Iran Has More Volunteers for the Syrian War Than It Knows What to Do With

As Syrian troops sustain heavy losses, Iranian militias are ramping up their role.
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  • Qasem Soleimani
    Iranian senior military officer

TEHRAN — When 59-year-old Asghar Abyari learned that his son Abbas would soon head off to war in Syria in late December 2015, he was furious. But not for the reason one might expect.

Since November, Asghar and Abbas, 24, both members of Iran’s voluntary Basij militia, had been undergoing military training in hopes of joining Tehran’s advisory mission to support Syria. The mission began deploying in 2012 to advise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in their fight against the growing insurgency. By the time the Abyari men began training in 2015, Syria’s horrific civil war had stretched into its fifth year, forcing Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani to expand the mission to include volunteers from all six branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the Basij. Suleimani still maintained command of the mission, but now officers from each branch were assembling units composed of assorted IRGC volunteers to serve under his command.

From the advisory mission’s inception, Suleimani had decreed that only one man per family would be allowed to join the deployments — a decision meant to minimize each household’s potential sacrifices. But to Asghar, it was yet another impediment. By early December, his training group had been whittled down to 500 men from its initial roster of 1,000. Less than half of those who remained would be selected to join the unit that would deploy near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in late December.

Asghar and Abbas were driven by a holy conviction to defend sacred religious sites, like the shrine of Hujr bin Adi al-Kindi, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, which Sunni rebels desecrated in April 2013. “These people have no moral borders or humanity,” Asghar told me. “We knew then that they would attack other shrines and holy sites that are respected by Muslims and Christians. We felt that if we didn’t defend these places, nobody would be safe, and they would make a government that would spread this cancer to the entire world.”

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Asghar tried to convince his son to go to another Iranian province and volunteer for the Syrian mission there. Asghar thought that would let both of them slip through the cracks and get around the one man per household rule. But Abbas ignored his father’s pleas. In late December — IRGC sources refuse to reveal the exact dates of their movements for security reasons — he left for the front line with his unit, which joined the Assad regime’s fight to retake several villages around Aleppo, including Khan Touman, Nubl, and Zahraa, the last two being predominantly Shiite villages northwest of the city that had suffered under a crippling, three-and-a-half-year siege by rebel militias.

On Jan. 10, during fierce fighting in Khan Touman, Abbas was shot. A makeshift ambulance was sent to the front line to retrieve him and several wounded comrades. But on its way back to a field hospital, the vehicle came under a TOW missile attack. Abbas and the vehicle’s other occupants were instantly killed, joining the hundreds of Iranian fighters who have died in Syria.

In its ongoing campaign to retake Aleppo, Assad’s army has relied heavily on the manpower and expertise of its Iranian allies. Since Feb. 3, the Syrian army — backed by Russian forces, the IRGC, and Tehran-backed militias — has reversed many of its military defeats on the outskirts of the city. Washington and Moscow are engaged in talks to maintain a cease-fire in Aleppo, but whether these efforts will succeed remains unclear. Iranian officials accuse rebels of exploiting the recent cease-fire in Aleppo to recapture Khan Touman, where Abbas was killed in January. Jaish al-Fatah, an alliance of rebel groups that includes the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, killed at least 13 IRGC advisors and captured another five to six in the fight to retake Khan Touman.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has vowed to launch an assault on the rebel-held eastern part of the city. And Iranian officials have promised harsh retaliation in Khan Touman.

The war, now in its sixth year, has taken a heavy toll on the Syrian army, whose forces, by some accounts, have been halved since the start of the conflict. Iran’s support is more crucial than ever. And as the war drags on, Iran’s involvement in the conflict is deepening. While the advisory mission began as an effort to lend strategic advice to the Syrian army, Iranian forces are now intimately involved in planning specific battles. A retired IRGC general who spoke on condition of anonymity said that in the early days of the war, Iran was sending “strategic advisors” to assist the Syrian army. As the conflict advanced, Iran began deploying “tactical” advisors, he said.

Yet, despite the mounting Iranian casualties in Syria, IRGC officers face no shortages of eager recruits, according to Abbas’s commander, a 41-year-old Basij officer named Hajj Mehdi. On his most recent deployment near Aleppo, he commanded a unit of 230 men, ranging in age from 21 to 60 years old. When he is on leave in Tehran, he awakens most mornings to find men lined up at the outer gate of his humble home, hoping to enlist. He is regularly bombarded with requests from relatives, friends, and acquaintances for permission to join the war. Even the father of one of his daughter’s classmates came to plead his case after he discovered that Hajj Mehdi was involved in recruiting for the mission.

