals, Tehran has kept pictures of deployed and fallen soldiers in Syria under tight wraps. In fact, the IRGC and its paramilitary force, the Basij, have overwhelmingly kept the mourning ceremonies for their Syria casualties closed to the public.
This new secrecy constitutes an unprecedented reversal of Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictum “We are alive through mourning,” which he voiced only one month after the start of the war with Iraq. For decades, these funeral ceremonies reflected the Islamic Republic’s Shia mourning culture, staged as public displays of stalwartness and resistance.
But the intervention in Syria made Iranian authorities fear that any public mourning of Iranian casualties could potentially backfire.
There is much talk in the post-ISIL era and especially in the current so-called “reconstruction process” in Syria, about Tehran reaping economic rewards from its years-long military support for the Assad regime.
The promised dividends of the military campaign might seem lucrative at first glance, but they are far from attainable. Not only is the Syrian economy in shambles, but Russia is also aiming to extract some profit from its intervention.
But the fact that the Iranian authorities, nonetheless, continue talking about potential economic benefits in Syria is quite indicative. They’ve had to justify Iranian spending on Syria at a time when the Iranian economy is not doing well.
Since the start of the war, Tehran has been lending billions of dollars to Damascus with little chance of repayment. It has also been paying for thousands of Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria, as well as the militias it maintains.
With military expenditures in Syria being kept a secret to avoid drawing public ire, it is unclear just how much Iran is spending on its intervention there. Various estimates put that number between $6bn and $20bn annually – not an insignificant amount given a strained state budget and Iranians’ socioeconomic misery.
Claiming victory against ISIL
This dubious exchange of body bags and financial aid for Syrian regime loyalty has been a challenge to justify to the Iranian public. For this reason, Tehran badly needed a victory to flaunt around.
It is not surprising, therefore, that by the time Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed the end of ISIL in his country in December 2017 and the Russian military made the same announcement about Syria, Tehran’s military and political elite had already done so three weeks earlier.
In November, Tehran grandiosely claimed victory over ISIL, making it clear it was Iranian forces who made it happen. Kayhan, an ultra-conservative daily known to echo the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared in a bold headline on November 18: “The Daesh (ISIL) dossier in Iraq has been closed” – and, two days later: “The liberation of the last Daesh bastion in Syria”.
In a media-savvy, orchestrated exchange of letters, the top rank of the Islamic Republic celebrated “its victory” over ISIL. At first, IRGC’s Soleimani wrote an open letter to the supreme leader in which he solemnly proclaimed the victory over ISIL, praising the Iran-run Shia militias and Hezbollah.
Khamenei promptly replied by elevating the victory of the Islamic Republic’s forces to nothing less than that of entire humanity. Soleimani was then congratulated by President Hassan Rouhani, the commanders of the IRGC and the army (Artesh), and other high-ranking military officials.
But now that ISIL is “defeated”, and Tehran no longer has that justification for its continuing military presence in Syria, it will have to change its rhetorical strategy. What is more, the patience of the Iranian public with this years-long costly military operation seems to be running out.
This is part one. Click here to go to part two which focuses on the growing public discontent in Iran.
Editor’s note: A previous version of the article wrongly attributed Qasem Soleimani’s quote to IRGC commander General Mohammad-Ali Jafari.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.