Iran is bolstering its key ally Syria by sending a paramilitary force full of zealot student soldiers fiercely loyal to the Islamic Republic and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
A media group close to the Iranian government, Mehr News Agency, reported Tuesday at least 30 members of Iran’s Basij Resistance Force have been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq. Iran’s military influence in both countries is significant, with around 212 killed in both countries, according to a report by Al-Jazeera. Analysts conservatively estimate there are around 7,000 Iranian forces operating in Iraq and Syria.
The exact date the Basij became involved in Syria is unclear, though Maj. Gen. Rahim Nowi-Agdam, the commander of the Basij, issued a call for volunteers in June, 2015.
“The Supreme Leader does not want to send armies to Iraq and Syria at the moment, but he confirms that military commanders [have been] sent so that their capabilities may be put to use in those two countries,” said Nowi-Agdam. “If we do not [stop] the Islamic State, we will have to fight it in Khuzestan [in southwest Iran] and Tehran.”
The Basij Resistance Force was created after former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini (Khameini’s predecessor) called for a “twenty million man army” during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Following the founding of the Islamic Republic in Iran, the Basij was officially established through the new constitution April 30, 1980. Traditionally, the Basij has been utilized as a domestic militia force, though it does have a history of being called up for cross-border conflicts.
Technically under the auspices of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij’s first responsibilities involved securing law and order after the revolution. Just months after its creation, the force fully evolved into a paramilitary unit due to the start of the Iran-Iraq war. During the lengthy conflict, the Basij became infamous for their “human wave” tactics, which involved sending hundreds of poorly armed volunteers to their deaths as they charged Iraqi forces.
As the war with Iraq raged on throughout the 1980s, the Basij increased its ranks by recruiting ideologically-driven child soldiers. Commanders would use the children to clear minefields and attack reinforced positions. Before being sent into battle, the Supreme Leader himself reportedly gave the children plastic keys to be worn around their necks, a symbol that their martyrdom guaranteed their entrance to paradise.
The Basij now numbers around four to five million members, many of whom are students fiercely loyal to the the supreme leader and share an intense desire to spread the Islamic revolution across the Middle East. The force has become increasingly involved in Iranian domestic security and politics in recent years, and is largely responsible for crushing the 2009 Green Revolution which sought political reform within the Islamic Republic.
Any doubts of the force’s operations in Syria and Iraq were quelled when it was discovered that Basij Gen. Jabar Drisawi was killed in October by Syrian rebel forces. A second report in February confirmed IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani and six known Basij members were killed fighting in Syria.
Iranian officials have touted their intervention in Syria as a great success, claiming the IRGC and Basij are responsible for ensuring Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hold over the country.
“All big powers were there in Syria. Iran was there too, determined to keep Bashar [al-] Assad in power. In the end, they failed to affect regime change,” said IRGC Lt. Gen. Hossein Salami during a February meeting of Basij forces in the Iranian capital of Tehran.
Now that Assad’s regime has been shored up, it remains to be seen whether the Basij will consider its objectives met and withdraw, or if it will continue to work with its Syrian ally in fighting ISIS and remaining opposition forces.
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