Iran’s grim news from Syria as it increasingly suffers heavy casualties

Tehran continues to maintain that its forces serve only in advisory roles, but the numbers dying on the battlefield challenge the claim. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY VAHID SALEMI / AP
Tehran continues to maintain that its forces serve only in advisory roles, but the numbers dying on the battlefield challenge the claim.


Iran is taking increasingly heavy casualties in Syria. A statement from the Revolutionary Guards announced last Saturday that thirteen of the corps’ élite forces were “martyred” in the escalating battle near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has become the front line in the five-year civil war. Another twenty-one Iranians were wounded. It is, for Iran, the largest single casualty toll since the country intervened to rescue the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The fighting took place in Khan Touman, a village nine miles south of Aleppo.

There’s no hiding the human costs in a war that is being played out graphically on social media. Syrian rebels immediately posted grisly photographs and videos of a pile of corpses dressed in camouflage, as well as photos of wallets with Iranian documents, identity cards, and currency.

The news has made front pages across Tehran. The newspaper Ghanian compared the fight for Aleppo with the Battle of Karbala, from the year 680—an event that was pivotal in the Islamic world and has symbolized tensions between Shiites and Sunnis ever since. In Karbala, a small group of Shiites were slaughtered by Sunnis of the Umayyad dynasty. Since then, Sunnis have dominated Islam—in terms of numbers, geographic range, resources, and power. Karbala also made martyrdom integral to Shiite tradition—and to Tehran’s concept of modern warfare.

In Syria last week, Iran’s Shiite forces were killed by an alliance of Sunnis known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, which is made up of Islamic extremist groups that includes the al-Nusra Front, Syria’s Al Qaeda franchise.

Tehran continues to maintain that its forces serve only in advisory roles, but the numbers dying on the battlefield challenge the claim. Between 2013 and mid-2015, Iranian news agencies identified more than four hundred martyrs. Since last September, another three hundred fighters have died in Syria, according to the latest month-by-month tally published by the Levantine Group, an independent Middle East risk-assessment firm. “Iran has suffered as many (or even more) casualties in the past six months than in the first two years of its operations,” the group reported. The two deadliest months were April (fifty deaths) and February (sixty-four).

In February, amid new peace efforts led by the United Nations, Iran withdrew a “significant number” of its Revolutionary Guards, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “Their presence is actually reduced in Syria,” Kerry told a congressional committee. “That doesn’t mean that they’re still not engaged and active in the flow of weapons from Syria through Damascus to Lebanon. We’re concerned about that.” But Iran has other forces in Syria. This spring, the government announced the deployment of special forces from the regular Army, in what was their first active engagement since the war with Iraq, in the nineteen-eighties. Within a week, four fighters were killed.

Iran has also deployed a large number of Afghan refugees, men who fled wars in their own country and have been stranded in Iran for years, even decades. These fighters are effectively stateless and mostly poor, with limited access to education or social services. Iran has recruited them for the Fatemioun Brigade, a largely Afghan unit organized under the Revolutionary Guards. (The name isderived from the Fatamid dynasty, which ruled a large chunk of the Middle East from 909 until 1171.)

The Afghans began showing up in Syria in 2013, initially to protect Shiite shrines. Iran calls them “volunteers,” but they were promised residence permits, better jobs, and other perks if they joined the equivalent of a foreign legion—and were threatened with deportation if they refused, according to Human Rights Watch. The BBC Persian Service reported that Iran is now deploying thousands of Afghans to fight alongside Syria’s own forces.

The Afghans—mainly drawn from ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiites and speak Persian—are now undeniably deployed on the front lines. Fatemioun’s two top commanders, both Afghans, died in battle late last year. More than half of the sixty-four Iranian fighters killed in April were Afghan auxiliaries, according to the Levantine Group. A year ago, Iranian media reported that at least two hundred fighters from the Fatemioun Brigade had died in Syria. The dead are given military funerals back in Iran, and the numbers keep mounting.

