What is the nature and scale of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War? This is a question which very much remains open, but as the brutal civil war which has now claimed over 100,000 lives drags on, shards of evidence allow us to create a better image of what is happening on the ground and Iran’s precise role.
One such shard of evidence was the funeral of Mohammad Jamali Paghal-e. According to Safir-e Kerman website, Jamal-e Paghal-e was a frontline commander of the Sarallah Army during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and in his postwar career served in the Ghods Headquarters (unrelated to the Ghods Force) in south-east Iran and later responsible for anti-commodity smuggling operations in the same region. According to the same website, he volunteered to go to Syria “because of the attacks of the enemies of Islam”, including America, Wahabis, Salafis, and Takfiris.
Jamali-Paghal-e was a native of Kerman, which incidentally also the home province of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ghods Force commander Ghassem Soleimani, who attended the funeral alongside IRI Armed Forces Deputy Chief-of-Staff Hossein Salami. The photos posted by IRNA website show Soleimani as being among the people to place Jamali-Paghal-e’s body in his grave, a highly significant act in Iranian religious culture which denotes close relations with the deceased. This may be an indication that Jamali-Paghal-e and Soleimani were close friends or perhaps colleagues, and may have even worked on Iran’s intervention in Syria together.
Jamali-Paghal-e funeral follows the airing of a documentary by BBC Persian which presents illuminating evidence regarding Iran’s role in Syria. The ‘found footage’ in the documentary allegedly comes from a cameraman attached to an IRGC military unit operating in Aleppo, Syria. If true, the footage counters Iran’s claims that it is only providing economic and humanitarian aid in Syria. The video purports to show uniformed Iranian military personnel providing training to the National Defense Force, a relatively new locally-based pro-government militia, as well as directly participating in combat operations against anti-Assad rebels.
Syria is considered by the Islamic Republic as being vital to its national security as a key ‘link’ in the Axis of Resistance. Among other things, Syria provides a springboard from which Iran can project power into the Levant, including the provision of support to key allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza (the latter alliance has frayed since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war which has sided with the revolution against al-Assad). Iran’s participation in the civil war on such a level however may also be motivated by the fear of the rise of anti-Iran, anti-Shi’a Salafi Islamist groups in Syria (some of which are al-Qaeda affiliates) who would not only limit or remove Iran’s ability to project power into the Levant, but also spread instability and violence to Iran’s neighbor Iraq, another country vital to Iran’s national security.