On April 4th, 2016, the deputy coordinator of Iran’s regular army ground forces reported units of this force have been dispatched to Syria. In this regard, Iran army commanders described the deployment of their forces to Syria as advisory missions, denying any large unit deployment to the Levant. Below are a number of positions taken by Iran’s military commanders in this regard, shedding light on the depth of the army’s actual involvement in Syria.
Background of the Iranian army’s extraterritorial and border operations
- Following the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Iranian army’s extraterritorial activities were limited only to its air force. Back in the 1990s the army air force launched a number of operations in Iraq.
- With the city of Mosul falling to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in June 2014, the Iranian army announced a 40 kilometer buffer area into Iraqi soil as a red line for Daesh to enter. Brigadier General Hamidreza Pourdastan said Iran was sending recon teams into Iraqi soil.
“In addition to forces guarding our borders, the Ground Forces quickly dispatched five combat brigades to the area. In coordination with the Iraqi government, we began conducting recon and assessment missions up to 40 kilometers inside Iraq,” he explained.
Dispatching Iranian Forces to Syria
Iran is deploying its regular army to Syria at a time when the Revolutionary Guards has in full strength sent its combat divisions and brigades into the Syria war. Practically speaking, however, more than four years later these forces have failed to bear any fruit in their efforts. In fact, they have suffered enormous casualties including the likes of General Hossein Hamedani, deputy commander of the IRGC Imam Hossein Base and commander of the Quds Force in Syria.
The IRGC has from October 2015 launched the so-called “Operation Moharram” with the objective of taking complete control over Aleppo Province in northern Syria. A slate of the IRGC units dispatched to Aleppo in the past 8 months is as follows:
- 17th ‘Ali Ebn Abi Taleb’ Combat Division from Qom Province
- Fajr Corps from Fars Province
- 12th ‘Qaem’ Brigade from Semnan
- 60th Armored Unit from Gonbad Kavoos
- ‘Mohammmad Corps’ from the Greater Tehran region
- ‘Karbala Corps’ from Mazandaran Province
- ‘Imam Sadegh’ Infantry Brigade from Bushehr Province
- 12th ‘Qaem Al Mohammad’ Brigade from Semnan Province
- 21st ‘Imam Reza’ Armored Brigade from Neishabour
- 64th ‘Al-Hadeed’ Artillery Group
- IRGC 62nd ‘Momenoun’ Artillery Group
- IRGC 45th ‘Javad ol-Aeme’ Engineering Group from Golestan Province
- Bassij forces from ‘Fort Al-Mahdi’ in Isfahan
- IRGC ‘Ansar al-Mahdi’ Protective Corps
- ‘Ya Zahra’ Battalion from the 14th Imam Hossein Division in Isfahan
The IRGC has also organized and dispatched a large number of Afghans under the IRGC command known as the ‘Fatemiuoun.’ Moreover, the IRGC is hiring mercenaries from Pakistan, organizing and dispatching them to Syria as the ‘Zeinabiuoun Brigade.’
Iran’s army units are being dispatched to Syria following major defeats and countless casualties in the past year. Iran army forces are directly sent to the Aleppo front, currently considered the front line of the war in Syria.
Army Brigades Dispatched to Syria
Following the dispatch of Iran’s regular army forces to Syria, their casualties began to pile up. The army fatalities are not related to one particular brigade, and despite the fact that many casualties have been announced, a large number have remained a secret and all have been from different army brigades and all killed in and around Aleppo.
- Col. Mojtab Zolfaghar Nasab, a senior officer of the army’s 45th Commando Brigade, was killed in Syria
- Major Morteza Zarharan of the 258th Brigade from the city of Shahroud was killed on Saturday, April 9th.
- Lt. Mojtaba Yadollahi Monfared of the 388th Brigade from Iranshahr was killed in Syria.
- IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency, April 13th: Captain Hamd’ollah Bakhshandeh of the army commandos was killed in Syria.
- A member of the 65th ‘Nohed’ Commando Brigade by the name of 2nd Lt. Mohsen Ghattaslou, recently sent to Syria, has been killed.