On Friday, Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign-policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, flew to Damascus, where he told reporters, “Our assessment is that Syria is in a position of strength more than any other time.” He also praised Assad, saying, “I believe the Syrian President has shown that he can manage the country with prudence and bravery.” On Saturday, Velayati met with Assad and renewed his government’s pledge of support. “Iran will use all its means to fight against terrorists who are committing crimes in the region,” Velayati vowed. This promise clearly includes the martyrdom of even more Iranians and their Afghan proxies.

The New Yorker



12 responses to “Iran’s grim news from Syria as it increasingly suffers heavy casualties”

  1. 5thDrawer Avatar

    Here’s another example of why it’s a bad idea to stick your neck up from the foxhole …

    1. wargame1 Avatar

      Iranian are dying much in Syria now. The number is increasing fast.

      1. Rascal Avatar

        The Iranian Vietnam. It is a war, like the American one, that can not be won. They can continue to dump money and resources there, and it will still be futile.

  2. 5thDrawer Avatar

    The overworked “Battle of Karbala, from the year 680” … short version.
    ‘The head of a Dynasty with a huge army, meets up with whole small Tribe of idiots who came to defeat him – including the women, kids, and pots&pans. We’re talking a hundred or so warriors.
    They debate the concept. Dynasty Head says: “If you fight you will die. Turn around and go home.”
    3 days later the Tribal geniuses decide they will will fight. SO … all the male warriors die. The women and kids are taken to live as comfortable prisoners in the Dynasty Palace.
    The wife of the dead Tribal Head gains sympathy with the Palace Staff … weaves a fantastic story about the short battle … and the Head of the Dynasty is getting a headache listening to grumbles from the Staff about how cruel he seems to be … SO, he finally decides to simply let them go back to wherever they came from.
    “GO, and take your pots&pans with you.”
    The now-free but vindictive wife continues to weave her ‘battle-story’ ever after that anyway, and it becomes this ‘Legend’ – used until now to raise the ‘battle-cries’ of small bands of idiots.

      1. 5thDrawer Avatar

        Stranger things can happen … ;-)) Those athletic folks seem to do well, don’t they?
        Better news than war stuff all the time, at least.
        Seems the ‘Footballers’ beautiful game is shredding … (not that I care..)

        1. Hind Abyad Avatar
          Hind Abyad

          I really don’t understand English jargon, what has that to do with footballers?

          1. 5thDrawer Avatar

            Was an errant ‘news’ thought about athletes … sorry.
            (hmmm … better not mention Russian ‘doping’ scandal…)
            Mathematics is kept pure.

          2. Hind Abyad Avatar
            Hind Abyad

            “On April 1, a Facebook page published a video that the page claimed was an air raid in Syria. The video got more than a million views, but Verify checked its validity and found that the strike had been in the Gaza Strip and that the video had been published on YouTube two years ago.

            Verify also refuted the validity of a photo published April 29 on a Web page close to the regime. The photo reportedly showed the bodies of civilians, killed in opposition bombing, laid out in Al-Razi Hospital in Aleppo. The platform managed to prove, however, that the photo had been published on the internet four years ago. It did not specify the location.
            Al-Monitor found that the image is of victims of the Houla massacre, which ensued when regime security and armed forces stormed the town of Houla on May 25, 2012, killing 108 people according to Human Rights Watch”.

            Al Monitor. excerpts of ‘A Syrian journalist recently launched Verify, an online platform correcting and validating news on Syria.’

          3. 5thDrawer Avatar

            Wiley may have taught more than he first intended about legal verifications. 😉

          4. Hind Abyad Avatar
            Hind Abyad

            I don’t need Wiley. 😉

  3. Joe Branka Avatar
    Joe Branka

    The more “martyrs,” the better off will be the world (oh, and heaven too … with all those celestial virgins and all).

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