Proving Ground: Iran’s Operational Strategy in Syria
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has proven to be a resilient and highly motivated U.S. adversary. Home to some 82 million citizens who are overwhelmingly (some 95%) Shi’a Muslim, Iran has been governed since 1979 by a radically anti-Western Theocratic Shi’a regime, controlled by the nation’s Supreme Leader and a cohort of religious authorities who claim power according to the ideological tenet of Wiliyat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist). Over the past thirty-six years, Iran has sought to accomplish two integrally linked strategic goals: weaken Western, Israeli, and Saudi influence in the region, and improve Iranian influence across the globe. In essence, these goals are guided by a single strategic, religious, and political tenet, Sudur Inqilab (“Export of the Revolution”), which charges Iran’s people with spreading the spirit and ideals of the Islamic Revolution to all the oppressed peoples of the Earth. In reality, however, this tenet has largely been used as a means of inspiring nationalist and religious support for Iranian efforts to accomplish strategic goals.
Throughout its history, however, Iran has largely lacked the military, financial, and political means to accomplish its aggressive strategic goals in a conventional manner, especially given the power of its adversaries. Iran does, however, enjoy a popular (though not universal) reputation among Shi’a Muslims (approximately 154 million people, or 10% of the world’s Muslim population) as the rightful authority of the Shi’a faith and a legitimate Islamic state. This reputation affords the Islamic Republic unquantifiable religious and political influence, which it can leverage with global Shi’a populations. In light of this powerful available resource, Iranian military and political officials adopted an operational strategy which matched Iranian ways with Iranian means: unconventional warfare. Unconventional warfare can be defined as “activities conducted to empower a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating [as]… as an underground or guerilla force.” Since 1982, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have used their influence to form deep relationships with various Shi’a (and some Sunni) non-state armed groups, and provided them billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and training in order to empower them to attack Iranian adversaries. In many cases, Iran has not merely empowered these groups, but actively created them. Their strategy, therefore, is one of “extended” unconventional warfare, which seeks to create, develop, and control armed groups in order to undermine an adversary. In several cases, these proxy groups have attained legitimate political status in their host nation, thus granting Iran an avenue into that nation’s political arena and protecting the group from domestic political and military disputes. Consequently, Iran’s strategy cuts both ways: proxy forces both execute military operations against adversary targets and spread Iranian influence through the host nation in legitimate political arenas. This unconventional warfare operational strategy, therefore, allows Iran to utilize the religious authority at their disposal in order to pursue their strategic goals while (in theory) avoiding the overt political costs of their actions (namely outright war with a militarily superior adversary). Throughout the past thirty-six years, Iranian operations of this type have allowed them to gain military footholds in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, and political influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
In most cases, Iranian support of these groups has followed a formula of Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA). TAA activities focus on supporting an external force with training, arms, expertise, and other resources so that the force can engage in operations. Such activities have, for many decades, been the hallmark of unconventional warfare campaigns where nation states wish to keep a low footprint and a high degree of plausible deniability (or simply avoid direct military involvement). TAA is also the activity of choice for a nation state which wishes to interfere in foreign affairs but lacks significant political support or military resources: it is relatively inexpensive in blood and treasure, and is often easy to mask in a guise of altruism. For the most part, this strategy has proved sufficient for Iran: the Islamic Republic has gained dozens of Shi’a proxy groups across the broader Middle East, who have fought for Iranian interests. It is, however, difficult to discern precisely how much influence Iran’s TAA activities have gained them among these groups: in other words, it is unclear whether Iran directly controls the actions of these groups, or if it merely works with them to accomplish shared goals. Many authorities, therefore, question whether Iran’s proxy forces could ever be used for anything other than indigenous, irregular operations.
In 2011, however, civil war broke out in Syria between anti-government rebels and the ruling al-Assad regime, a key strategic ally to Iran since 1980. In response, Iran provided massive financial aid to the regime and sent hundreds of military advisors for TAA- but the Syrian Arab Armed Forces (SAA) was quickly placed on their heels. By 2014, SAA had lost over 60% of its fieldable force, and key geographic areas were falling into the hands of anti-regime rebels, including terrorist organizations like ISIS.  Iran responded by redoubling their efforts.
Less than 3 years later, Iranian proxy forces in Syria numbered close to 20,000, and had proven critical for an abrupt shift in the Assad regime’s fate. Pro-regime forces had retaken key strategic regions from Syrian rebel forces, and ISIS had been largely eliminated. But how had Iran so abruptly changed Assad’s fate? How was it that Iran, with only proxy force units, had been able to fight against capable and intractable Syrian rebels and anti-regime terrorists like ISIS? In effect, Iranian victories were accomplished by shifting beyond traditional TAA operations and introducing a rudimentary and conventional structure for Iran to organize, command, and control its fielded proxy groups as a unified force. This structure relies on embedding small Iranian conventional units with each proxy force to command and lead non-state fighters. According to Special Forces TRADOC FM 3-05.130, unconventional warfare operations can be conducted “by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations.” Therefore, while this operational strategy does not represent an evolution for military theory, it does herald a new era of coordinated Iranian military capability: through its activities in Syria, Iran has demonstrated that it is capable of executing complex conventional operations against highly irregular threats by commanding and coordinating a hybrid conventional-irregular force structure. Although this strategy has proved successful, however, the long-term costs of these operations have proved difficult for Iran to bear.
