Iran Expands Presence in Syria With Special Forces Deployment

by Galen Wright.

Recent comments by Iranian military personnel suggest that their support for the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War includes previously unknown contributions by the country’s conventional armed forces (the Artesh). Specifically, the deployment of advisors including those from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade. This revelation is significant because it hints at an increasingly expeditionary role for a branch previously oriented for territorial defense.

65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade on exercise, December 2014 (IRNA).

65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade on exercise, December 2014 (IRNA).

Despite this development it is confidently assessed that the bulk of support to Damascus remains under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their militias from around the region (see Galen Wright, “Examining Iranian Drone Strikes in Syria“, offiziere.ch, February 29 2016; for a description of the IRGC’s role in Syria, see: Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria“, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 24 2016).

1_Arasteh Speaks

Brigadier General Ali Arasteh speaks at the NEZAJA’s Rapid Reaction Training Center, March 2016. (Mizan News)

Unlike the IRGC’s involvement, which gradually came to light as casualties mounted, evidence of the Artesh’s involvement comes from unsolicited comments made by Brigadier Ali General Arasteh, the chief-of-staff for the Artesh’s Ground Force (NEZAJA). [1] First, while speaking during a graduation ceremony at one of the force’s training centers in March 2016 he remarked: “This training session is not exclusive to the forces’ advisors in Syria and Iraq, but in some cases these personnel will be used.” On April 4 he spoke directly to Tasnim News, stating that the NEZAJA had already sent advisors to Syria, including some from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade.

This comment was followed by a number of reports from Syria. On April 6, Iran’s Fars News tweeted an unconfirmed picture of the brigade’s personnel in al-Hadher, south Aleppo. This was followed by casualty reports on April 10 & 11 from the same area, where pro-government forces had just begun a major offensive. [2] At the same time, pro-government sources reported that the brigade deployed alongside Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah during fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra in al-Eis.

2_Around Aleppo

Location of NEZAJA activity in Syria. (Google Earth / Landsat)

Although the Artesh’s deployment to Syria is surprising, their choice of units isn’t. The 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade – often referred to by its Persian acronym “NOHED” – is the Artesh’s counterpart to US Army Special Forces, whose own responsibilities include advise and assist missions.

3_Qualification BadgeThe similarity between the two is more than coincidence. When the unit was originally constituted as the 23rd NOHED Brigade in the 1970s, it was done so under the supervision of advisors from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center & School. Despite the collapse of this relationship following the 1979 Revolution, the legacy is still evident in the brigade’s green berets and qualification badge, which is nearly identical to the Special Forces’ De oppresso liber unit insignia.

One of the brigade’s core specialities is irregular warfare, a term of art equivalent to the DoD’s unconventional warfare (guerrilla warfare supported by special forces). Their first experience actually came in the form of UW’s converse – foreign internal defense (FID) – when the brigade was deployed to support the Oman government during the 1970’s Dhofar Rebellion. This continued after the Revolution when the brigade assisted in suppressing the 1979 Kurdish rebellion on Iran’s western border by clearing villages and training counter-guerrilla militias. When Iraqi forces invaded later that year, touching off the Iran-Iraq War, the tables were turned and the brigade was tasked with organizing pro-Iranian guerrillas to operate behind Iraqi lines, under the auspices of the newly-created Irregular Warfare Headquarters. [4]

Over the course of 1980-1988 the brigade grew to a full division. After the war, the division’s special forces – remnants of the original 23rd – were reconstituted as the independent 65th NOHED Brigade in 1991.

Mojtaba Hashemi, a veteran of the pre-Revolutionary NOHED Brigade who would later be instrumental in operating the Irregular Warfare HQ during the Iran-Iraq War. Pictured wearing insignia of the US Army Special Forces. (Sajed.ir)

Mojtaba Hashemi, a veteran of the pre-Revolutionary NOHED Brigade who would later be instrumental in operating the Irregular Warfare HQ during the Iran-Iraq War. Pictured wearing insignia of the US Army Special Forces. (Sajed.ir)

These remnants included a hostage-rescue unit, which specializes in tactics that are largely synonymous with counter-terrorism. This training emphasizes small unit combat, especially in populated urban areas, often with the objective of capturing enemy combatants alive and with a minimum of collateral damage. With experience in this field dating back to the 1970s, the brigade also found themselves tasked with helping the IRGC and police establish their own special forces during the 1990s.

More important than the brigade’s capability itself, their deployment to Syria is also a product of one of the Artesh Ground Force’s rare moments of preeminence. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and especially since the rise of the Islamic State (IS), Tehran has been preoccupied with what they refer to as “proxy wars” and the danger posed by spillover from neighboring intrastate conflicts. NEZAJA officials argue that the brigade’s mix of counter-terror and irregular warfare capabilities is an antidote to these non-traditional threats.

After the IS seized Mosul in summer 2014, NEZAJA commanders used the fear that Iranian territory was next to press their case for expanding special forces training to other units. In the official telling, the IS’s advance was only turned aside because the NEZAJA was able to quickly mobilize and deploy several combat brigades to the border. In a 2015 interview with Defa Press, the Ground Force’s commander Ahmad Reza Pourdastan claimed: “When they saw the power of our forces they dared not take another step, but instead went deeper into Iraq”.

