Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Syria's civil war seen through the eyes of Iranian military "advisers"

An Iranian video captured by Syrian rebel forces near Aleppo offers an unusual and intriguing perspective on the war, since it focuses on the role of Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting with, as well as training and advising, pro-regime forces.  (In addition to regular government forces, these include shabiha militias drawn largely from Syria's Alawite minority, Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon, and other Shiite militias from outside Syria.)  The film-maker, who was embedded with a unit of Revolutionary Guards operating in Syria, was apparently shooting a documentary to be shown back in Iran—possibly for public propaganda, possibly for internal Revolutionary Guard training purposes.  According to Syrian opposition sources, the footage was captured when the Iranian unit was overrun by rebel forces in or around Aleppo and the film-maker and some of the other Iranians were killed.

You can see part of the video footage below, broadcast in a TV news report in the Netherlands.  (There are English-language subtitles.)  According to Gene at Harry's Place, where I found it, "The video was shot by an Iranian cameraman who was killed in a clash with rebels, and the rebels turned over the video to journalist Roozbeh Kaboly of the Dutch National Television program Nieuwsuur (Newshour)." (More on this story from the BBC here.)

=> Starting around 2:15 there are some especially illuminating claims by one of the Iranians:
The front we're fighting at now is not a front where the Syrian army is at war with the people. [....] The current war in Syria is that of Islam versus the nonbelievers. Good versus evil. We are ‘good’ because Iran’s supreme leader is on our side. The front is supported by Hezbollah. The fighters are Iranian, Hezbollah, the Iraqi and Afghan mujahadeen and others. The opponents are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, funded by the Emirates. Plus America, England, France and Europe.
I couldn't help reflecting that the way this guy frames the conflict brings out two key beliefs that are no doubt shared by theocratic fanatics on both sides of the Syrian war, Shiite jihadists from Hizbullah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards as well as the Sunni jihadists fighting against them:

(1)  This is a war between (real) Muslims and unbelievers.
(2)  Israel is on the other side.

 As Gene notes:
Leftwing and rightwing apologists for the Syrian regime – who see Bashar al-Assad as a secular stalwart fighting to rid his country of Islamist radicals – may be interested to learn that some of his brothers in arms don’t view it that way at all.
Well, life is complicated.

=> Another moment in the film probably brings out the kinds of ambivalence toward the locals often felt by foreign "advisers" in so many wars of this sort. (Also the ways Iranians and Arabs often talk about each other when requirements of political correctness don't mandate otherwise.) In the video footage, the Iranians speak constantly about how they treat their Syrian comrades with respect and how much the Syrians appreciate this ("when we work with guys from the army, they're so happy that they just keep coming back to us").  On the other hand, at one point there is this exchange:
And at 4:19 (after much talk about how they treat their Syrian allies with respect), one Iranian says, while driving through a village:
“When we came, there was no human being. They deserted the village.”
To which another Iranian replies:
“There are still no humans now, only Arabs.”
Presumably, that last remark would have been edited out of the final version of the documentary.

=> I was also struck by a statement from one of the Iranians, starting about 0:49, explaining that the Syrian units they work with, from the regular army or paramilitary militias, are never kept in one place more than 25 days, but instead are constantly being rotated.  That bears pondering.  This is pretty much the opposite of the approach recommended by standard "counter-insurgency" doctrine in order to build up ties with and win the trust of the civilian population.  It's the approach one takes in order to crush the resistance of a population regarded as irremediably hostile, so that establishing connections between your forces and that population serves no useful purpose and can only bring dangers and complications.

—Jeff Weintraub