Iranian TAA Operations, 1982-2015
To understand the shift in Iran’s operational strategy in Syria, it is necessary to first understand Iran’s previous unconventional warfare operations across the region. The majority of these operations have relied exclusively on various elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Created in 1979 as an elite force that answered directly to the Supreme Leader, the IRGC is a politico-military organization responsible for Iran’s irregular operations such as internal security, influence campaigns, and direct special operations. The IRGC consists of Ground Force (IRGC-GF), Basij Mobilization Force (IRGC-B) for internal security, Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF), and Navy (IRGC-N).
During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, however, the Supreme Leader called into being a specialized IRGC unit, Quds Force, which was specifically intended to empower Kurdish militias fighting against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Its role in Iranian strategy, however, soon expanded to include all unconventional warfare operations. Today, Quds Force (led by the enigmatic Major General Qassem Soleimani) is responsible for all of Iran’s TAA activities involving irregular proxy forces, including those operating within Syria. Until Syria, Quds Force operated by embedding officers within elements of a proxy organization in order to train proxy fighters, advise organizational leaders, and organize logistics for military aid. They also acted as a bridge between Tehran and the proxy organization by relaying Iranian commands (if direct control was established), intelligence, and religious-political motivation. This method was designed to provide TAA and assert influence, while simultaneously giving the proxy organization the appearance of independent and indigenous development and maintaining some semblance of Iranian deniability. The three short cases below illustrate how Quds Force’s TAA activities with proxy organizations led to each proxy’s political and military success.
In 1982, a group of Lebanese Shi’a militants founded the insurgent-terrorist movement Hezbollah (now a U.S. designated terrorist organization) at the behest of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and with the help of Quds Force. Hezbollah, which is today led by the charismatic and pragmatic Hassan Nasrallah (who swears complete fealty to the Iranian Supreme Leader), was specifically created to execute attacks against Israel, who had invaded Lebanon in 1982 in response to Palestinian attacks from southern Lebanon. In the years to come, Hezbollah would prove to be the defining success story in Iranian Quds Force operations, and a model for all of Iran’s future relationships with non-state armed groups: by the end of 2006, Hezbollah had gained legitimacy as a Lebanese political party (1992), and become known as the both vanguard of the Arab fight with Israel and a legitimate defender of the Lebanese and (more broadly) Arab people. They also experienced great success in waging a terrorist campaign against Western targets throughout the latter half of the 20th century, using tactics including: guerrilla and terrorist attacks against Western and Israeli forces from 1982-2000 and again in 2006; decades of kidnappings, hijackings, suicide and conventional bombings, and raids; and thousands of rocket attacks against Israel that continue today. By 2007, Hezbollah’s military wing (formally recognized as a “resistance movement” by the Lebanese government) came to dwarf the Lebanese army, causing some experts to correctly identify Hezbollah as a “state within a state”. Through all of these successes, Hezbollah remained integrally tied to Iran through complete obedience to the Supreme Leader, a shared religion, and a common religious-political ideology. For all intents and purposes, Hezbollah is merely an extension of the Iranian state in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s success, however, has largely stemmed from Iran’s support, which included the training, advice, and assistance (TAA) of Quds Force. Even in Hezbollah’s nascence, Iran sent 1500 Quds Force advisors to train Hezbollah fighters and commanders. Over the years to follow, embedded IRGC-QF officers arranged for Iran to provide Hezbollah with: Iranian made firearms, sniper rifles, AGRMs, and over 100,000 rockets; political, religious, and ideological motivation; and an estimated average of $200 million to $1 billion per year. All of this support, however, fit neatly within Quds Force’s TAA limitations-- Iran never committed direct combat units to support Hezbollah’s operations (although it did insert Quds Force officers into Hezbollah’s command structure). Today, Hezbollah’s status has slightly declined in the face of the organization’s perceived sectarian motivations in the Syrian civil war, but it remains the most prominent Shi’a proxy force under Iranian control.
Iranian success with Hezbollah in Lebanon throughout the latter part of the 20th century emboldened Quds Force to extend their unconventional warfare strategy to other states. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent sectarian strife, Iran forged deep ties with existing anti-Western Iraqi Shi’a groups (and created numerous others) in order to drive out U.S. and coalition forces and improve Iranian influence in Iraq. All of these groups, however, share religious, ideological, and political goals that roughly align with Iran’s. Many have declared direct allegiance to the Supreme Leader and therefore Iran. By 2011, these groups (which would eventually become known as “Special Groups”) came to include: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Liwa al-Youm al-Mawud, Munazzama Badr, and the Sheibani Network.
