FEATURED VIDEO: A clip from Iranian filmmaker Esmail Heydari’s unfinished documentary

[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”]

See Update “Iran Video: More on Revolutionary Guards, Syria’s Militias, & The Veteran Who Died Making a Film


Where Did The Videos Come From?
Who Was Esmail Heydari?
What can we say about Heydari’s connections to the Revolutionary Guards?
What does Heydari tell us about his time in Syria?
Other Discrepancies In The Al Jazeera Report
How Was The Footage Taken From Heydari’s Camera Converted for Broadcast?
Analyzing the Six Clips of Raw Video
Video 1: Heydari Drives Through Aleppo Province, Probably En Route to the Military Facility at the Al Dawajan Checkpoint
Video 2: Military Personnel Relaxing as Iranian Camera Crew Sets Up
Video 3: A Communications Room With an Iranian Operator
Video 4: An Iranian Officer and Arabic-Speaking Shia Fighters Go Out With A Camera Crew
Video 5: Filming The Shia Fighters/ Ambush By Insurgents

What do we know about where the videos came from?

1. Several media outlets obtained raw footage from the insurgent brigade Suqoor Ash Sham Liwa Dawood. The film was taken from a professional video camera obtained on August 19 following clashes in the southern Aleppo countryside.

2. According to videos posted on Liwa Dawood’s YouTube channel, and according to several reports, on August 19, 2013, Liwa Dawood were fighting near a place named the Poultry Farm in or near the town of Asan in the southern Aleppo countryside.

The Aleppo Media Center tweeted that insurgents controlled the area on August 19:

Location of Asan:

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3. In an August 19 Facebook post, insurgent faction Liwa Dawood said that they were involved in clashes near the Poultry Farm, and that they had killed six people. Among them was one man whom they identified as an “Iranian Shia”.

4. On the same day, activists also reported that insurgents had taken the camera of a “journalist embedded” with Shia fighters near the Poultry Farm:

5. At some point after that, Liwa Dawood said that some of its insurgents battled a pro-regime Shia brigade that it named Liwa Abu Fadhal al-Abbas.

6. Later reports gave various figures for the number of people killed in the fighting around the Poultry Farm on August 19, ranging from 15 to 40. A report by the Arabic outlet Zaman al-Wasl says that the Abu Saif al-Zahrani battalion from the Liwa Dawood were involved in the attack, and that they seized the camera after killing “more than 25” people from Liwa Abbas.

Other reports said that “around 40” regime forces were killed in the battle to control the area around the “poultry farm”, and did not mention Shia or Iranian fighters.

There are two main possibilities for the discrepancies in the reports, assuming that Liwa Dawood’s original report of coming across and killing six men who tried to circumvent their fighters: (a) that the numbers of people killed were increasingly exaggerated in later reports; or (b) the battle around the “Poultry Farm” area involved more than just Liwa Dawood, and there were insurgents battling other pro-Assad militias or the Syrian Arab Army.

It is worth noting that the “poultry farm” battle also occurred as insurgent forces battled regime troops for control of the road to Khanaser to the south of Aleppo, so there would have been forces from both sides in the area on that day.

7. Liwa Dawood then said that they had captured a camera containing a large number of video clips showing an Iranian presence in Syria.

8. Shortly after those reports, the Iranian media reported the death of two filmmakers “near Damascus”: Hadi Baghbani and Esmail Heydari.

9. Liwa Dawood posted some of the footage it found on the seized camera on its YouTube channel, and were contacted by Al Jazeera Arabic sometime after that, but definitely before September 9, when the Al Jazeera Arabic version of the report was published. Subsequently, six of the video clips were made “private”; however, blogger Brown Moses, who had downloaded them, re-posted them as a playlist (see below). The footage identifies one Persian-speaking man as Esmail Heydari.

10. Liwa Dawood has left these videos, which purportedly show its insurgents fighting near the Poultry Farm on August 19, on its playlist:

What does the footage obtained from the Iranian camera show?

We do not have all of the raw footage that Liwa Dawood obtained from the camera of filmmaker Baghbani, captured after it overran the military facility.

