Syria could be Iran’s Stalingrad

Banners of Khamenei and Assad at Hezbollah rally

The news coming out of Syria seems to be getting worse every day. Not only has the number of victims slaughtered on both sides reached over 93,000 – but now there are reports that 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards troops will be joining the thousands of Hezbollah terrorists already fighting for Assad.

Iran has decided to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion, The Independent reported Sunday.

The British newspaper quoted pro-Iranian sources “which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security” as saying that Tehran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.

According to the report, Iran reached the decision to send the troops before last week’s presidential election.

The Iranian sources said they liaise constantly with Moscow, and that while Hezbollah’s overall withdrawal from Syria is likely to be completed soon – with the maintenance of the Lebanese terror group’s ‘intelligence’ teams inside Syria – Iran’s support for Damascus will grow rather than wither.

In addition, Bashar Assad has announced he has plans to open a “resistance front” in the Golan. Although that can be discounted as unrealistic bravado intended for domestic consumption, Israel nevertheless needs to be on vigilant alert.

All this leads to great concern that Iran will end up the eventual victor in the Syrian civil war, with enormous implications for Israel, the United States, and Western interests everywhere.

However an analysis by Gary C. Gambill in Middle East Forum counter-intuitively tells us that Syria is in fact Iran’s Stalingrad:

The growing infusion of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite fighters into the Syrian civil war is causing some veteran pundits to panic. Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, warns that “Iran is beating the U.S. in Syria.” Former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams sees “a humiliating defeat of the United States at the hands of Iran.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Setting aside the matter of how Washington can be losing a war it is not fighting, the claim that Iran is winning is dead wrong. The Islamic Republic’s headlong intervention in Syria is akin to Nazi Germany’s surge of military forces into the Battle of Stalingrad in the fall of 1942 – an operationally competent, strategic blunder of epic proportions.


… the Iranian surge won’t prevent the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab rebels from eventually prevailing on the battlefield. Sunni Arabs have a 5-to-1 demographic edge over the minority Alawites who comprise most uniformed and paramilitary pro-regime combatants, and a 2-to-1 advantage over all of Syria’s ethno-sectarian minorities combined. The rebels are strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims worldwide who are Sunnis, and their four principal sponsors – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan – have a GDP well over twice that of Iran. Russia continues to do business with the regime, but it won’t intervene decisively enough to change the math.

Like the vaunted German Wehrmacht in the Stalingrad kessel, Iran’s expeditionary forces have been thrown into a tactical military environment for which they are woefully unprepared. Although Hezbollah wrote the book on guerrilla warfare against conventional militaries, it has little experience fighting battle-hardened insurgents on unfamiliar terrain – and it shows. At least 141 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the span of just one month fighting in the battle for Qusayr, many of them elite commandos who cannot easily be replaced.


… In the wake of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s May 25 declaration to his Shiite followers that the Syrian war is “our battle,” the Qatar-based spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, issued a fatwacalling on all Muslims with military training to fight in Syria (something he never did with respect to Israel) and characterizing the conflict as a worldwide struggle between “100 million Shiites” and “1.7 billion [Sunni] Muslims.”


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could have cut his losses early on by allowing the Assad regime to die a natural death and building bridges with its successor. Such an accommodation would have greatly impaired Iran’s ability to transport heavy weapons to Hezbollah, but its Lebanese proxy would still have remained Israel’s deadliest security threat for years to come. Hamas, which effectively severed its alliance with Tehran as a result of the Syria conflict, would probably have kept at least one foot in the Iranian axis. Khamenei likely declined to take this path for the same reason that Hitler refused to disengage from a no-win military confrontation in Stalingrad – a deeply metaphysical confidence in ultimate victory.

