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Opinion: Iran’s New Map of Funerals - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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One of Iran’s chief features has always been the existence of several hundred small and medium towns each with its distinct characteristics and long history.

For example, imagine you are in Aqda, on the edge of the Lut Desert; you know that you cannot be anywhere else in universe. It is like nowhere else, and nowhere else is like it. Located in a cluster of pomegranate and quince orchards it is an earthly paradise. These human-sized towns are out of the turmoil of national life and seldom, if ever, in news headlines.

In the past few weeks, however, many of them have reappeared on the map of national information, reminding everyone of their existence. Sadly, the reason for this reappearance is tragic, the drip by drip death, or “martyrdom” as official propaganda puts it, of Iranians sent to fight in Syria’s seemingly endless war. A new map of Iran emerges of an archipelago of small towns connected by a chain of funerals.

What started as sporadic bad news became a flood last week when dozens of Iranians, including a whole unit of the Karbala 25 Division of Mazandaran were wiped out in four days of battle in Khan-Touman, southwest of Aleppo. With Syrian and Russian allies staying at a safe distance, Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah cohorts were massacred, leaving corpses strewn on the street while those who could undertook a retreat.

We now know who the men who die in Syria are. There are three groups. The first consists of young men unable to find a job as unemployment for the 16 to 25 age group hovers around 40 per cent. A three-month’ stint in Syria could fetch a cheque for $1500 and something to shine on one’s CV when applying for a job.

The second group is formed of retired officers from captains to one-star generals looking for action to punctuate an otherwise dull life. Because Iran has three parallel military structures, the regular army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and the Mobilization of the Dispossessed (Baseej), it churns out more mid-ranking officers that the nation needs.

Thus an inordinately large number of officers retire in their 40s and 50s which means they face decades of life with the sentiment that they are on the margins of society. A stint in Syria helps keep you fit, re-charges your adrenaline machine and revives feelings of youth and optimism. In memoirs penned weeks before his death, General Hussein Hamadani, “martyred” in Syria last year, evoked the feeling like a child in a candy store.

The third group consists of officers whose career is in the ascendancy. A young and energetic Lt. Colonel could fast-track towards one-star generalship with a passage in Syria. And, if you have your first two stars as general, you could reach for the third by appearing in Syria, making a tour of real or imagined battlefields, clicking a few “selfies” and heightening your profile.

That is precisely what General Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the mythical Quds (Jerusalem) Corps, a master of self-promotion, did with great success securing his third star on the sly.

If we know who goes to Syria, at least roughly, we don’t know who is sending them. Last month, General Ata-Allah Salehi, Commander of the regular army, told the press he didn’t know who was sending members of his elite” Green Beret” unit to fight and die in Syria.“The armed forces are not involved,” he said. “The officers dispatched there {Syria} are sent by an organization.”

His use of the word “organization”, a political term, as opposed to “unit”, which is a military term, indicated his desire to expose the Syrian adventure as a political gamble.

Appearing to state the obvious, he said the army’s task was to defend the borders against foreign enemies, implying that fighting in other countries’ civil wars was not in its remit.

A few days later it was the turn of General Ibrahim Pourdastan, commander of the army’s land forces, to announce the formation of new rapid intervention terrorists “to fight terrorists along our borders.” This was a strong hint that the leadership may be beginning to form doubts about the ability of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the parallel army, its reputation sullied by the Syrian setback, to defend the nation. Apart from the fact that we don’t officially know who is sending those men to Syria, although we could guess, we also don’t know why they are sent there.

Under the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, the nation cannot be taken to war without a rather tortuous process. The matter must be discussed at Cabinet level, in the High Council of National Security and the Islamic Majlis. The process must establish several things: What is the rationale for engagement, what are the objectives, what are the means required, who is in command, who the enemies are, who the allies are, what is the oversight mechanism and, last but not least, how would such action serve the interests of the nation.

None of all that has happened; and, as far as we could make out, even the military top brass don’t quite know what is going on.Thanks to Gen. Hamadani, we know that his unit arrived in Damascus without a mission order. The Syrian military didn’t know what the Iranians had come for and, according to Hamadani, were suspicious enough to keep them out with “heavy iron doors” around their military and political institutions. Hamadani and his men had to make it up as they went along, ending up, at one point, by saving President Bashar Al-Assad who seemed to be about to fall.

Despite the 2007 Defense Cooperation Agreement between Tehran and Damascus there seems to be no mechanism for joint staff conversation, exchange of intelligence and combat plan coordination.
Many Iranians, and an unknown number of Afghani, Pakistani and Iraqi “volunteers”, not to mention fighters from the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, are sent to the killing fields of Syria in a fog of confusion.

The “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei states that his objective is to maintain Assad in power. That is both too little and too much as a war objective. It is too little because it is not clear what benefit Iran, as a nation, may reap from its fulfilment. It is too much because Assad might simply die of natural causes, leaving Iran without an objective in a costly war.

In the past few weeks, Iran has suffered its heaviest military losses since the eight-year war with Iraq that ended in 1988. That tragic fact has persuaded many to question General Soleimani’s Jihad mythology based on slick PR and “selfies” with exotic backgrounds.

The claim that Iranian fighters are in Syria as “advisers” is hard to sell when so many are killed in combat. Equally hard to swallow is the claim that we are there to protect “holy shrines” of which we didn’t know until the Syrian imbroglio started. In any case, 95 per cent of Iranians killed so far lost their lives up to 200 kilometers away from any shrine, holy or unholy.

In an analysis last month, the daily Kayhan, reportedly published under the supervision of Khamenei’s office, hinted at what looked like an emerging strategy in Syria. It said Iran and its mercenaries, including Lebanese Hezbollah, the Faitimouyn Brigade of Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani units now controlled “several strategic locations” in southern and central Syria.

For Iran, the Syrian adventure is a costly exercise in tragic futility. Iran’s national interest isn’t served by killing Syrians in pursuit of a forlorn cause. Across the nation today a sentiment is shaping that it is time to stop redrawing the map of Iran with funerals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has understood the cost-benefit imbalance in the Syrian enterprise and is trying to walk the cat back, and out. The sooner the Tehran leadership understands that, the better.