A few months later Pourdastan argued to Iran’s legislature that this incident demonstrated the NEZAJA’s importance to the country’s counter-terrorism operations, and – importantly – the need to increase their funding: “As soldiers we say that today we see the footsteps of Daesh in Afghanistan and Pakistan and they are preparing themselves. As a soldier I plead that in these conditions the ground forces of the Artesh and IRGC must be strengthened in terms of mobility and readiness so that we can afford the equipment nescessary. […] Today’s battle is the ground force’s battle […]”.

To this end, NEZAJA planners have advocated the development of “rapid reaction forces” modelled on units like the 65th Brigade, which are lightweight and can be deployed to most locations without a lengthy mobilization process. Colonel Tazgari, the commander of the Rapid Reaction Training Center that Arasteh spoke at in March, elaborated further: “Rapid reaction forces are forces that must enter operation as soon as possible and deal a fatal blow to the enemy and in fact they operate as the tip-of-the-spear for operational units in times of crisis and then these operational units use the window of opportunity that these forces created. In the field of equipment and vehicles it is necessary that rapid reaction units to have the highest mobility […]”. This translates into an emphasis on airborne assaults delivered by helicopter, raiding tactics, up-arming of light-infantry with weapons like large-caliber small arms and man-portable anti-tank weapons, and close-coordination with supporting elements like artillery and UAVs.

5_CT Training-MRA Exercise

A hostage-rescue scenario during counter-terrorism exercises, December 2014 (IRNA)

When Arasteh visited the center’s graduation ceremony, personnel from the 65th Brigade were documented among the instructors. Even before the center was formally inaugurated in summer 2015, the brigade was responsible for providing similar training on an ad hoc basis to NEZAJA units rotating through border security assignments.

Although the development of rapid reaction forces indicates the NEZAJA’s intent to deal with regional violence like that in Syria, their responsibilities are constitutionally circumscribed to protecting the country’s borders and its “territorial integrity”. The question is whether or not the Artesh is allowed to, in protecting the borders, go beyond them.

The Islamic State’s 2014 advance described above clarified both this question and the Artesh’s answer. The NEZAJA’s leadership believe they are constitutionally entitled to operate beyond Iran’s borders. In short, they’ve codified a doctrine of preemption. Pourdastan has made it clear that he thinks preemption is justified by the unique conditions of the irregular battlefield: “Today we face the new methods [being used by] these threats, threats which are different from those in the past, and as an arm of the Islamic Republic we must create and strengthen our capacity to confront them. One of these threats is the activity of takfiri groups in Iraq, Syria, and around Iran. […] We’ve determined that if these terrorist groups or takfiris come close to crossing our red-lines, which are very far away from Iran’s borders, a heavy blow will be dealt to them”.

8_65th at RR Training Center

NOHED instructors at the Rapid Reaction Training Center, March 2016. (IRNA)

Over the past two years the NEZAJA has been responsible for a handful of known extra-territorial missions. According to reporting by Babak Taghvaee in the February 2015 issue of Combat Aircraft Monthly, when the NEZAJA mobilized against the IS in summer 2014 the 65th Brigade sent troops to coordinate with Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, as well as direct fire support provided by the Artesh’s fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. The brigade also sent troops to the Mosul Dam and Baiji oil refinery. [5]

Postings on social media also document the brigade’s presence in Iraq through 2015, and at least one raid into Pakistan involving the arrest of six men claimed to be IS members (see image below).

This mandate isn’t just limited to fighting the Islamic State. Additional reporting by Taghvaee in Combat Aircraft’s July 2015 issue claims that in May a detachment from another NEZAJA unit – the 55th Airborne Brigade – conducted a heliborne assault into northern Iraq to strike guerrillas, not from IS, but Kurds from the anti-Iran PJAK.

Although Pourdastan says that this doctrine is limited to a 40 km buffer, it’s hard not to see the NEZAJA’s Syria deployment as the inevitable evolution of this logic. Once the initial justification has been made, what’s to stop further extensions of the so-called “red lines”? Why not 41 km? Why not 42? Why not Aleppo?

9_Instagram Photo

The results of a cross-border raid into Pakistan (Instagram / setare_tipe_makhsoos )

Footnotes
[1] Arasteh holds the position of coordination deputy, which is equivalent to the “chief-of-staff” or “executive officer” position in other command structures. This effectively makes him the NEZAJA’s third highest ranking officer.
[2] Documented casualties, as of writing, include:
…..– 2nd Lt. Mohsen Qeytaslou, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– Maj. Zolfaqari Nasab, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– 2nd Lt. Mojtaba Yadollah, 388th Mechanized Infantry Brigade (ABNA)
…..– Cpt. Hamidollah Bakeshnadeh, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– Cpt. Morteza Zarharan, 258th Commando Brigade. (Twitter)
…..– Col. Mojtabi Zulfiqar-Naseb, 45th Commando Brigade. (ABNA)
[4] The Irregular Warfare Headquarters was later abolished and its responsibility passed to the IRGC.
[5] Private correspondence with author.

This entry was posted in English, Galen Wright, International, Iran, Security Policy, Syria.

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