Various clips have been uploaded or included in the Al Jazeera broadcast. Some were likely taken in the “poultry farm” but others were likely shot in Damascus, near a Shia shrine.

The Sayyida Rokayya Headquarters

Some of the clips show two Iranians in at least a two-story building, and interior shots of that building, which has several posters in Arabic identifying it as the “Sayyida Rokayya headquarters”. Sayyida Rokayya was the daughter of Hussein, the son of Ali, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, who is revered as a martyr by Shia Muslims). The Sayyida Rokayya shrine at the Sayyida Rokayya Mosque, is a holy site for Shia Muslims and is in Damascus. There is a notice in Persian warning about security.

These shots do not seem to come from a building at the “poultry farm”. Given its name, the Sayyida Rokayya Headquarters, it is likely that these shots were taken near the shrine of that name in Damascus, which Shia fighters have been protecting.

The Poultry Farm

Another clip shows two or three Iranian personnel in military fatigues with pro-regime, Arabic-speaking forces in a rural location with a couple of single-story small buildings. Given that we know the camera was captured from the “poultry farm” in Asal in Aleppo’s southern countryside, it is probable though not certain that the shots show the “poultry farm”.

It is unknown when these clips were filmed, but likely on or just before August 19.

The clip shows an Iranian officer gathering together a small group of Shia fighters. The location appears not to be a military base, as it has no periphery fortifications, appears to lack a control tower and there are no military vehicles apart from one, aging tank. There are only a very small number of pro-regime fighters — not the Syrian Arab Army — present.

A professional camera crew accompanies the Shia fighters, indicating that they are not expecting to go into battle.

There are a few, unmarked cars parked at the facility, indicating that the small group of men and/or the camera crew may have been transported there for an exercise or for filming.

A second clip shows an Iranian in a field, being filmed as heavy gunfire is heard. However, this clip does not appear to show a battle but rather an ambush. It is unlikely that a professional cameraman, who judging from his conversation, has little fighting experience, would accompany a fighter into a battle scenario.

The Iranian in military fatigues shown in the clip is not wearing a helmet or body armor, indicating that they did not expect to encounter fighting.

What do we know about the Liwa Abu Fadl Al Abbas?

Both sets of clips show Iranians involved with pro-regime fighters or Shia holy sites. The insurgent group who captured the camera said it had battled a Shia militia, the Liwa Abu Fadl Al Abbas. That group, formed in 2012, has been active in Damascus, defending Shia shrines and consists of Shia fighters including from Iraq as well as Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqi refugees in Syria, other Arabs, and Afghans.

While the group is mostly active in defending Shia shrines, its members have said that they have fought insurgents in other areas as well.

What does the report by Al Jazeera extrapolate from the footage and what does it miss out?

The broadcasts by Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English exaggerated and distorted the videos when they claimed, “The Iranians are the ones calling the shots in [the] war…giving orders where to fight and when….”

Notably, Al Jazeera English does not say that Heydari is a documentary-maker, and it identifies him as a “fighter”. It uses him, incorrectly, in the highly exaggerated claim, “The video shows just how in control the Iranian fighters are….It is clear once again that Assad’s army has little say about what goes on.”

Later, Al Jazeera English almost certainly makes a further mistake by portraying Heydari as a “Syrian fighter”, asking Iranian officers for a holiday to boost his morale.

Al Jazeera English says a “rebel group posted this video”, but does not identify the faction to indicate why the brigade might have an interest in exaggerating the story of the Iranian presence or to give any context for the brigade’s battles with Shia fighters around Aleppo, or to report that Liwa Dawood overran the military facility where Heydari was on August 22. Al Jazeera also do not report that the group inside the facility overran by Liwa Dawood was not the Syrian Arab Army but a pro-regime Shia faction.

See earlier entry “Al Jazeera’s Distorted Story Of “Iran’s Fighters In Aleppo

The Al Jazeera English broadcast:

The Al Jazeera Arabic broadcast.

Iranian Presence In Syria

We have known for a year that there is an Iranian military presence inside Syria, but it remains unclear what that presence actually consists of. In September 2012, Revolutionary Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari, told reporters in Iran that the IRGC were providing logistical advice, intelligence, and training to Syrian troops and militias. In addition, Iranian forces have been working with the Assad regime to conduct essential reconstruction and infrastructure projects in Syria, as part of the Islamic Republic’s projection of “soft power”, as they have done in Lebanon.