As early as 2003, IRGC-QF began training Special Groups in Najaf, Iraq. Training soon expanded to neighboring Iran, where Quds Force brought Hezbollah to advise fighters in IED construction, spy craft, and guerilla tactics for attacks against U.S., coalition, and Sunni targets in Iraq. Quds Force also provided Iraqi Special Groups with operational guidance on targeting, logistics, and organizational structure. By mid-2004, IRGC-QF had established an elaborate smuggling operation, which provided Special Groups with incredible amounts of assistance, including: direct financial contributions of an estimated $9 to $36 million, materials for building thousands of IEDs, thousands of EFPs featuring passive infrared sensors, dozens of 122mm Grad and 240mm Fajr rockets, rocket propelled grenade launchers, and 60mm and 81mm IRAM mortars. Despite Iranian TAA, however, it is difficult to discern what level of control Iran exerts over some Iraqi organizations—although many have declared allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader and are directly controlled by Quds Force, many others have nationalist goals, and simply accept Iranian aid.
Although Quds Force did not participate in active combat operations in Iraq with Iraqi Special Groups, IRGC-QF or IRGC-GF is believed to have assassinated over 180 Iraqi Air Force officials in 2010 and dozens of former Intelligence officers who participated in the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq, therefore, may be considered the first real case of Iranian direct action within the host nation of a proxy force- but certainly not a case of combat coordination with proxy forces.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran began to provide extensive aid to the Houthis, a group of Zaidi Shi’ites from the mountains of Yemen who were engaged in a civil war with the Yemeni government and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). By 2016, the Houthis had seized a significant amount of Yemeni territory, including ground bordering Saudi Arabia. Iranian support, which was intended to develop the Houthis into a massive security threat to Saudi Arabia, followed the classic Quds Force TAA formula. Iranian training (which continues today) has reached thousands of Houthi rebels, including Houthi women who have been mobilized to fight invading GCC forces. Interestingly, this training has largely been provided by Iranian proxy organizations, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Liwa Fatemiyoun, a group of Afghan Hazaras recruited from Afghan refugee camps in Iran.  Iranian military aid to the Houthis has included sniper rifles, RPGs, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), and various small arms, in addition to more sophisticated weapons technology. American officials have assessed that Iran has provided the Houthis with short-range, Iranian made Qiam and Shahab-2 ballistic missiles to attack Saudi Arabia, Iran’s principal adversary in the Arabian peninsula. The Houthis have launched dozens of these missiles (and others based on their design) at Saudi targets such as the al-Yamama Palace (December 2017), the city of Najran (March 2018), the capital city of Riyadh (March 2018), and the Jizan Regional Airport (April 2018). Authorities have also assessed that Quds Force provided the technology for the Houthi’s explosive, remote-controlled “drone boat”, which they used to attack a Saudi warship on January 30, 2017, and the use of an explosive-laden Qasef-1 “suicide” drone to attack a Saudi Patriot batteries in February, 2017. On top of this, Quds Force has been reported to advise Houthi leaders off the battlefield, and encourage them to launch kinetic operations against GCC targets. 
There are, however, some indications that Iranian operations within Yemen are not limited to Quds Force’s standard TAA approach. Over the course of the last year, over forty IRGC (it is unclear whether these are Quds Force or IRGC-GF operatives) and dozens of Hezbollah casualties have been reported in Yemen. While many of these casualties have been reported as the result of GCC airstrikes against Houthi targets far behind the front lines, almost a dozen have been reported to take place within a mile of active combat zones and front lines. Such casualties would suggest that Iranian forces are either actively participating in combat in Yemen or advising Houthi rebels close to the battlefield. So far, however, there has only been limited evidence to support this hypothesis.
Syria: The Proving Ground
In 2011, the Arab Spring arrived in Syria. Unlike in other countries where the government partially capitulated, Syria’s al-Assad regime labelled protesters as “terrorists” and ordered a brutal and violent crackdown. In response, Syrian anti-regime protesters organized into anti-regime militias, arming themselves and executing widespread, uncoordinated attacks on regime assets and personnel. These attacks yielded increasingly brutal regime responses, including massacres and chemical attacks. By 2013, the fight for Syria’s governance had become increasingly sectarian, with the Shi’a and Alawite minorities (mostly) supporting al-Assad’s government, and the Sunni majority (who had long felt alienated and subjugated under the government of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad) fighting to undermine it. Over one third of Syrian Alawite males had been killed by 2015, and the religious nature of the fighting in Syria had attracted numerous terrorist organizations, including: ISIS and al-Nusra Front. By 2016, an estimated 470,000 people had been killed, and the tactical reality of the war had been overcome with chaos. 
