Iranian soldiers: Why we are fighting in Syria

August 22, 2016

Social media sites show photos of Iranian soldiers in combat poses – but behind the bravado, some volunteers are more fatalistic

Tehran mourners kiss the casket of Brigadier General Mohsen Ghajarian, killed in Aleppo, in February 2016 (Atta Kenare/AFP)

TEHRAN – Sayed Mohammad Hosseini sat pensively on a metal bench beside the graves of dozens of Iranian men who, like him, have served in Syria.

He says he is a sniper, now on a month’s home leave from service in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

But he is not the type who tries to forget the war during his time away from the front.

Mourners at the Tehran funeral of three Revolutionary Guards killed in Syria in June 2015 (Atta Kenare/AFP)
“I’ve been here every Friday during my leave and I go back to Aleppo in a week’s time,” he explained, as we chatted beneath a cool grove of trees in the vast Behesht-e Zahra, some 24 kilometres southwest of the Iranian capital.

The cemetery contains thousands of graves of men killed in the war on Iran that was unleashed by Iraq’s then-leader Saddam Hussein in 1980.

 Sayed Mohammed Hosseini
‘I’ve been here every Friday during my leave and I go back to Aleppo in a week’s time’
They are now being joined by a growing number of volunteers who have gone to Iraq or Syria during the last four years and were “martyred” there, as Iranians of all political persuasions describe their deaths.

There is no official figure for Iran’s casualties – but foreign analysts estimate they amount to about 400 deaths, including those of several high-ranking officers.

The fact that Iranian troops were fighting in Iraq and Syria was initially suppressed in the Iranian media, but discretion was relaxed when the Islamic State (IS) group advanced through large parts of Iraq in 2014.

Kayhan Barzegar, director of Iran’s Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, told Middle East Eye: “The authorities are confident that the Iranian public supports Iran’s presence in Iraq and Syria in terms of defending national security and pre-empting Islamic State’s attempts to cross Iran’s borders”.

Bright yellow flags mingle with tombstones of teen ‘martyrs’

Social media sites now regularly show pictures and selfies of volunteers in combat poses in Iraq and Syria. In the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, a row of bright yellow flags stood conspicuously before the front line of tombs alongside one of the main thoroughfares.

One of the flags was embroidered with the name al Fatemiyoun, a brigade that has served for several years in Syria. 

A row of black ants scurried along the side of a low black stone tomb covered in dried rose petals and a single faded gladiolus. Etched on a plinth at the head of the grave was a photographic image of a young man with the cupola of a large mosque behind him.

Air strikes in Aleppo: scores of Iranians have died fighting there and across Syria (George Ourfalian/AFP)
The inscription on the slab that covered his remains gave his name as Mohammad Hossein Akbari, age 17.  Another line read: “Defender of the Zeinab Holy Shrine,” a place of international pilgrimage in southern Damascus where Shias believe Zeinab, the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, is buried. (Sunni Muslims believe she was interred in Cairo).

Other tombstones carried a line of writing that read: “Place of Martyrdom” and unashamedly proclaimed “Syria”.

The faces on several graves, most of them teenagers, had the characteristic Central Asian features of Hazaras, a Shia minority who form about 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Tens of thousands have sought asylum in Iran in the 20 years since the Taliban took power and their homeland dissolved into civil war and subsequent foreign intervention.

Many earn their livings in Iran as low-paid building workers: some were tempted by offers of citizenship to volunteer to fight in Iraq and Syria.

‘I think the war will go on a long time’

Hosseini said he had served 18 months in Syria, first in the battle against rebel positions in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that has been under government siege for more than two years, and now in Aleppo. The divided city has been ruined by four years of fierce fighting, which has intensified during the past fortnight.

Most of the city’s eastern region is under rebel control. An effort last week by the Syrian army and Iranian forces, backed by Russian air strikes, to surround and squeeze them into surrender, failed when the rebels sent in hundreds of reinforcements.  

The grave of a Afghan fighter killed in Syria (Jonathan Steele/MEE)
Hosseini foresaw no imminent breakthrough. I asked him if the Syrian government had a chance of regaining the whole city. “Fifty-fifty,” he answered laconically. “I think the war will go on a long time.”

He put the blame on Saudi Arabia for increasing the supply of weapons to the rebel forces, but also accused the US of facilitating arms deliveries.  

Hosseini said that the recent re-branding of the al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, as an independent organisation known as Jaish al-Fateh al-Sham (Army for the Conquest of the Levant) did not signify any change in its militant ideology.

He said the US-supported group, Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of the Levant), was linked to Jaish al-Fateh al-Sham, and could not be described as moderate. “They also behead people.”

The one sign of optimism he detected was a change in Turkey’s policy. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent reconciliation with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and their commitment to fighting terrorism together might result in greater efforts to stop arms coming across Turkey’s border to Aleppo’s rebel fighters, he said.

‘The war in Iraq and Syria is a holy war’

Alireza Moradi, a 29-year-old clerk in a private firm who was visiting the cemetery with Hosseini, was equally bleak about progress in the Syrian war.

Like his friend, he showed none of the bombastic optimism that combat troops and ex-soldiers often feel required to produce in encounters with the media. He had spent three months in the Iraqi city of Samarra, site of another revered Shia shrine and a month in Aleppo. Moradi also served in Damascus for seven months as a volunteer for the Basij, a paramilitary force subordinate to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, he said. His service ended in early 2014.

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Tehran funeral of Abdollah Bagheri, October 2015 (AFP)
“I think the war in Syria will go on at least 20 years,” he said. “Have you heard of the al-Nusra front?  Some of their militants and commanders are from Chechnya. They are well-equipped and experienced after crippling the Russians in Chechnya for 20 years. It’s very hard to fight them.”

But Moradi was in no doubt that, without the help of Iranian volunteers, the Syrian army would have suffered severely. “The volunteers are more effective than the Syrian army. The Syrian army has experienced a lot of disasters within their families. They are confused,” he said, in an apparent implication that many Syrian families are divided in their loyalties towards Assad. 

 Alireza Moradi
‘I think the war in Syria will go on at least 20 years’
He gestured towards the graves of the Afghan martyrs. “They go with nothing except a Kalashnikov and 45 days of military training. It’s divine assistance and invisible help that lead them.” 

I asked whether such young and inexperienced volunteers should be warned not to go. He replied: “I have to clarify something. Some people believe the Afghans volunteer to go in return for money or citizenship. This is a big lie. They believe in their religion.

“Wanting to defend it is not a matter of how young or old you are. They beg to be sent to Syria and they go enthusiastically. The war in Iraq and Syria is a holy war. Daesh (IS) kills Christians and Muslims, Sunni and Shia.”

Moradi said he thought that the war was being boosted “behind the curtain” by arms manufacturers and oil companies, as well as by several foreign governments.

“I wouldn’t say that Israel, which isn’t considered by us to be a country because it’s occupying Palestine, is directing the war. But its interests are for the fighting to continue and Sunni and Shia states to be in conflict and therefore remain weak.”