[Editor’s Note, November 1: This entry has been modified in light of subsequent information, video, and analysis — soon to be posted in an “Iran Special”]
Earlier this week, Al Jazeera English posted a dramatic video, beginning with the declaration, “Iranian Fighters on Syrian Soil”.
See later articles “Syria Special Updated: Iran’s Military, Assad’s Shia Militias, & The Raw Videos” and “Iran Video: More on Revolutionary Guards, A Shia Militia in Syria, & The Veteran Who Died Making a Film“
Claiming to show the first footage of “Iranian fighters” inside Syria, Al Jazeera’s reporter said of the English-dubbed video, “It appears the Iranians are the ones calling the shots in a war that has arguably become as much about them as it is about Syria.”
Al Jazeera claims that the footage was handed to its reporter by an insurgent, who found it after battling Iranian fighters in Aleppo.
But as soon as the images appear, there are oddities.
Far from being amateur footage taken with a cellphone or consumer-grade camera, the video is of professional quality.
Al Jazeera claims that the men in the film knew they were being recorded and hence were comfortable about speaking openly. That seems an unusual breach of security inside a military facility, where filming is usually forbidden. It would be doubly so, given that Iran has consistently denied military involvement in Syria.
More questions: under what circumstances would foreign “military personnel” allow themselves to be filmed overtly by a professional cameraman, sitting in the back seat of a car, as they pass through a checkpoint? And why are the Syrian soldiers at the checkpoint apparently unfazed about this?
The biggest give-away that the film is now what it seems, however, is the interview with “Ismail Ali Haydari”, identified as an “Iranian Fighter”.
It is impossible to make out Haydari’s actual words behind the dubbing, which has him saying, “I’ve been in Syria now for more than a hour. I’ve fought all across the country.”
However, the interview does not appear to be part of an amateur film, but of a professional documentary.
Perhaps that is because Esmail Haydari, while serving in the Iranian military, is the subject of that documentary.
Haydari was killed by an insurgent ambush near Aleppo in August as he was being filmed. The clips obtained by Al Jazeera appear to be from an unfinished project of film-maker Hadi Baghbani — who also died in the ambush.
Far from hiding Haydari’s presence in Syria, Iranian media openly reported on his death, with Radio Farda summarizing the coverage. Here is a report by Tasnim News on Haydari’s “martyrdom” in Syria and his memorial.
So does the fact that Baghbani filmed Heydari and other Iranian officers training Syrian militias indicate that Iran “is calling the shots” in President Assad’s war?
While it would be highly unusual for an Iranian (or anyone) to film operations inside a Syrian military base, is not unusual for Iranian reporters to be embedded within Syrian Arab Army units or to report on their fighting against the insurgency. This clip from Iran’s ABNA news agency shows just that.
And so a dramatic story of “Iranian Fighters on Syrian Soil” is actually a distorted epitaph to the work of a slain filmmaker, Hadi Baghbani, and his subject, Esmail Heydari, who became casualies in a civil war — which is far more about Syrians than it is about Iran.
(Featured Image: A funeral image of Esmail Heydari)