At a base near Tehran, Iranian forces are training Shiite militiamen from across the Arab world to do battle in Syria—showing the widening role of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria's bloody war.
The busloads of Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Syria and other Arab states have been arriving at the Iranian base in recent weeks, under cover of darkness, for instruction in urban warfare and the teachings of Iran's clerics, according to Iranian military figures and residents in the area. The fighters' mission: Fortify the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni rebels, the U.S. and Israel.
Iran's widening role in Syria has helped Mr. Assad climb back from near-defeat in less than a year. The role of Iran's training camp for Shiite fighters hasn't previously been disclosed.
The fighters "are told that the war in Syria is akin to [an] epic battle for Shiite Islam, and if they die they will be martyrs of the highest rank," says an Iranian military officer briefed on the training camp, which is 15 miles outside Tehran and called Amir Al-Momenin, or Commander of the Faithful.
The training of thousands of fighters is an outgrowth of Iran's decision last year to immerse itself in the Syrian civil war on behalf of its struggling ally, the Assad regime, in an effort to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Syria's bloodshed is shaping into more than a civil war: It is now a proxy war among regional powers jockeying for influence in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions.
On one side of this proxy war is Mr. Assad, backed by Iran, Russia and Shiite militias. On the other side, the rebels, backed by Saudi Arabia, Arab states and the U.S.
This account of the expanded involvement in Syria of Iran's Revolutionary Guards is based on interviews with individuals with direct knowledge of the Guards' activities, including Syrian and Arab Shiite fighters, members of the Guards, high-ranking military personnel in Iran and an adviser to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant force and political party in Lebanon. The Guards, a military unit tasked with safeguarding Iran against external or internal threats, is also a powerful political and economic organization.
On Friday, Dutch television broadcast a video described as having been made by a Guards filmmaker in Syria that shows Guards members living in a school in the city of Aleppo and meeting with the local Syrian army commander. In the video, the Guards commander in Aleppo says he has been commanding Syrian Army units for a year and a half and that Iran is training fighters from around the Arab world to fight in Syria.
A senior official at Iran's mission to the United Nations says, "The Islamic Republic of Iran has no military involvement in Syria." The official, Alireza Miryousefi, says the main obstacle to peace in Syria is "the foreign financial and military support that Syrian rebels receive from some Arab and Western countries."
Just over a year ago, U.S. officials publicly described Mr. Assad's fall as imminent. That would have been a major blow for Iran: Syria is Iran's most important Arab ally and serves as a land bridge for Iranian arms and cash to Lebanese and Palestinian militias fighting Israel. Last summer, after Syrian rebels captured large sections of the important northern city of Aleppo, the senior command of the Revolutionary Guards sprang into action, according to U.S. officials and Guards members in Iran. Under its overseas commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the military unit established "operation rooms" to control cooperation between Tehran, Syrian forces and fighters from Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful military force and a creation of the Guards in the 1980s, according to U.S. and Arab officials and Guards members.
Two senior commanders who oversaw Tehran's 2009 crackdown on Iranian pro-democracy protesters—Generals Hossein Hamadani and Yadollah Javani—were deployed to Syria, according to U.S. officials and Guards members. Gen. Soleimani also sent top Guards personnel who had run counterinsurgency campaigns against Iran's own rebel movements, these people say.
Some Revolutionary Guards military advisers and counterinsurgency experts have gone into battle alongside Mr. Assad's forces and militias to secure key victories, say these officials. Iranian websites tied to the Guards have memorialized the names of Guards members described as Iranian "martyrs" killed in the Syrian civil war. The sites publish pictures of the funerals and report that Guards commanders sometimes give speeches.
The Guards and Gen. Soleimani also are mobilizing thousands of fighters from Arab countries, primarily Lebanon and Iraq, to fortify Mr. Assad's security forces, training them at camps like Amir Al-Momenin, say these officials.
The Amir Al-Momenin camp, home to the Guards' ballistic missile arsenal, is an important military installation. Shiite fighters are trained there in guerrilla warfare, field survival and the handling of heavy guns, according to Guards members and others who work in the camp. There are also daily religious classes.
The military wing of Lebanese Hezbollah has alone sent thousands of fighters into Syria in coordination with the Guards. Hezbollah commanders currently control important strategic areas reclaimed by the Damascus regime, including the city of Qusayr, some sections of the city of Homs and enclaves in the southern province of Deraa.
"Qasem Soleimani is now running Syria," says Col. Ahmed Hamada, an officer with the rebel Free Syrian Army, based in its command near the northern city of Aleppo. "Bashar is just his mayor."
U.S. officials say they don't have any specific information on the Amir Al-Momenin camp. But defense officials say it appears consistent with how the Guards trained Iraqi militants to fight U.S. and allied forces in Iraq. The Pentagon captured and interrogated hundreds of Shiite fighters during the Iraq war who described traveling to Iran for training.
Iranian and Syrian officials publicly acknowledge their cooperation in the war. Syria's foreign minister last month said the two countries are working out of the same "trench." But Mr. Assad and other senior Syrian officials say the Guards aren't running Syria's overall campaign. They call the allegations propaganda to justify U.S. military action.
"This is really funny," says Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, regarding claims that Iran is helping to run the war. He calls them "rumors" intended to "deceive the public."
Iran also supports Syria's regime financially and politically. In July Iran offered Syria a $3.6 billion credit line to buy oil and food and in January another $1 billion credit line to import goods from Iran. Iranian officials have also defended Mr. Assad: After claims that his forces used chemical weapons, Iran blamed rebels for the attack.
The presence of Iran and its proxies inside Syria is emerging as a strategic challenge for President Barack Obama as he maintains the threat of military strikes against the Assad regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons last month. The White House says any U.S. military operations against Syria would be limited and focused solely on degrading Damascus's chemical-weapons capabilities.