This delusion will cost him a great deal more than Syria. Even before the surge, Iran’s massive infusions of cash into Syria (12.6 billion dollars, according to one estimate) and stepped up training of pro-Assad forces had greatly inflamed animosity toward the Islamic Republic and its proxies throughout the Arab-Islamic world. After years of successfully mobilizing Arabs against Israel (as recently as 2008, polling still showed Nasrallah to be the Arab world’s most popular public figure), Tehran has managed to incite even greater hostility to itself in a fraction of the time. A recent survey by James Zogby shows that Iran’s favorability ratings have fallen to an all-time low in majority Sunni countries (dropping from 85 percent to 15 percent in Saudi Arabia between 2006 and 2012, for example). Syria, he writes, has become the “nail in the coffin” of Iran’s standing in the region. The inflamed sectarianism wrought by Iran, according to a detailed study by Geneive Abdo of the Brookings Institution, is likely to supersede the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life.”

In addition to sabotaging its regional hegemonic ambitions, intervention in Syria may also have dire domestic political consequences for the Islamic Republic. The regime’s involvement in a chronic sectarian conflict is sure to steadily alienate its own restive Sunni minority, while the strain on its sanctions-riddled economy will only get worse. Most importantly, the ignominious collapse of its claim to pan-Islamic leadership erodes one of the main pillars of its legitimacy in the eyes of Shiites. There are no silver linings.

While Abrams insists that the United States should be working to “deter” Iran “from sending more fighters to help save Assad,” he’s got it all wrong. The Obama administration should copy the late Soviet General Georgy Zhukov and focus not on combating the foolhardy Iranian surge, but on exploiting the strategic and political flanks left exposed by it.

It’s a very interesting thesis, one bolstered by Egyptian President Morsi’s statement that Egypt is cutting ties with Syria and condemned Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria:

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said he had cut all diplomatic ties with Damascus on Saturday and demanded Hezbollah leave Syria, pitching most populous Arab state more firmly against President Bashar Assad.

Addressing a gathering of Sunni Muslim clerics in Cairo, the Islamist head of state said: “We decided today to entirely break off relations with Syria and with the current Syrian regime.”

He also warned Assad’s allies in the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite militia to pull back from fighting in Syria: “We stand against Hezbollah in its aggression against the Syrian people,” Morsi said. “Hezbollah must leave Syria – these are serious words. There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.”

Mohamed Morsi urged world powers not to hesitate to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.

We’ll have to wait and see if Gambill’s prediction is accurate. I just hope he is not being too optimistic.

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4 Responses to Syria could be Iran’s Stalingrad

  1. cba says:

    I hope he’s correct.

    It’s just a horrible shame that so many innocent civilians are being killed (by fighters on both sides).

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    All this reminds me (and, I’m sure, others old enough to have been there) of those US cartoons of Lyndon Baines Johnson, dressed as an American soldier (in the popular parlance of the time, a “grunt”) wading into a swamp labelled “Vietnam”.

    Need I say more of the involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict? Or of Hezbollah’s similar involvement.

    Get involved all you want, guys. While you’re doing that, you’re not attacking Israel.

    All here know that I’m not a huge fan of his, but every time such an announcement is made, Bibi’s smile must just get broader and broader, just like that of the Cheshire cat in “Alice in Wonderland”.

    If the reference escapes you (as it won’t have escaped Anne), you just have to go and read the book by Lewis Carroll.

    • anneinpt says:

      Funny how you mention Vietnam. While I was working at this post, I was sure the title of the ME Forum article was “Iran’s Vietnam”, but by the time I got around to publishing, the title had changed. Or perhaps it was just my imagination? Still, both analogies are good. And accurate I hope as well!

      I echo your wish that both sides should forget about Israel while they hammer away at each other.

      And no, Brian – I’ve not forgotten the Cheshire Cat. :-). Alice in Wonderland definitely makes a good parallel for the madness of the Middle East.

  3. Brian Goldfarb says:

    BTW, I noticed in one of the on-line papers I read that Hamas is not being supplied, at least in such quantities, with arms by Iran because of their support for the rebels in Syria. And since their stocks were seriously degraded during Operation Pillar of Cloud…

    Maybe this is why another report states that Hamas is deploying 600 guards to prevent cross-border “events” with Israel. That is, stop other Gaza-based Jihadist and Islamist groupd from firing their rockets into Israel.

    Translation: Hamas don’t want to lose even more of their now extremely difficyult to replace weapons…

    For them, my heart bleeds.

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