Iran has denied that it has sent ground troops to Syria, either from the IRGC or the Artesh, its regular army. To date, there has been no confirmed evidence of Iranian commanders overseeing Syrian Arab Army military operations or of Iranian ground troops fighting on the battlefield. We do have reports of deaths of individuals who may have been involved in clashes near Damascus, particularly around the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine, indicating that there are some Iranians present in Shia militias involved in defending those shrines.

Who Was Esmail Heydari?

Esmail Heydari was identified by the Iranian media as a filmmaker who had been in Syria for more than a year, filming for a documentary.

Iranian media reported that Heydari had been killed “by Salafis” amid fighting “near Damascus” around August 22 and buried in his hometown, Amol, some days later. Tasnim News says Heydari was a documentary filmmaker and also gave him the honorific “Defender of the Zainab Shrine”.

A day earlier, the Iranian media reported that another filmmaker, Hadi Baghbani, was killed by “takfiri terrorists” also near Damascus.

It is not clear if the two men were killed in the same location but given the dates of death and the footage obtained by Liwa Dawood, it is probable that Baghbani was also killed in the same August 20 raid. This report by IRNA suggests that the men were killed in the same attack — it says that both men were filmmakers and were “martyred” in Syria by “terrorists”.

This report by hardline Mashregh News, however, says that the two men were killed by “Wahhabis” but “days apart”. Mashregh does not identify either man as an IRGC commander, but says that both men were not fighters but “artists” who were in Syria to make a film, “They were not armed, they came to Syria to record the truth with their cameras”.

What can we say about Heydari’s connections to the Revolutionary Guards?

Heydari appears to have had connections to the Revolutionary Guards — their personnel turned out in force for his funeral.

Does that mean that Heydari was a “fighter” or that his role in Syria was a military one?

Heydari is likely to be the subject of Baghbani’s film. He was in Syria training pro-regime militias, invoking a fight by “Shia Islam” against its enemies in a documentary which invokes the defense of Shia shrines and Shia interests against the insurgency.

Baghbani had been in Syria once before and was given permission by the Revolutionary Guards — in part because he and Heydari were from the same area in northern Iran and appear to have known each other — to make a film about the conflict, probably for the internal use of the Guards. This tribute video shows images of his funeral.

What Does Heydari Tell Us About His Time In Syria?

There are two important clips used in the Al Jazeera broadcasts which are not in the publicly-available footage.

In the first, Esmail Heydari speaks to camera about his experiences in Syria. He speaks of traveling for more than a year through the country and being on the battlefield.

Al Jazeera English says, in voice-over and caption, that Heydari was an “Iranian fighter” and “he fought” across Syria.

What does Heydari actually say?

This is the translation from Persian of Heydari’s narrative to camera:

I have been in and around Syrian front lines for around 8 months. It’s been around 2 years and some months since the war started and it’s been around a year and some months since I first came to Syria. I have been to different areas near Damascus and I have been in Aleppo for about 5 months so far.

Confusion over Heydari’s words came after some news reports about these videos — including Al Jazeera’s — said that Heydari said he had “fought” in Syria.

An EA correspondent evaluates:

In the first part of the video, Heydari briefly and quickly says that he has been in different parts of Syria, near Damascus and also in Aleppo and that “we” have fought…

However, there is a fine grammatical and linguistic point here: Heydari does not say very explicitly that he has been fighting in different parts of Syria.

The man behind the camera asks him how long he has been in Syria, and Heydari says “I have been in various places like in the areas around Damascus and in Aleppo” and then he changes the ‘pronoun’ of the verb and he says : “…in various places like in the areas of Damascus and in Aleppo we have been fighting”.

Now if you look at it very crudely he says “we have” been fighting, however you have to bear in mind that even if you are not yourself involved directly in fighting, but support one side of the fight, you would say “we” have been fighting. For example I would say that “we” have been fighting the Saddam Regime in Iraq for 8 years, even if I was not a part of the war myself. Heydari is talking to camera and he says “we” have been fighting even though he is not himself fighting but is with, i.e. on the side of, the people who are fighting…

In other words, Heydari may not have been directly involved in fighting but has been supporting and training pro-regime militias to take part.

