By Reza Parchizadeh
August 1, 2017 Saham News online has published the last interview given by the late Brigadier-General Hossein Hamedani – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander who served as an adviser to the Syrian army, and who was reportedly killed in an Islamic State (IS) attack in Aleppo on October 7, 2015. Hamedani also oversaw IRGC’s Quds Force (IRGC-QF) operations in Syria. He was posthumously promoted to Maj-General.
In the interview, Hamedani discussed a number of issues including the creation of a popular front in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime. By popular movement, Hamedani most likely meant a force similar to the Basij (mobilization resistance force) that has been used by the Islamic Republic to crush domestic unrest in the past three decades.
This article dissects the structure, function and ideological identity of the Basij Force.
Speaking about his assignment in Syria, Hamedani said: “One of the things we did was help with forming a popular front. At first, we were accused of trying to create another army. We were asked how the new force would be funded and equipped. We had to explain to them that we aimed to generate popular support for the government. Ultimately, we were able to save Damascus with the help of these units. Subsequently, we were asked to place them under the control of the regular army. We told them that it wouldn’t be a good move, and that they should strengthen the army through regular recruitment. We argued that what made the Basij force special was the fact that it was comprised solely of volunteers. It is also a cost-effective and efficient force. They were clueless about all of this until they saw the results.”
Hamedani was clearly promoting the creation of a Basij-like volunteer Islamic unit. Such a force is ideologically and economically dependent on the regime that it safeguards. The Basij is closely linked to the Islamic Republic establishment, but it is also a popular force. It is essentially a militia force under the control of the IRGC. It, however, lacks military discipline and a permanent base of operation.
The Basij is comprised of ordinary people who believe in the regime’s Islamic ideology. The organization is funded by the establishment, but its individual members hold regular jobs outside the force. They are part of the social fabric of Iran. The regime is able to mobilize the units at short notice. The Basij is fundamentally a popular paramilitary force whose members are responsible for their own livelihood. They are, however, able to take advantage of perks and other fringe benefits which the IRGC offers.
There are historical parallels to the Basij, especially in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. However, the Basij is a uniquely Iranian phenomenon. Its mission is to safeguard the Islamic Republic and Shia Islam. What distinguishes the Basij from other Jihadist groups such as IS and Al-Qaeda are the two principles of centralization and the sense of a clear objective.
The Hezbollah of Lebanon was originally a Basij-like force which gradually morphed into an army. The Islamic Republic has also been instrumental in creating and supporting similar groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Its efforts to form similar groups in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have, however, been met with strong reactions from those countries. Hamas has successfully adopted the Basij model, even though it has never been in Tehran’s permanent orbit.
The Islamic Republic has stopped short of creating an Orwellian world or a Soviet-style system in which the state has complete control over people’s lives. The Basij, however, plays a major role in safeguarding and promoting Islamic ideology within the country. The regime doesn’t see the need to export its revolutionary ideology, because it already exerts great influence on many governments in the region.
One of the main objectives of the U.S. is to curtail the IRGC’s influence and to destroy its capabilities in the Middle East. This will in turn enable countries in the region to fend off the threat posed by Tehran’s expansionist ambitions.