The Iranian regime’s continued interference in Syrian affairs is rooted in preserving its economic and political interests in the region, analysts told Al-Shorfa.
In addition to providing the Syrian regime with military and economic support and backing militant groups such as the Lebanese and Iraqi branches of Hizbullah, Iran has extended its support to the al-Qaeda-inspired “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), they said.
“Iran’s current goal is to abort the Syrian revolution and portray the ruling Syrian regime as waging a war on terrorism. The benefit Iran reaps from this is that it maintains its position in the Middle East and preserves its political and economic gains in Syria and the region,” said Iranian affairs researcher Fathi al-Sayed of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic studies.
The connection between the Iranian regime and al-Qaeda is evident, he told Al-Shorfa, and has become more so with the protraction of the Syrian crisis and the emerging connection between al-Qaeda-inspired groups in Syria and the Iranian regime, particularly ISIL.
This link also is evident in the course of the ongoing war in Syria, in which the Iranian regime is accused of allowing the movement of al-Qaeda fighters and funds through its territory to Syria, some of them directed to al-Nusra Front (ANF), al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, he said.
“Since the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution, Iran has worked to establish external bases through some of the armed groups that follow its policy directly, such as Hizbullah’s branches in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria,” al-Sayed said.
Iran also has supported several groups in indirect and discrete ways, including al-Qaeda and its various branches in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, he said.
“The first organisation born of the womb of the Iranian intelligence [services] was the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which later became ISIL under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he said.
“Iran’s connection with Hizbullah is natural, given the congruence of their ideologies, especially that Hizbullah is considered an external branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” al-Sayed said.
But “its connection to and support of al-Qaeda is a paradox, since each side is the military arm of the sect it belongs to”, he added.
IRAN USES AL-QAEDA TO ADVANCE ITS AGENDA
These contradictions raise questions about how far Iran is willing to go in using al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired groups to implement its policies.
The Iranian regime’s support of groups such as ISIL aims to “project a dark image of the Syrian opposition as nothing but al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist takfiri groups,” said Sami Gheit, an economist and researcher with Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.
By weakening the military capabilities of the armed Syrian opposition factions, the Iranian regime through “ISIL’s project helps Bashar [al-Assad’s] regime survive, and thus safeguard Iranian interests,” he said.
The Iranian regime seeks to “build a generation of fighters who follow the orders of ISIL’s emir mindlessly and with no understanding of the realities of the situation, which portends a grim future,” he added.
Many of ISIL’s practices, including field executions, assassinations and beheadings, aim to tarnish the image of the Syrian revolution, said Mohammed Abdullah, a Syrian journalist residing in Cairo who is documenting the Syrian war, with a focus on the Iranian file.
“A number of Syrian activists analysed some of the videos posted on YouTube that display crimes committed by ISIL, and were able to track the IP addresses to Iran and Lebanon, not areas within Syria, which indicates the crimes and executions were deliberate and orchestrated with the aim of tarnishing the image of the revolution,” he told Al-Shorfa.
FIGHTING OPPOSITION GROUPS INSTEAD OF SYRIA’S REGIME
Questions abound about some of ISIL’s actions, such as its decision to fight jihadist groups like ANF that espouse the same ideology, as well as groups like the Free Syrian Army, Abdullah said.
At the same time, he said, ISIL has not engaged in battle with Syrian army forces or Hizbullah.
“Furthermore, ISIL members demolished Sufi shrines in al-Raqa but spared Shia shrines, which raised many questions from observers and citizens, especially as the shrines that were spared included the gravesite of Ammar bin Yasser, Uwais al-Qarni and Abi bin Qais al-Nakhi, which had been restored and rebuilt by the Iranians in 2004,” Abdullah added.
From a military perspective, ISIL clearly has been avoiding direct confrontation with the regime’s army, said military analyst and al-Qaeda affairs specialist Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Ahmed, who is retired from the Egyptian army.
Al-Qaeda inspired groups are engaged in confrontations with other armed factions in areas under their control to expand their control over the land and its resources, especially oil and grain, which provide them with cash flow, he told Al-Shorfa.
“In al-Raqa, for example, ISIL spared three strategic Syrian regular army positions, despite the fact it controls the bulk of the territory in the province,” he said. “The three positions are the airport and [the headquarters of] the 17th Division and 93rd Brigade.”
“In Aleppo, ISIL ceded control of the southern areas to the regime’s army and occupied the eastern, northern and western regions, most of which were controlled by other factions,” he said. “It also left undisturbed two key locations in north Aleppo, namely the villages of Nabl and al-Zahra, which are under regime control, despite the fact that those villages have strategic military importance for the opposition that would enable it to seize areas that remain outside of its control.”
IRANIAN DOCUMENTS FOUND IN ISIL’S POSSESSION
Other evidence of the Iranian regime’s involvement with ISIL includes the discovery of official documents and passports issued by the Iranian authorities at ISIL’s headquarters in rural western Aleppo earlier this year, said Syrian journalist Mohammed Abdullah.
These documents include Iranian passports and several other documents belonging to fighters from Chechnya and Kazakhstan, in addition to many Iranian SIM cards, he said.
This points to a connection between ISIL leaders and Iranian intelligence, he said.
Some ISIL elements deny the group is receiving support from the Iranian regime, as in a video clip the group posted online in March in which a fighter denies any Iranian affiliation, Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies researcher al-Sayed said.
“This can be explained in one of two ways,” he said: Either it is an attempt to evade the accusation, or it shows that rank-and-file members are unaware of the connection with Iran, indicating this relationship is privy to ISIL officials and emirs who co-ordinate military movements and are behind those who issue fatwas and oversee their implementation.
These senior leaders are helped by the “total ignorance of most ISIL members who carry out orders without previous knowledge or experience and in complete ignorance of the political alliances between ISIL and Iran, and their absolute faith in the importance of executing orders as if they are legal duties” or face the consequence of hadd punishment, he said.
IRANIAN REGIME’S PAST RELATIONSHIP WITH AL-QAEDA
The Iranian regime’s relationship with al-Qaeda is not new.
In a 2011 decision, a Washington, D.C., district court ruled that Iran had provided al-Qaeda with material aid and support to carry out the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings in 1998.
The relationship between the Iranian regime and al-Qaeda entered a new phase after the September 11th, 2001, attacks and the organisation’s expulsion from Afghanistan.
After the fall of the Taliban, hundreds of al-Qaeda elements fled Afghanistan and sought refuge in Iran, al-Sayed said.
“After its incursion into the [various] regions of the Middle East, Iran sought to extend its influence to Islamist organisations that follow the takfiri ideology and which had pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, so it began the process of attracting, co-operating with and training these elements within its territory, and providing them with funds and equipment,” he added.
Among them were members of al-Qaeda’s shura council and their families, and others atop the international most wanted lists, like Yassin al-Suri, who is accused of financing terrorism, Mohsen al-Fadhli, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iran, and his Saudi deputy Adel Radi Saqr al-Harbi, he said.