As the Syrian refugee crisis makes headlines and affects countries throughout the Western world, the Iranian involvement in Syria is beginning to prompt more commentary from various English-language media outlets, which seem to be rapidly cluing in on the fact that things are much more complicated (not to mention sinister) than the picture Iran tries to paint – of a united Western-Iranian front against ISIS.
Last week, Al-Arabiya published an op-ed by Iranian-American academic Majid Rafizadeh, in which he analyzed the shifts in Iranian troop deployment to Syria. Rafizadeh concluded that by sending larger numbers of International Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters to Syria rather than relying mostly on the elite Quds Force, as it did previously, Iran is increasing its public visibility and making its role in the Syrian conflict more conspicuous – both to its Middle Eastern neighbors and to Western states. According to Rafizadeh, Iran’s aims in doing so are twofold: it is “offering itself to the West as an indispensable regional player and partner,” while also ensuring that the West will be compelled to turn “a blind eye to Iran’s regional interventionist policies.”
Over at The Globe and Mail, the curiosity of Nazila Fathi – who fled Iran for Canada following the crackdown on journalists during the Green Revolution of 2009 – was also piqued by the rise in the number of IRGC fighters and fatalities in Syria. Like Rafizadeh, she too concluded that the rising numbers “reflect Iran’s deep involvement in Syria,” after Tehran announced in June that it had only “lost 400 men” in the Syrian conflict since 2011. Despite Iran’s prior insistence that it had only sent advisors to Syria rather than actual troops, the extent of Revolutionary Guard involvement (including Pakistani and Afghani fighters trained by the IRGC) confirms that “Iran is involved in a full-fledged war” in Syria – partially on the pretext of fighting Tehran’s own ISIS enemies outside its borders.
In light of the number of Iranian troops we now know to be active in Iran, can Iran’s “regional interventionism” in Syria and elsewhere, as Rafizadeh describes it, still be ascribed to a “defensive” policy – fighting in Syria in order to, as Fathi writes, “lessen the risks of an attack at home”? Clearly, some media outlets are moving past the Iranian narrative.