Iranian militants have begun acting as Russia’s de facto "ground force" in Syria, where they have begun waging "an ethnic cleansing campaign" in order to eradicate opposition to the embattled President Bashar al-Assad, according to leading members of Congress, defense officials, and outside experts.
A Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak on the record confirmed to the Washington Free Beacon that the United States "continue[s] to see Iranian-sponsored forces providing support to the Syrian regime in their fight against Syrian opposition forces."
It is now believed that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces are acting as Russia’s "ground force" in Syria, helping Moscow to clear out primarily secular opposition forces battling to depose Assad, according to lawmakers and regional experts.
Both Russia and Iran have tried to avoid battling Islamic State militants in the country despite repeated claims otherwise, these sources said.
Iran has significantly boosted its presence in Syria, sending highly trained fighters and top military officials to take the lead in the fight to defend Assad, according to these sources, who also noted that the Obama administration is doing very little to counter this aggression.
"If we look at the combat fatalities of the revolutionary guards in Syria, we see that the place of death is usually the places that have been bombed by the Russian air force," Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
"So the revolutionary guard is in practice acting as the infantry force, the ground force, of Russia," Alfoneh said. "We also know from U.S. government sources that Russia is not bombing the Islamic State. Russia is bombing the secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime."
Once Russian forces finish their bombing campaigns in opposition strongholds, there is "an influx of revolutionary guards members going into those areas," Alfoneh said.
Additionally, the U.S. government has determined that Iranian forces are waging "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in areas of Damascus in order to eradicate Sunni Muslim families and replace them with Shia-aligned Hezbollah militants.
"I’ve been briefed on the fact that they’re [Iran is] even bringing in militias from Hezbollah and their families into Sunni dominated neighborhoods in Damascus and running their Sunni population out as they basically do an ethnic cleansing campaign," Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), the committee’s chairman, disclosed during the hearing.
While there is mounting evidence that Iranian forces are taking to the front lines of the fight in Syria, a Defense Department official who spoke to the Free Beacon said that the United States does not have many details currently "regarding the size of those forces or their specific locations."
As auxiliary forces backed by Iran continue to fight in Syria, the revolutionary guards are also boosting Iran’s domestic production of advanced missile technology, according to other experts who testified at the hearing.
Missile technology has become "a key part" of Iran’s efforts to build up its military.
"If you look at the development of Iran’s missiles, it’s been a key part of its conventional military buildup over the last 20 years," said Scott Modell, a former CIA officer and regional expert. "They believe it goes hand in hand with their idea of self sufficiency and promoting the revolution."
Iran has accelerated "the pace at which they’re developing new missiles," including advanced ones that utilize precision-guided technology, according to Modell, who said that these weapons will be provided by Iran to Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists.
Asked whether he sees any evidence that the Obama administration will penalize Iran for its recent ballistic missiles tests—which many argue violate current United Nations resolutions—Modell was skeptical.
"I don’t see any indication that there’s a good chance the Obama administration will take any punitive actions in regards to this ballistic missile launch," Modell told Royce.
Lawmakers also discussed how the lifting of sanctions on Iran would enable the revolutionary guards to cash in on lucrative business deals with companies across Europe and Asia.
The corps control about 30 percent of Iran’s economy and have a hand in most of the country’s major industries. As sanctions are lifted, Iran is beginning to whitewash evidence that the corps controls many top businesses, Modell said.
IRGC-"linked companies and businesses have already started the process of hiding their links in anticipation of trying to get into business deals with European companies and Asian companies, and others who will be reentering Iran" as sanctions are lifted, Modell said.
"There is a process underway among IRGC individuals and entities that are sanctioned to ensconce themselves in companies that are clean and business deals that are clean," he added. "That means erasing old contracts, erasing records and business registries, and other things. It’s a very dangerous proposition for any company going back into Iran not knowing exactly who they’ll be dealing with."