Iran's New Way of War in Syria

Executive Summary

Iran is transforming its military to be able to conduct quasi-conventional warfare hundreds of miles from its borders.  This capability, which very few states in the world have, will fundamentally alter the strategic calculus and balance of power within the Middle East.  It is not a transitory phenomenon.  Iranian military leaders have rotated troops from across the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Artesh, and Basij into Syria in order to expose a significant portion of its force to this kind of operation and warfare.  Iran intends to continue along the path of developing a conventional force-projection capability.

Iranian military planners deployed thousands of soldiers from across its military branches over a 15-month operation to set conditions for the envelopment and eventual recapture of Aleppo City by pro-Assad forces in December 2016. They reoriented forces that had traditionally focused on defensive operations into an expeditionary force capable of conducting sustained operations abroad for the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq War.

These developments signal a larger strategic shift on the part of Iran’s military leadership toward a more aggressive posture in the region. Iran is finding that asymmetric capabilities designed to deter the U.S. or Israel are insufficient to conduct the more conventional military operations required in Syria and elsewhere. The Iranian military is overcoming significant institutional obstacles to meet these new requirements.

The campaign for Aleppo reflects Iran’s success in applying this new approach to waging war. Iranian ground troops boosted the capabilities of Iranian-backed proxies and enabled pro-regime forces to seize and hold key terrain from opposition forces. Iranian forces successfully generated campaign plans, fought alongside local and foreign partners, took heavy casualties, and returned to the front in a sustained rotational pattern. The Iranian military also exposed its next generation of leaders to the fight, positioning them to continue evolving Iranian military doctrine and institutions along this path.

Iran’s continued evolution of its hybrid model of warfare in Syria will strengthen its capacity to project power in the Middle East.  The procedures and tactics that Iranian forces have developed in Syria will facilitate Tehran’s efforts to deploy forces alongside similar proxy forces in other theaters, such as Iraq or Lebanon.  Allowing Iran to consolidate its influence in Syria enables Tehran to expand and improve the capabilities of its proxies and direct them against U.S. interests and allies if it chooses.

The scope of Iranian combat operations in Syria guarantees that Iran will remain a dominant player on the ground, regardless of any shifts in Russia’s official position on Iranian involvement. Russia has outsourced the ground campaign to Iran and would not be willing to commit the many thousands of Russian troops required to replace Iranian troops or Iranian-backed proxies in the conflict. Most importantly, it signals that Iran’s leaders have decided for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic to focus on developing a conventional force projection capability that can seriously challenge the armed forces of its neighbors. The balance of power in the region may be forever altered by that decision. 

This report was originally published by the Critical Threats Project. The insights are part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. Related reports in the series are available here.