Syria’s al-Assad regime and the Islamic Republic have long enjoyed a strategic partnership, based on a common anti-Israel ideology and a shared religious belief system. Although Syria is comprised of a 74% Sunni Muslim majority and a 3% Shi’a minority, the ruling regime and some 12% of the population is Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ism which shares the central tenants of the Shi’a faith, but few religious practices; in fact, the two faiths are close enough in essence that even many Shi’a cannot or do not understand the difference. This shared faith ostensibly united the two nations decades ago: as the only Shi’a powers in the region (prior to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003), Iran and Syria both claimed to want Shi’a influence to increase in the Sunni dominated Middle East. More realistically, however, the two nations are bound by common strategic goals (such as weakening Israeli, U.S., and Saudi influence in the Middle East) and a mutually beneficial strategic alliance. Since 1980, this alliance has yielded incredible economic benefits to both parties: it has allowed Syria to enjoy the financial backing and religious legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and provided Iran with an ally through which they can supply proxy groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas. Given the vital importance of these organizations (as well as others whose area of operations is close to Syria) to Iran’s regional strategy, Iran has vowed to commit any and all resources necessary to keep a friendly regime in Syria afloat. Indeed, Iran has repeatedly painted the Syrian war as an existential threat: IRGC Intelligence head Mehdi Taeb claimed that, “if we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.” Although this claim is dubious, it demonstrates the seriousness of Iran’s resolve to keep the Assad regime afloat. At the very least, claims Professor Jubin Goodarzi at Webster University, “if Syria cannot continue to be an absolute ally of Iran, Tehran will not allow it to become an enemy.”
To that end, Iranian has spent over $20 billion per year in Syria since 2011. From 2011 to 2014, approximately 100-2000 Quds Force officers engaged in TAA activities with the Syrian military. By September 2015, however, it became clear that Quds Force’s efforts were in vain: although the regime started the war with some 300,000 troops, that number had dropped to some 150,000 by 2014—and of those 150,000, only about 30,000 were combat ready. Some of these forces were children under the age of 18.
In 2015, therefore, desperation to keep Assad in power drove Iranian officials to field forces from their closest and most trusted proxy groups. These proxy forces numbered some 20,000 fighters in 2017 and included 3,000 from Pakistani Liwa Zaynab (formed from Pakistani Shi’ites), 4,000-12,000 troops from Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun, 5,000 from Iraqi Special Groups (like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Munazzama Badr), 8,000 from Hezbollah, and several hundred from Yemeni Houthis. Iran has, therefore, “called in all its markers” in order to commit a major bulk of its key proxy forces to Syria and maintain the Assad government.
In the years to follow, Iran developed a unified command and control structure to direct its complex network of conventional and irregular forces in Syria (which many have labelled as the Iranian “Expeditionary Force” or “Coalition”). Essentially, this command and control structure replicated and expanded Quds Force methods: IRGC officers embed with proxy forces across Syria, where they act as battalion-level commanders for proxy fighters and participate in active combat operations involving their proxy force. These officers report up the IRGC chain of command, culminating in senior IRGC personnel like Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani and Ground Force commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour. Also embedded with proxy forces are IRGC officers under the equivalent rank of lieutenant-colonel (taken from at least 19 Iranian divisions) who act as company and platoon level commanders on combat operations, and rotate every two months. The number of soldiers embedded with each force must be large enough to allow for expected casualties, while maintaining command and control. While it is unclear if these IRGC forces are part of Quds Force, Ground Force, or both, there are currently some 7,000 Iranian troops embedded with the 20,000 proxy forces in Syria-- but it is likely that this number will increase by thousands in the years to come. The proxy forces are, therefore, incorporated into the IRGC’s hierarchical force structure as conventional combat forces beholden to the IRGC chain of command. This innovation allows Iran to command all of its conventional and irregular forces from the same central command and control apparatus. Although this does not represent an innovation in military affairs, it is an interesting theoretical framework to consider: Iran has, essentially, shifted from a TAA-limited, unconventional warfare strategy to a hybrid unconventional warfare operational strategy, which relies on commanding and controlling irregular proxy units in conventional roles.