That said, the footage indicates that Heydari and other Iranian officers training the militia had taken it into the field to confront insurgent snipers when they were ambushed on August 19.

There is another clip where Heydari is seen, near the end of the Al Jazeera English broadcast. Heydari is shown sitting on the floor of a room in the military facility, speaking to some others present. Al Jazeera say that the clip shows a “Syrian fighter” pleading for a holiday.

Screenshot of man AJE identify as Heydari

Screenshot of man AJ Arabic identify as Syrian soldier asking Iranians for holiday

So what is happening here? The EA correspondent in Iran says:

In the [Al Jazeera] video at 1:52, it is not clear what the men are talking about, because the [Al Jazeera] reporter is talking so you can’t hear [the people on screen]. But my impression is that they all speaking in Persian, so it seems what Al Jazeera is saying about Syrian fighters pleading to an Iranian guy (Heydari) for a holiday is not true.

Other Discrepancies In The Al Jazeera Report

The Al Jazeera report implies that all the footage is taken in the same location. However, there are indicators that this is not the case.

While some of the footage is almost certainly from the Al Dawajan Checkpoint in the southern Aleppo countryside, where Liwa Dawood were fighting and where they say they captured Heydari’s camera, there are indications that some of the footage may have come from a building near the Sayyeda Rukayya shrine in Damascus.

The EA correspondent in Iran says that Al Jazeera’s interpretation of the footage inside one building, apparently a military facility, which shows a poster in Arabic punishing an Arabic-speaking fighter, is questionable:

The Al Jazeera report claims that Syrian soldiers are being punished for speeding, and the report tries to make it appear as if the Syrian soldiers are being punished by the Iranians. This does not seem to be correct. The poster on the wall appears to be put there by the people in charge of the “Sayyeda Rukayya” shrine in the center of Damascus.”

How Was The Footage Taken From the Iranian Camera Converted for Broadcast?

Al Jazeera Arabic carried out the initial editing and translation of the videos, converting all Persian statements into Arabic before broadcasting its item on September 9 or 10.

Al Jazeera English re-translated the Arabic into English and made further edits before broadcasting on September 10. It did not translate Persian statements directly into English.

The video footage posted by Al Jazeera English were dubbed into English, making it impossible to hear the original speech.

Analyzing the Six Clips of Raw Video

Video 1: Heydari Drives Through Aleppo Province, Probably En Route to the Military Facility at the Al Dawajan Checkpoint

Esmail Heydari, driving the car, is filmed in casual conversation with his cameraman. In the last 40 seconds of the clip, they stop at a Syrian checkpoint and ask for directions.

There is no indication, contrary to the Al Jazeera English report, that Heydari is an Iranian fighter giving orders to the Syrian troops.

This is a translation of the Persian conversation between the driver and the cameraman in the front seat:

0:25 – Person in front seat (cameraman): “Was the truck hit as well?” Driver: “What? Perhaps during another clash.”

0:40 Cameraman: “Is the code 3 or 4?” Driver: “Between 3 and 4. Code 3 is ours, code 4 is of … (unclear)” [Apparently the men are discussed a radio frequency.]

Driver (cont): “Normally we exchange our codes.”

Cameraman: “I think what helps most here is spirit rather than expertise. Also expertise helps too”

Driver: “Yes, spirit helps, but we need experts because we have few people here. As we have no invading troops here, we need experts to do their job. We need experts to carry out […] who have their own plans.

2:07 Cameraman: “Is this an ambulance?”

Driver: “No, this Brig. General Amir Adnan. He is responsible for this whole area, controls all troops of this area. Clearance of this area was very difficult, because if you go up this area you get to the south of Aleppo. It is an important area. They [insurgents] are very interested to recapture this area.”

Cameraman: “Who are these people who got out of car? Military?”

Driver: “Yes, these are the people of Ali Mohammad, Harasat Jomhouri [protectors of the state].”

3:50: The driver talks in broken Arabic to the commander of the Syrian or pro-regime Shia forces he identified as Ali Mohammad’s people: “Now our guys are spreading throughout the whole area.”