Hajj Mehdi has no choice but to turn away most of these hopeful volunteers. Under the strict orders of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hajj Mehdi and his fellow IRGC officers have been ordered to select only the most well-trained, experienced volunteers with specialized skills to join the units in Syria. If the order to limit troop numbers and deploy only the most elite forces were reversed, Hajj Mehdi said, Basij and other IRGC soldiers would “go by the millions.”

“The Revolutionary Guard now has [a] problem in managing hundreds of thousands of volunteers who want to be defenders of the oppressed and holy shrines,” the retired IRGC general said. “So Quds commanders are trying to select the best trained of these people who understand the new tactical concepts for defending the oppressed who are coming under attack.”

Not all of those Iranians who are rejected are deterred. Many, instead, have joined an array of volunteer militias that have taken root since the start of the war. These men, devout Shiites lured by the promise of martyrdom, are desperate to fight a war that they regard as their religious duty. Like Abbas, these volunteers believe that non-Sunni communities in Syria face the threat of elimination. Having witnessed the destruction of shrines, mosques and churches in state media and on social media networks, they also reckon that holy sites, particularly the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, will never be safe in rebel hands. They are ready to sacrifice their lives to protect them and defend the oppressed.

Hossein, a 30-year-old Basij soldier from Tehran, is one such volunteer. He was rejected by the elite advisory mission, despite his military training, but has served tours in Syria with a variety of militias, including the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a force of mostly Afghan volunteers, and the Zeinabiyoun, a group of mostly Pakistani volunteer soldiers. The Fatemiyoun Brigade emerged as a fighting force in Syria as early as 2012, but some of its top members have long-established links with the IRGC. Its first commander, Ali Reza Tavassoli — born in Afghanistan in 1962 and killed in Daraa, Syria, in February 2015 — fought alongside the IRGC in the Iran-Iraq War with a contingent of Afghan Shiite volunteers.

Hossein said his decision to enlist with the Fatemiyoun in 2014 was inspired by Mostafa Sadri Zadeh, a childhood friend. Sadri Zadeh, a 29-year-old lifeguard from southern Tehran, tried to join a Quds Force advisory unit in 2013 but did not make the cut due to lack of military experience, Hossein said. Refusing to give up on his dream of waging jihad in Syria, Sadri Zadeh traveled to the city of Mashhad, home to the holy shrine of Imam Reza, one of 12 imams that Shiites regard as the spiritual and political successors of the Prophet Mohammed. There, he procured the identity papers of an Afghan and enlisted in the Fatemiyoun, where he climbed the ranks to become commander of the Ammar Battalion, adopting the nom de guerre “Sayyed Ibrahim.” He fought for more than two years before being killed on Oct. 22, 2015, in Aleppo.

In Syria, Suleimani later eulogized Sadri Zadeh’s bravery, voicing surprise that a soldier who had been turned away from the IRGC’s advisory force had performed so heroically on the battlefield. Addressing his soldiers, Suleimani recalled how one day in Deir al-Adas, he had heard a Fatimeyoun commander on the two-way radio speaking in a “strong, manly voice,” with a thick Tehrani accent. “I asked, who is this Tehrani man who is fighting with the Fatemiyoun Brigade?” Suleimani said. An IRGC commander answered that it was Sayyed Ibrahim.

The next morning, when the Fatemiyoun forces arrived at the same position, Suleimani asked the same commander to show him which of the men before him was Sayyed Ibrahim. “He said, ‘This guy.’ And I saw that he was so thin and frail and so young,” Suleimani recalled. “I told him, ‘Based on your voice, I was thinking I would see a strong and big man.’ But he was so young, and when you saw his face, you could see a kind of spirituality.… You have to know, this young man, because our system didn’t agree that he come [with the advisory mission] to Syria, he went to Mashhad, and under the name of one Afghan man, he entered Fatimeyoun.… We have so many people like Sayyed Ibrahim in Tehran, but the difference between him and them is that he went in the way of jihad.”

That Sadri Zadeh’s fighting prowess came to Suleimani’s attention is no surprise. Though the IRGC insists that volunteer militias operate independently, these groups often engage in battles in Syria under the command of Iranian officers, according to returning Iranian fighters and analysts.

I met Hossein in Iran after he completed his most recent three-month tour in Syria with the Fatemiyoun. He told me that in the fight to retake the town of Nubl in January, he and his comrades linked up with the Basij unit under Hajj Mehdi’s command to break the enemy line. Hossein said the secret to the volunteer militias’ effectiveness is their flexibility, mobility, and lack of a rigid command structure. “It’s not a classic army war, where I can say I was always under the command of one person. Sometimes we were just six people, and sometimes we were 250, and one time we were 400. But in each mission — not that these are really classic missions — you are stationed in a zone, and whoever comes there will be part of your group,” he said.