This evolved strategy has been utilized in almost all of Iran’s key Syrian operations. Moreover, it has proved highly successful and allowed the Iranian Expeditionary Force to perform complex military maneuvers in Syria. In July 2015, IRGC-led proxy forces divided into several battle groups outside rebel-held Aleppo and penetrated rebel lines at multiple points, driving deep into rebel territory. Once they reached their target, they turned their assault 90 degrees, linked their lines, and encircled the rebel-held areas of Aleppo to enforce a rigid siege. In late July, Jabhat Fath al Sham (formerly Al Nusrah Front) launched an enormous offensive to break out of the siege; although Iranian proxies lost some ground, they were able to launch a coordinated counter-offensive which regained lost ground. Throughout the year of successful combat that followed, numerous IRGC officers at at least the battalion-level (lieutenant colonel and above) were killed in Aleppo on dates that coincided with proxy force offensives, indicating that they were actively planning proxy operations and leading such forces at (at least) a battalion level. Other IRGC personnel at company and platoon level command ranks were killed on dates matching combat operations, showing that Iranian soldiers participated in combat operations with proxy forces on the ground in Aleppo. By December, 2016, the rebel forces had been eliminated, and pro-regime forces declared control of Aleppo. Following this date, command and sub-command level IRGC-GF casualties in Aleppo dropped dramatically. In February, 2016, Iranian coalition forces participated in another major operation in Zahra and Nubl, cities to the northwest of Aleppo. In essence, these operations were intended as a turning movement, forcing the rebels to retreat or launch a major military maneuver to the north to prevent interdiction of their lines of communication. Although these operations were successful in forcing the rebels to retreat, numerous IRGC-GF personnel were killed. Once again, these casualties occurred in conjunction with major proxy force offensives, indicating that Iranian forces were both leading and fighting with proxy forces. Finally, hundreds of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Special Groups, and Aghan Liwa al-Fatimiyoun (as well as an unknown number of IRGC ground forces) participated in joint operations with Russian and Syrian forces to retake the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2016. In conjunction with these operations, Iran reported numerous commander and sub-commander level IRGC-GF casualties in Palmyra, indicating that Iran was again embedding IRGC-GF forces to command and fight with proxy forces.
Yet, for all its successes, this operational strategy has its limitations: following Iranian coalition operations in Aleppo, for example, Iranian proxy forces participated in combat operations in Syria’s northern Lataika province ; but it would appear that IRGC forces did not participate with them. Presumably, this operational pause was to allow for Iran to rotate IRGC combat and command forces, resupply their arsenals in Syria, and plan future coordinated activities with Russia and the SAA. It is, however, unclear whether or not IRGC commanders still issued commands from outside of the battlespace, or if these proxy forces were self-sufficient. If the latter, further research is warranted to understand how these units coordinated with each other and other pro-regime forces. Either way, the Lataika campaign is a prime example of the limits of Iran’s operational strategy: due to the covert nature of their direct involvement in combat, Iran is incapable of committing its IRGC forces to continuous combat operations with proxy forces in Syria.
Iranian activity in Syria, however, has caused direct and enormous gains for the Assad regime: as of April 2018, the regime ostensibly controls some 70% of Syria. This result would have proved impossible without Iranian help, which provided a bulk of the fighting ground force manpower for pro-government forces; and, after seven years of fighting for the Assad regime, Iran feels that victory is in sight.  Iranian forces have begun to build military bases and Iranian outposts in southern Syria, where they will presumably remain upon the war’s conclusion. For its commitment, Iran seems to have gained enormous influence within the Syrian state through proactive military and political measures. Moreover, Iran has managed to create an additional non-state armed group out of Syria Shi’a militants, over which it exerts direct control. Presumably, this group (known as “Syrian Hezbollah”) will function in ways similar to Lebanese Hezbollah, and attempt to gain status as a political party within Syria in order to exert even greater Iranian influence on the Syrian regime. Finally, on April 4, 2018, the United States announced that it would begin to withdraw its military from Syria. Iranian state media sources have widely publicized this announcement, claiming that a U.S. withdrawal would signify an acceptance of defeat in Syria.
Iran’s perceived “victory” in Syria, however, has come at a steep cost. Almost 200 members of the IRGC have been killed since 2015, and proxy forces have suffered far worse: Hezbollah has sustained some 3,000 dead and 7,000 wounded, Liwa Fatemiyoun 2,000 dead and 8,000 injured, and Iraqi militias over 1,000 dead. In the face of these casualties, Iranian proxies are reported to be facing “crises of morale”. Even Hezbollah, an organization renowned for its grit and fighting spirit, has seen declining morale and internal rifts regarding the righteousness of their increasingly sectarian fight in Syria. Moreover, Iranian operations in Syria have cost an estimated $15-20 billion per year to maintain, in addition to approximately $5 billion per year loaned to the Assad regime, $1 billion paid annually to Lebanese Hezbollah, up to $36 million annually for Iraqi Special Groups, and unknown millions per year for Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zaynab. All told, this support amounts to some 6% of Iran’s total GDP. Other estimates, however, put Iran’s total expenditures in Syria at closer to 13% of GDP.
These expenses are especially severe given the current conditions of the Iranian economy. Since 2013 alone, the Iranian rial has dropped in value by over 250%, including a decrease of 60% since April 11, 2018. Over the past five years, Iran’s GDP has floundered, falling by over $150 billion between 2011 and 2017, despite the relief of sanctions in 2015. GDP growth has since dwindled to less than 5% per year. Since 2011, Iranian inflation has risen by an average of 21%, with a high of 39% in 2013. Finally, Iran’s unemployment rate of 12.5% is, as of 2017, one the world’s highest. There are also signs that Iranian victories in Iraq and Syria may not yield the financial benefits Iran had hoped for.  Although Iran had hoped for the lion’s share of reconstruction contracts in both nations, they have instead gone to other firms within Iraq, Syria, and other Arab nations.