- Sadegh Shibak and Hossein Hemmati, two members of the 65th ‘Nohed’ Commando Brigade known as the “Green Berets”, were killed in the Syria clashes.
Stances of Iran Military Commanders
4 April 2016 - Brigadier General Araste, army ground forces coordinator: “We are dispatching advisors to Syria from the 65th Brigade and other units, and this deployment is not only from the 65th Commando Brigade. Right now there are advisors from the 65th Brigade.”
9 April 2016 – General Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, referred to the presence of the army’s 65th ‘Nohed’ Brigade in Syria. “Various branches of the army have members present in the region as advisors, and this is nothing new.”
12 April 2016 – Four dispatched members of the army commandos in Syria were killed in clashes.
12 April 2016 - Brigadier General Hamidreza Pourdastan said army commandos were killed in a large and extensive operation launched by Jibha al-Nusra forces against Assad troops and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces stationed south of Aleppo.
14 April 2016 - Brigadier General Hamidreza Pourdastan confirmed the presence of army unit members in Syria alongside Assad’s army and the IRGC Quds Force, saying these forces were there to gain adequate experience for proxy wars.
17 April 2016 – Brigadier General Shirazi, head of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s military office, said the IRGC and army have specific missions, acting in complementary roles. The activities of these military organs is to defend Iran’s territorial integrity, he added.
“Currently, signs of defensive cooperation by these two entities (IRGC & army) with each other is seen inside the country and abroad.”
17 April 2016 - Brigadier General Hamidreza Pourdastan: “We have not dispatched any military units to Syria. However, based on te requests made by the Syrian government, we have sent military advisors to this country. We are soldiers of the Islamic republic, and we are ready to carry out missions with power and consistency anywhere the establishment needs. Our presence in Syria is not in the form of units, and we have not dispatched any units to Syria. The advisory missions of our forces in Syria continues as ever in all fields.”
20 April 2016 – Two other members of the army’s 65th ‘Nohed’ Brigade by the names of Sadegh Shibak and Hossein Hemmati, dispatched to Syria, were killed on April 20th.
20 April 2016 – General Salehi, chief commander of the Iran army: “We in the army are faced with many volunteers seeking to be dispatched to this front. However, we have never claimed that the 65th ‘Nohed’ Brigade is present there. In fact, volunteer forces have been dispatched to Syria and they are under the responsibility of that particular organization. There may be members of the 65th ‘Nohed’ Brigade amongst them.”
20 April 2016: Brigadier General Gorjizadeh, commander of the IRGC ‘Ansar al-Mahdi’ unit, said the IRGC and army entering Syria is a security red line for Tehran. “Do we have to wait and witness the takfiris advance from Mosul to Ghasr Shireen (town in western Iran bordering Iraq)? No, we go after them.”
- Although the Iranian army air force was used in limited extraterritorial operations after the Iran-Iraq war, and/or the army ground forces conducted limited cross-border recon missions after Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) occupied Mosul in northern Iraq, the army had never officially dispatched forces outside of Iran’s borders. This is the first time this unit is conducting cross-border missions.
- Iran dispatching army to Syria is a clear sign that the IRGC has failed in its mission in the Levant, and the mullahs’ regime has seen no other options but to involve the army in this war. IRGC fatalities in the past few years, including senior IRGC commanders, is one clear indication in this regard.
- Casualties of Iran’s army in Syria have been from a number of different brigades, showing this is in contrast to public remarks made by Iran’s military and army commanders of not sending troops in unit formations.
- Iran’s army dispatching forces to Aleppo as the main frontline in Syria, and these forces being killed, is also in contrast to remarks made by Iran’s military commanders based on the “army’s advisory and training role” in Syria. This shows the Iranian army has been dispatched to the frontlines and to get involved in battles.
- Iran army commander General Salehi: “Army forces in Syria are under the responsibility of the particular organization (Quds Force).” This shows the army is involved in Syria under the Quds Force’s command.