London, 3 May – Iran has a new face in Syria. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Abolfalz Tabatabai-Ashkezari as his personal representative in Syria. Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, reported the announcement on Wednesday, 27 April.
Khamenei keeps personal representatives in all 31 Iranian provinces. The appointment of a representative in Syria demonstrates the close ties between the Iranian and Syrian governments. Bashar al-Assad has been saved once by Russia and is now relying on Iranian support more than ever to remain in power. Some 60,000 IRGC and mercenaries from the wider Middle East region including Hezbollah have been deployed in defence of Assad, the Iranian opposition contends. Regular Iranian units recently joined them.
Senior military officers have been killed fighting in the conflict along with hundreds of Iranian special forces and Hezbollah fighters. Despite the ceasefire a “significant number of special commandos of Iran’s regular army have been killed”. Four were killed and several wounded by Sunni Islamists on 11 April in south-west Aleppo.
Morale is waning after years of conflict. Shahin Gobadi of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said that the appointment of Tabatabai-Askhezari was an attempt by Khamenei to “encourage his forces”. Other prominent Iranian operatives such as Qassem Suleimani are also involved in the Syrian civil war co-ordinating plans. Wheeling out the best tacticians and fighters of the Iranian military shows the extent to which Iran wants Assad in power.
Khamenei’s allies have been recorded as saying as far back as February 2012 that keeping Assad in Damascus is more important than the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan. So close is the relationship between Iran and Syria that some Iranian officials have described Syria as a “province of Iran”.