To make matters worse, the international community has strongly condemned Iranian activity in Syria. In January 2018, the United States issued sanctions against Iran for their international support of proxy organizations in Syria. In large part due to Iranian activities in Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018. The JCPOA required Iran to avoid development of its nuclear program in exchange for the unfreezing of over $100 billion dollars in Iranian assets. Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has declared that Iran will continue to honor the deal given the participation of the other signatories (namely E.U. nations), President Trump’s decision throws the entire deal into question and opens Iran up to further U.S. sanctions. Indeed, U.S. set about to attack Iran’s unconventional warfare capabilities almost immediately following the withdrawal. On May 10 and 11, 2018, the United States levied biting sanctions against Iranian companies’ ad IRGC representatives to specifically target the assets and financing of Quds Force and their proxy network.  On May 16, 2018, the U.S. Treasury department sanctioned five Hezbollah leaders, including General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Finally, on May 22, 2018, the United States sanctioned five IRGC members for supplying Yemeni Houthis with weaponry which they then used against the GCC. At the very least, then, the downfall of the JCPOA will have significant consequences for Iran’s unconventional warfare strategy. It is, however, extremely likely that additional U.S. sanctions will target the Iranian economy: both President Trump’s new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have expressed a desire to issue harsh sanctions on Iran in order to force it to abandon its regional activities. It seems likely, therefore, that Iran’s economic woes will only deepen in the months and years to come.
In the face of such hardship, which is directly related to Iranian support of non-state armed groups (especially in Syria), many Iranians have begun to question the regime’s spending. In December 2017, protests erupted across Iran, decrying the billions of dollars that Iran has spent supporting various non-state groups across the region. Over the following week, tens of thousands of Iranians crowded the streets of cities like Tehran and Mashhad, chanting phrases such as “not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran”, “leave Syria, think about us”, “death to [President] Rouhani” and “we don’t want an Islamic Republic”. In response, the IRGC led a brutal crackdown, leaving over twenty dead, and largely subduing public demonstrations. Although the IRGC claimed that the uprising had been quelled, social media continued to play out as a hotbed for the spread of protest messaging long after the final day. Should the public discontent continue to mount, it is likely that the regime will resort to even more draconian measures, which in turn will likely merit an additional economic response from the international community which could deepen Iranian woes. It is unclear how the internal dynamics of Iran will be affected by the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. It is clear, however, that Iranian cooperation with non-state armed groups is taking a significant toll not only on the state’s economy, but also on its social and political fabric. As of 2017, the Fund for Peace listed Iran as the 49th most unstable nation in the world.
Finally, Iran’s hard-line support of the Assad regime has alienated the broader Sunni Arab population, which largely supports Sunni Syrian rebels. Indeed, although Iran’s support of Hezbollah against the Israelis in 2006 gained the Islamic Republic widespread (if begrudging) respect among many Arabs, a 2017 poll by the Arab American Institute found that Arabs (other than Lebanese) held an overwhelmingly negative opinion of Iran, specifically because of their interference in Syria. Iran’s actions in Syria have also directly affected its relationship with Hamas (which ardently supported the anti-regime forces), resulting in the two partners breaking and repairing their relationship several times from 2012-2017. Hamas, which has never truly been controlled by Iran like other proxy forces has nevertheless been a critical strategic partner in their shared crusade against Israel. The breaks in their relationship, therefore, proved to significantly weaken Iran’s ability to attack a major adversary, and complicated their operations in the Levant. More importantly, however, the problems between Hamas and Iran spilled into the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah, which had long been harmonious. This fractured relationship further endangered Hezbollah’s security in Lebanon, and Iranian-sponsored attacks against Israel. Although Iran and Hezbollah both seem to have repaired their relationships with Hamas in 2017, it is clear that Iranian actions in Syria are having additional costs abroad by are throwing its strategic partnerships into question.
Iranian unconventional warfare activities since 1982 have proved extensive. Their successes in Lebanon and Iraq came in the face of some of the world’s most significant military, economic, and political powers. In Syria, these successes culminated in a cunning (albeit simple) augmentation of their previous operational approach which allowed for a unified Expeditionary Force capable of executing complex military maneuvers. In recent months, Iranian operations seem to have reduced in light of the decreasing necessity for such action. If the direct Iranian role in Syria is indeed over, then a more thorough evaluation of all their Syrian operations is certainly warranted. Therefore, although Iranian activities in Syria should certainly not be celebrated, they must be evaluated objectively as impressive advancements in Iranian military sophistication.