Iranian and Lebanese individuals with knowledge of the Guards say the organization is debating whether it would retaliate against U.S. and Israeli targets stationed in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, either directly or through proxies, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.
Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah describe the Syria conflict as a potential turning point in what they consider their struggle with the U.S. and its Mideast allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. They also see their fight as a defense of Shiites against Sunni extremists.
Iran, and its majority Shiite population, is locked in a regional battle for influence with the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia. The conflict is also playing out in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon and Palestinian territories.
"Syria is the front line of resistance," Gen. Soleimani recently told an elite Iranian government body, according to state media. "We will support Syria to the end."
Tehran's alliance with Syria began shortly after Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. Damascus under Mr. Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, was the first Arab country to back Iran's revolutionary government. Tehran's ayatollahs, in turn, recognized the Assad family's Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as a legitimate branch of their religion.
The Guards' influence in Damascus grew significantly after Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, according to current and former Syrian military officers. Operations between the Guards and Syria's security forces started to grow more integrated, with Iranian advisers basing themselves in Syria. Iran's government opened weapons factories and religious centers in Syria as well.
"Bashar relied on Iran in a way his father never did," says Col. Hamada, the FSA commander, who defected from the Syrian military last year.
During the first year of Syria's war, Tehran's involvement was relatively limited, according to U.S., Arab and Iranian military officials. Iranian experts in electronic surveillance and crowd control, schooled during Tehran's 2009 crackdown on democracy protesters, were dispatched to Damascus. However, no Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah fighters were yet engaged in significant fighting.
This began shifting in mid-2012 as Iran tracked rebel fighters moving toward Aleppo, these officials say. Opposition forces also assassinated Mr. Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, a powerful figure in Syria's security forces. Gen. Soleimani, fearing the Damascus regime's collapse, dispatched Guards commanders skilled in urban warfare to help coordinate Mr. Assad's war effort.
Iran's widening military presence inside Syria showed itself in August 2012. That month, Free Syrian Army rebels kidnapped 48 Guards commanders and personnel in Damascus. Iran's government first called the men Shiite pilgrims, then later described them as "retired" Revolutionary Guards officers.
Last summer, the Guards began deploying fighters for the first time, according to Iranian military officials and Syrian rebels. The majority weren't sent to fight, but to repair equipment, guard military installations and fill in for defecting Syrian units.
FSA commanders possess identification cards and dog tags of Iranian soldiers they say they captured or killed in battle. "Assad asked for them to be on the ground," says Gen. Yahya Bittar, who leads the FSA's overall intelligence operations. "The Iranians are now part of Syria's command-and-control structure."
The Revolutionary Guards and its allies deployed on a wider scale this spring as Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar increased their shipments of arms and cash to Syrian rebels, according to Syrian government officials and Hezbollah. The U.S. believes some of the opposition's militias have al Qaeda ties.
Tehran has been particularly focused on fortifying western and central Syria, regions which control access into Lebanon and Hezbollah, according to U.S. and Arab officials and Syrian rebels. This May, Hezbollah sent thousands of its elite fighters into the central Syrian city of Qusayr and almost single-handedly pushed out the rebels that threatened their supply lines.
The battle was viewed in Washington as a potential turning point in Syria's civil war. The Guards and Gen. Soleimani coordinated with Hezbollah in prosecuting this fight, sending military advisers to the city, according to rebel fighters and a journalist who saw them there.
Today, Hezbollah independently runs Qusayr, and its commanders are in charge of maintaining discipline among Mr. Assad's forces. The Lebanese militia has established an operations base in the town's northern section that is off-limits to most Syrian civilians. A Hezbollah commander, who identified himself as Abu Ahmed, patrolled Qusayr one recent afternoon with fighters in a pickup truck. He said only regime loyalists are allowed back into the city, and that they must be vetted by him personally.
Much of the city remains deserted and badly damaged. Dueling Sunni-Shiite graffiti still covers many walls, sometimes referencing epic battles dating from the seventh century.
Hezbollah, and Syrian militias under its command, have also been leading the Assad regime's campaign to retake Homs, a strategic province bisecting the country. In recent weeks, they have pushed out rebels from most of the capital, Homs city.
"We did the heavy lifting," said a 19-year-old Syrian militiaman, identified as Abdullah, who fought under a Hezbollah commander in a district called Khalidiya, this August. "If we take back all of Homs, the revolution is going to be completely finished."
The Revolutionary Guards, meanwhile, continue to mobilize thousands of Shiite fighters to battle the largely Sunni rebels being armed, trained and funded by Saudi Arabia and Iran's other rivals, say Iranian officials and Arab intelligence officers. At the Amir Al-Momenin base near Tehran, Shiites from Yemen and Saudi Arabia are being trained for fighting inside Syria, say Guards officials and Iranian villagers who live near the facility.
Dozens of buses with tinted windows carrying the men have been arriving nightly at the base, which is surrounded by farmlands, they say. Many enter Iran under the pretext of being religious pilgrims, then are sent to Syria via Iraq.
In addition, members of two Iraqi militias, Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, said in interviews near Damascus that they have been deployed into Syria in greater numbers over the past year to help stabilize Mr. Assad's rule. Both groups were formed by the Guards during the Iraq war and carried out some of the most sophisticated and lethal attacks on U.S. troops, American and Iraqi defense officials say.
"Compared with the aid and support that Arab countries are giving to opposition groups, we haven't done much in Syria," said the Guards' commander-in-chief, Gen. Muhammad Ali Jaffari, last year, according to official Iranian media. "We've only given our advice, shared our experiences and given guidance."