Remarks by General James Conway, former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, in a panel on the Iranian regime’s “IRGC and Meddling in the Region” in Paris, 29 June 2018, organized jointly by FEMO and APA.
General James Conway:
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the invite to be with you today and I especially look forward to your questions as we exchange dialogue. I’d like to make three early points with regard to background. First of all, we’ve used the term meddling for years regards the IRGC involvement, but I think that word no longer satisfies, no longer meets the requirement. Today I see their activities being described through such words as interdiction, subversion, cancer, and even takeover of Middle East governments. Indeed, I would say today that Iran is essentially we would say calling the shots in four Middle East capitals, to include Baghdad, Sana’a, Beirut, and Damascus. And that this idea of a Shiite crescent has occurred across the Middle East much earlier than many would have thought. Thirdly, Syria by far represents the most significant effort by the IRGC. And I think for them, their most dangerous effort.
I’d like to frame my comments really through two things. I do not wish to discuss the past IRGC activities—General Wald I think did a fine job of that, and I suspect the other panelists will as well. I would rather focus on their future activities and what that might mean. And as one of two military men on the panel, I’d like to rotate the table just a little bit and assess that future through the eyes of General Soleimani, who is the commander of the Quds Force and currently in charge of IRGC activities in Syria. General Soleimani sees his mission in Syria as twofold. One of course is to support the Syrian government, including the survival of the Assad regime. Syria has been Iran’s best ally in the region for years now and is crucial to this whole concept of the crescent. By most estimates there are today between 10 and 12 thousand Iranian troops in Syria, and that number jumps to 50, 60, 70 thousand if you include the Shiite militias there that include Pakistanis, Afghanis, and even Iraqis. It’s estimated, and Chuck said 30 billion, there are estimates between 30 and 60 billion dollars that have been spent on behalf of IRGC activities in the fight in Syria. His second mission is to create a solid front with Hezbollah, potentially the Lebanese army, the Syrian army, and the Shiite militias, in order to establish bases adjacent the Israeli border, to attack what he calls the Zionists in Israel. General Soleimani views that the IRGC has achieved tremendous momentum over the last decade, however they now face situations at home that they have never seen before. President Rouhani has recently been critical of IRGC leadership and these ideas towards overextension. Casualty rates that include at least 2,000 Iranian nationals and as many as 4,000 of the IRGC have not been well received at home. Significant resources have been spent. Iran normally has a defense budget on a range of 16 billion a year, and much, much more than that is being spent in this war in Syria. And lastly, the intrigue that has been generated by the IRGC has certainly been a factor in the reestablishment of U.S. sanctions which will simply make it difficult for the Iranian population.
Further, the general sees a witch’s brew in Syria. Each nation that’s involved there sees the IRGC quite differently. From a Syrian perspective, of course, they’re very appreciative of the involvement of the Iranian forces. But they’re concerned that Iranian forces, the IRGC, may be losing focus now as they increasingly turn their attention towards Israel. And there is a threat there towards the Syrian government. In the past, Israel has worked out an agreement with the Russians that they will not attack the Syrian hierarchy so long as the Russians control the IRGC and they do not threaten Israel. Well, that condition has changed. And so the Syrians have to see that their leadership is at least at risk at this point based on what the IRGC has been doing recently.
Russia, the IRGC actions are not helpful towards the overall Soviet objectives in the area. In fact, recently Putin recently sent his deputy security minister to Tehran to talk to President Rouhani about his dissatisfaction. President Putin has expressed his concern that it complicates the Russian role as a peacemaker in Syria, that the efforts of the IRGC endanger Russian forces there, and that their activities could provoke a much wider conflict. In the Russian dilemma is of course they want to protect the Iranian forces because they see them as allies, but they do not want their activities to compromise Russian achievements in Syria.
From a Turkish perspective, Iran also has concerns with the Kurdish autonomy that is being strived for in the region. The Shia Crescent is less of a concern to Turkey than is the KDP, the Kurdish Democratic Party. And their recent relations with Israel have been on the decline, so I think that it’s fair that they have no concern with what they see the IRGC doing there.