While Iran has thus far been able to develop and maintain their modified unconventional warfare strategy in Syria, however, their capacity to do so in future situations may be limited by the growing economic and political costs of their unconventional warfare operational strategy. Thus far, the Iranian regime has decided to ignore or suppress their domestic instability, while seeking to further international influence: immediately following the protests in January, 2018, for example, Supreme Leader Khamenei approved an additional $4 dollars be allocated from Iranian reserves to military expenses. Iran’s political history suggests that this will continue to be their approach—but, given the rising tide demanding change in Iran, it is likely that the regime will soon be at a crossroads: the future of the Islamic Republic, or the future of their unconventional warfare operations.
Figure 1: Created by Author, 4/27/18
Figure 2: Created by Author, 4/27/18
Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook: Iran, prepared by Office of the Director of Central Intelligence, Unclassified Intelligence Report (2018). (Accessed April 9, 2018), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ir.html .
 Shmuel Bar, “Iranian Terrorist Policy and ‘Export of Revolution’, Herzliya Conference, 2009. (Accessed April 8, 2018), http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/2903Iranian.pdf.
 BBC Staff, “Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East”, BBC News, London, Dec. 19 2013 (Accessed April 10, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25434060.
 Dr. Richard Shultz, “21st Century Irregular Warfare Paradigm—Revised April 2018”, Powerpoint Presentation, 2018, pg. 23.
 Dr. Kimberly Kagan, et al., “The Syrian Theater”, 2017. (Accessed pril 10, 2018), http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20CTP%20-%20The%20Syrian%20Theater%20-%20September%202017.pdf
 Figure 1 in the Appendix of this paper demonstrates the author’s assessment of the control that Iran exerts over each proxy group in its portfolio.
 Sylvia Westall, “Assad’s army stretched but still seen strong”, The Daily Star, Sept. 19, 2014. (Accessed April 7, 2018), http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Sep-19/271153-assads-army-stretched-but-still-seen-strong.ashx#axzz3E5YPzKAf.
 Department of the Army, “Field Manual No. 3-05.130: Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare”, September 2008. (Accessed April 3, 2018), https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-05-130.pdf
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 Anthony H. Cordesman, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Al Quds Force, and Other Intelligence and Paramilitary Forces”, CSIS, August 16, 2017. (Accessed April 9, 2018), https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/070816_cordesman_report.pdf
 Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria”.
 Joshua Gleis and Benedetta Berti, Hezbollah and Hamas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 38.
 Staff, “Iranian Website Published a speech delivered by Hezbollah Secretary General at a closed forum expressing total devotion to Iran’s Supreme Leader”, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, April 19, 2018. (Accessed April 19, 2018), http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/iranian-website-published-speech-delivered-hezbollah-secretary-general-closed-forum-expressing-total-devotion-irans-supreme-leader-similar-statements-issued-previously-h/ .
 Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born With a Vengeance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 7-9.
 Norton, Hezbollah: A Short Story (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 101.
 Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: the Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 36.
 Hussain Abdul-Hussain “Hezbollah: A State Within a State”, May 2009 (Accessed March 4, 2018)
 Levitt, 36.
 Ibid., 12.
 Michael Knights, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq”, CTC Sentinel, vol. 3, (2010). (Accessed April 4, 2018), https://ctc.usma.edu/the-evolution-of-irans-special-groups-in-iraq/ .
 Dr. Kimberly Kagan, “Iran’s Proxy War against the United States and the Iraqi Government”, The Institute for the Study of War, 2007. (Accessed March 7, 2018), http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/reports/IraqReport06.pdf .
 Staff, “U.S. accuses Hezbollah of aiding Iran in Iraq”, The New York Times, July 2, 2007. (Accessed March 7, 2018), www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/world/africa/02iht-iraq.1.6442071.html
 Jim Garamone, “Iran Arming, Training Directing Terror Groups in Iraq, U.S. Official Says”, July 3, 2007. (Accessed March 10, 2018), https://www.army.mil/article/3890/iran_arming_training_directing_terror_groups_in_iraq_us_official_says .
 Dr. Kimberly Kagan “Iran’s Proxy War against the United States and the Iraqi Government.”
 Michael Kagan, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq”.
 Again, the author’s assessment of Iranian control over these groups can be seen in Figure 1 of the Appendix.
 Sam Dagher, “In Iraq, a very busy Iran”, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 29, 2010. (Accessed March 23, 2018), https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703994904575646911886138950 .
 Dr. Kimberly Kagan “Iran’s Proxy War against the United States and the Iraqi Government.”
 The National Staff, “Iran embassy in Yemen transformed into rebel training grounds”, The National, April 12, 2018. (Accessed April 14, 2018), https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/iran-embassy-in-yemen-transformed-into-rebel-training-grounds-1.721000 .