Hajj Mehdi conceded that Iranian advisors lead from the front, organizing the various militias defending the Syrian regime, and said this arrangement stems from their superior combat experience. “Not the Iraqis, not the Pakistanis, not the Afghans, not even [the Lebanese] Hezbollah — though Hezbollah far more than the others — has experience in breaking enemy lines,” he said. “If the Iranians hadn’t come, these groups would have no effective role.”

The accounts of returning Iranian fighters appear to support some of the conclusions of a recent report by the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Analyzing reports of Iranian casualties in Syria, the study hypothesizes that the IRGC has developed an ability to deploy small units that link up with and command multinational militias in the battlefield. “If the IRGC has, indeed, mastered this ability, then it has positioned itself to use small numbers of conventional forces on foreign battlefields to produce effects disproportionate to their size,” the report argues. “It would constitute a significant increase in Iran’s ability to project conventional military power abroad.”

U.S. officials argue that the increasing involvement of the IRGC and Iranian-backed militias only exacerbates the conflict in Syria. “As we have long said,‎ the support the Assad regime has received and continues to receive from Iran has enabled it to avoid seeking a constructive, negotiated end to the conflict. Rather than helping the Syrian people unite against extremism and [the Islamic State], Iran continues to prop up a regime that brutalizes the Syrian people, which only nurtures the growth of the extremists,” a State Department spokesperson said.

But Iran’s sacrifices to the war in Syria are mounting. More than 280 Iranian troops have been killed in Syria since September 2015, according to a May 2 report by the Levantine Group, an independent consultancy that tracks media reports of Iranian casualties in the conflict. In fact, Iran has suffered as many casualties over the past six months as it did in the first two years of its involvement in the war, the report said. According to some reports, as many as 700 Iranians have been killed in Syria since the start of the advisory mission in 2012.

Hajj Mehdi’s Basij unit was among those that paid dearly during the counteroffensive. After more than two months of fighting in rural Aleppo, he lost nearly a third of his advisory unit, with 13 killed and another 55 wounded. He himself sustained a bullet wound in the leg, though the injury was not serious enough to force him off the battlefield. Now, he is on leave in Tehran to be with his wife, who is waging her own battle against cancer.

Despite all the Iranian blood being spilt in Syria, Hajj Mehdi insisted that Tehran is unwavering in its commitment to the Assad regime. The chief reason for Iran’s military intervention in Syria, he said, is its need to defend religious sites, particularly the holy shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the sister of Imam Hussein, who is deeply revered by Shiites. Indeed, Iranian fighters who are martyred in Syria are referred to in official media as “defenders of the holy shrine [of Sayeda Zeinab],” regardless of where they are actually killed.

Hajj Mehdi recalled that all of his men who were killed in Syria were spurred on by this intense religious devotion. They possessed, he said, an intense desire for martyrdom, a revered status bestowed on those who are thought to have sacrificed their lives defending the oppressed.

Morteza Karimi, a 34-year-old junior Basij officer from southern Tehran, told Hajj Mehdi he wanted to be martyred in the same way as Ali al-Akbar, the oldest son of Imam Hussein, whose body was cut to pieces in the battle of Karbala, an epic clash in 680 A.D. It was in that battle that Imam Hussein and his followers were martyred and posthumously beheaded. “I told him, this is crazy, they are shooting us here with bullets. It’s impossible for you to be cut into so many pieces of meat,” Hajj Mehdi recalled.

Karimi was shot and injured during battles in Khan Touman. He was retrieved by the ambulance that came under a TOW missile attack. Karimi’s body was shredded into bits of meat, just as he had hoped.

Hajj Mehdi said that his men are so eager to become martyrs that they frequently compete with each other for the most dangerous assignments. “You don’t feel that they understand the meaning of fear,” he said.

During the fighting in Khan Touman, Hajj Mehdi wanted just 20 men to advance one kilometer under heavy fire to break the enemy line, but dozens surged forward to volunteer for the deadly mission. “I was ordering them, even threatening them, one by one, to go back,” he recalled. Finally he relented, choosing 40 of the most determined men to advance.

It is the same fervor that Abbas and his father, Asghar Abyari, showed when vying for a spot in the same advisory unit. Upon his return to Iran following Abbas’s death, Hajj Mehdi was afraid to answer Asghar’s calls. He was ashamed to admit that he had been unable to retrieve Abbas’s body from the front. But one day as he was typing a message on his phone, he answered Asghar’s call by mistake.

“Do you think I’m calling to follow up on the body of my son? I promise to God, I don’t need that,” Asghar told Hajj Mehdi. “I just want to tell you that now that Abbas is no longer in your unit, I can go to Syria.”

Photo Credit: LOUAI BESHARA / Staff

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