The U.S. strategic view is that we will focus on the defeat of ISIS. We are with this administration more willing to accept a future with Assad in charge. We are looking for opportunities to draw down our force structure there. However, the U.S. deplores what they see in the IRGC activities really across the region. A quote from the White House says it is hard to find a conflict or a suffering people in the Middle East that the IRGC tentacles do not touch. But the U.S. would also respond immediately on the side of Israel in an IRGC-Israeli conflict.
Perhaps General Soleimani’s major miscalculation may be that he misunderstands or does not appreciate the intensity fully of the Israeli view. The Israeli view is that their national security is threatened by direct Iranian actions on their border. The Israeli defense minister recently said to a gathering of troops, “We are facing a new reality. The Lebanese army in cooperation with the Hezbollah, the Syrian army, the Shiite militias, and above them Iran, are all becoming a single front against Israel.” Israel feels that it’s better to strike before enemy forces reach full strength. I can tell you that Israel generals are disciples of Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu said many centuries ago, “To defeat your enemy attack that portion of his forces that is most exposed and distant from the main force.” Israel feels like they have put the world on notice that they are reaching a saturation point. President Netanyahu in a face to face meeting with President Putin said recently, “It is our sacred right and duty to take steps required to safeguard our security interests.” Israel feels like that they can provoke a temperamental IRGC into unwise actions and then use that as provocation for whatever they may choose to do in the wake. They feel that air strikes against the IRGC in Syria represent putting their strength against the IRGC weakness, which is essentially no air cover and no ability to strike from the air. The IRGC has already in the mind of the Israelis lost some face, but the Israelis feel like that future actions will force the president of Iran to the horns of a dilemma.
And so, General Soleimani is also on the horns of a dilemma. To maintain IRGC momentum he must balance many factors that are taking place in Syria. He must continue to support the original mission in Syria. He must be careful not to antagonize the Russians or the Turks. He must moderate Iranian casualties and try to generate support for his efforts in mother Iran. He must reduce spending and expect future resources in the process as sanctions take place. He has to steer clear of American forces on the battlefield. He must coordinate efforts against Israel through the Hezbollah, the Lebanese, and the Syrians. And he must keep pressure on the Israeli Defense Forces, but in a fashion that will hopefully not create counterattacks that could have substantive effect on his own forces.
But in my view, the most likely outcome in the weeks ahead poses a dangerous time for the world order. I believe that Israel will strike hard against IRGC efforts, perhaps even to include ground forces in an assault adjacent the Israeli border. They may well attempt to take out President Assad or at least attack in an effort to send a signal to the Russians. I think that they will force the Iranian leadership into a decision in a difficult time, do you support the IRGC or do you cut them away, back off from their aggressive activities? Israel I believe is willing to accept risk at this point in time to the idea of wider conflict in order to secure their borders.
So let me bring it home to this audience here today. What does all of this mean to the people attending this conference and those that would advocate for a free Iran? I think first that you must encourage the severest possible U.S. sanctions against Iran. Encourage your European friends and nations to also adjust sanctions to counter bad behavior in the Middle East. I think there is a need to continue to demonstrate inside Iran in order to demand an end to what I would call expeditionary operations on the part of the IRGC. And demand a better use of available Iranian resources against the needs of the people versus a distant war. I think you need to work to ensure that the Iranian people have two-way communication with the outside world so that they stay abreast of international events. That you need to continue to espouse a better way ahead for your friends and compatriots in the state of Iran. And that there should perhaps be some way to endeavor to exploit this separation between the president and the IRGC and even the IRGC and the Iranian Army. History has shown that revolutionary guards and units like that will always have a tremendous loyalty to the existing government. That’s their sustenance. That’s their source of fanaticism, if you will. And they will never go with the idea of a revolution. But it’s the army, and when the army decides they’ve had enough, and the army decides there must be change, where revolutions succeed.
Thank you for the opportunity.