 Islam Saif, “Who are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard leading Houthis in Yemen?”, al-Arabiya, January 1, 2018. (Accessed March 28, 2018), https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2018/01/01/Who-are-the-Iranian-Revolutionary-Guard-officers-leading-Houthis-in-Yemen-.html .
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 Staff, “Houthi Forces Claim to Score Direct Hit on Saudi Airport with Ballistic Missile in New Attack”, al-Masdar News, 2018 https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/houthi-forces-claim-to-score-direct-hit-on-saudi-airport-with-ballistic-missile-in-new-attack/
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Houthi forces appear to be using Iranian-made drones to ram Saudi air defenses in Yemen, report says”, The Washington Post, March 22, 2017. (Accessed April 4, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/03/22/houthi-forces-appear-to-be-using-iranian-made-drones-to-ram-saudi-air-defenses-in-yemen-report-says/?utm_term=.f216f82b5cc4 .
 Conflict Armament Research, Iranian Technology Transfers to Yemen, March 2017, http://www.conflictarm.com/download-file/?report_id=2465&file_id=2467
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 Maher Farrukh, Tyler Nocita, and Emily Estelle, “Warning Update: Iran’s Hybrid Warfare in Yemen”, Critical Threats, March 26, 2017. (Accessed March 31, 2018), https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/warning-update-irans-hybrid-warfare-in-yemen
 Michael Knights, “Responding to Iran’s Arms Smuggling In Yemen”, The Washington Institute, December 2, 2017. (Accessed April 5, 2018), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/responding-to-irans-arms-smuggling-in-yemen .
 David S. Sorenson, Syria in Ruins (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016), 5.
 “Staff, Syria war: What we know about Douma ‘chemical attack’ BBC News, April 16, 2018. (Accessed April 29, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43697084.
 Ruth Sherlock, “In Syria’s war, Alawites pay heavy price for loyalty to Bashar al-Assad”, The Telegraph, April 7, 2015. (Accessed April 5, 2018), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11518232/In-Syrias-war-Alawites-pay-heavy-price-for-loyalty-to-Bashar-al-Assad.html .
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 Reese Erlich, Inside Syria, (New York: Prometheus Books, 2014), 126-127.
 Ibid., 152.
 For all their claims of representing Shi’a interests, the two states have largely used their Shi’a status as a lever of national power used to further strategic goals, rather than as a central strategic goal in and of itself. Syria’s al-Assad regime has, for the most part, attempted to distance itself from the Islamic faith for decades. Even Iran’s dedication to the Shi’a across the Middle East has been shown to be secondary to their other strategic goals, such as increasing Iranian influence and eroding Israeli and U.S. power in the region.
 Sorenson, 100-101
 Many scholars have commented on the relationship between Syria and Iran, asserting that Syria has ultimately proved to be more of a parasite than a partner. It is certainly true that Iran has devoted incredible resources to support Syria, and has received little financial benefit in return. This assertion, however, ignores the massive, geographic benefit that Syria brings to Iran.
 Mohsen Milani, “Why Tehran Won’t Abandon Assad(ism)”, CSIS, 2013. (Accessed March 15, 2018), https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/TWQ_13Winter_Milani.pdf .
 Erlich, 146
 Sorenson, 102
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 Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria”.
Christopher Kozak, “Iran’s Assad Regime”, Institute for the Study of War, March 2017. (Accessed March 20, 2018), http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Iran%27s%20Assad%20Regime.pdf.
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 Staff, “Russia Agrees to 1000 more Iranian Troops Entering Syria”, The Middle East Monitor, August 26, 2017. (Accessed March 23, 2018), https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170826-russia-agrees-to-1000-more-iranian-troops-entering-syria/
 Readers should refer to Figure 2 in the appendix for an illustration of the network of the Iranian Expeditionary Force.
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 Iranian forces have largely hijacked the Assad regime’s power structure, building their own influence throughout Syria in place of the Assad regime. Their methods for doing so involve the recruitment of Syrian militias, military officials, and common citizens to their cause. Although this research was beyond the scope of this paper, it certainly bears further scrutiny.
 Although Syrian Hezbollah is a fascinating topic which bears further scrutiny, its development was not included in this paper given limited time and space. Readers may be interested to learn that the development of Syrian Hezbollah has (almost entirely) been handled by Lebanese Hezbollah, making Syrian Hezbollah a proxy to a proxy.
 Phillip Smyth, “How Iran Is Building Its Syrian Hezbollah”, The Washington Institute, March 8, 2016. (Accessed April 9, 2018), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/how-iran-is-building-its-syrian-hezbollah.
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In the week prior to this paper’s publication, the E.U. reportedly made attempts to block future and current U.S. sanctions from affecting the Iranian economy. Although these moves will likely further strain the E.U.-U.S. relationship, the author assesses that they are unlikely to protect Iran’s financial resources for conducting unconventional warfare—any attempt by the E.U. to do so would be deeply incendiary, and result in significant political consequences for the E.U.
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