Video 2: Military Personnel Relaxing as Iranian Camera Crew Sets Up

A 48-second clip — it is unclear if the personnel, one of whom chats with a cameraman, are Iranian or Syrian.

Our translator says that the language spoken in this video is mostly unclear, but the men sitting at the table seem to talk Persian. There is a radio call at min 0:38: “Yes, yes, … it’s ready!”

Video 3: A Communications Room With an Iranian Operator

Heydari’s crew film an Iranian communications operator who shows little interest in talking to them. The camera then cuts to an Iranian man in civilian clothes, reading a guide which appears to be Learning Arabic.

An Iranian (not seen) asks the radio controller in Persian: “Don’t you have the phone number for Nadali?”

Controller “Who?”

Unseen Iranian: “Shahin Nadali. His phone number in Tehran”.

Controller: “Do you have his phone number?”

Unseen Iranian: “No.”

0:28 Controller: “Rahman, Rahman, Ali.”

Video 4: An Iranian Officer and Arabic-Speaking Shia Fighters Go Out With A Camera Crew

This is the longest and most important of the six clips.

As Baghbani films, an Iranian commander discusses a training exercise with a small number of Arabic-speaking men, who could be Syrians or Shia fighters from another Arab country. There are four Iranians here, including the camera crew: the commander, a man accompanying him, a man standing on a tank and a man who is not seen but whose voice is heard, and who is likely the cameraman.

The discussion continues outside the building, with the leader’s Persian being translated into Arabic — and vice-versa — at points.

At 0:20, someone asks in Persian, “What’s up?”. The commander replies, “All is fine. We wanted to send a group to the left side of the square.”

A Syrian or Arabic speaker replies in Arabic: “Four?”

At 1:12, the commander speaks in Arabic and says, Five”. At 2:30, an Iranian (not seen) in room says in Persian, “We had no bullets” and the commander tries to translate to Arabic.

At 2:44 an Iranian speaks to the commander in Persian, “Four go with you, and four will stay here”.

The commander later speaks to an Iranian in military fatigues atop a tank — the only military vehicle in the footage — who appears to be overlooking the countryside and the possible location of the exercise.

At 3:09, the commander asks the man standing on the tank: “You are here? I wanted to meet you there!” The man on the tank: Yes, I am here…”

Video 5: Filming The Shia Fighters/ Ambush By Insurgents

The next video in the sequence is a four-minute clip from Heydari’s crew of what appears to be a small exercise with only a small number of fighters, which turns into a larger attack by insurgents, and which ends with Baghbani dropping his camera. The camera is not retrieved.

Given that we know the insurgent Liwa Dawood brigade ambushed a group from Liwa Abu Fadhal Al Abbas on August 19, it is ilikely that this footage is the last Baghbani shot and he was killed during this ambush.

It is likely, given that the previous footage showed a group of men, including a camera crew, heading out on an exercise to confront insurgent snipers and that the exercise was being filmed for a documentary.

This is the conversation recorded between Baghbani and the man in the shot:

Cameraman speaks Persian, asks at 0:30: “Is it their or our salvo?” Man beside him: “From both sides.”

Man in field: “They [the enemy] are coming also from the other side.”

1:17 Cameraman: “Won’t our guys shoot anything at them?” [Noise of heavy gunfire].

1:28: Man in field: “Are you watching out?” [it is unclear, if he means for himself or the cameraman]. Cameraman: “Yes.”

1:40 Man in field calls out to someone in Persian, but too unclear.

2:50 Man in field: “Hajji, watch out that they don’t close in on us!”

Cameraman poses a question, but it is unclear. Then there is noise of heavy shelling.

Video 6: A Military Facility

Shots of exterior and interior of a building, with posters in Arabic and green “Ya Hossein” flags — while the flags are linked to Shia Islam, they could be a marker of either the Iranian personnel, the fighters of Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas or another Shia militia.

It is possible — or even likely — that this footage is not taken in Aleppo Province but in Damascus, in a Shia militia facility near the Shia Sayyeda Rukayya shrine. This would explain the posters in Arabic, and the Shia “Ya Hossein” flags.