On August 19, an Iranian filmmaker and a Revolutionary Guards officer died in an insurgent ambush in Aleppo Province — this is what their story tells us about Tehran’s involvement in the Syrian conflictFEATURED VIDEO: A clip from Iranian filmmaker Hadi Baghbani’s unfinished documentary
In September, we featured a series of articles trying to unravel the mysteries behind a series of six film clips, taken from the camera of an Iranian filmmaker, Hadi Baghbani, killed near Aleppo in an insurgent ambush. The clips showed IRGC personnel with a pro-Assad militia, leading it on an ill-fated mission to challenge opposition snipers.
One challenging question was whether the subject of the documentary, a man named Esmail Heydari, was also making the film or whether he was one of the officers with the Syrian militia.
But there was a far bigger issue to be addressed from the clips: how big is the presence of the IRGC in Syria? Are they primarily carrying out logistics, intelligence, and training of a National Defense Force — as Tehran has openly declared — or is there a larger mission, including the command of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, and involvement on the battlefield?
Since September, we have had the opportunity to review further clips from Baghbani’s camera. We have participated in a BBC documentary, which goes beyond initial reports by Al Jazeera and a Dutch TV channel, and seen the outcome. And we have carried out further research beyond the videos.
1. Hadi Baghbani, a young filmmaker, made his second trip to Syria in August 2013 to film the activities of Iranian officers — some of whom are on active service in the IRGC, others coming out of retirement and volunteering for the duty — training pro-Assad militiamen.
Baghbani’s film was to be used internally by the Revolutionary Guards to promote its activities among its forces. It would give the image of an IRGC effort succeeding not in military training but in “soft power”, promoting ideology among Syrian militia, while demonstrating Iran’s role in protecting, supporting, and rebuilding its ally.
2. Esmail Heydari was a career, mid-level Revolutionary Guards officer. He was involved in the training of Syrian militia in Tehran and made periodic visits to Syria to review the efforts there, particularly near front lines.
3. After flying into Syria, Baghbani met Heydari in an apartment building in Aleppo Province where several Iranians were staying, probably on or around August 18.
The next day, Heydari told Baghbani there was action near a small outpost — “the Poultry Farm” — where a small group Iranian officers were training or working with Syrian militia. He and another Iranian officer urged the filmmaker to grab his camera and join them on a trip to the outpost, stopping on the way to collect some ammunition and men from another outpost.
At the Poultry Farm, Heydari and other Iranians officer led a Syrian detachment into a field, searching for insurgent snipers. They found far more: the Liwa Dawood Brigade had heavy weapons and a tank.
Outgunned, the Iranian-Syrian group took several casualties — Liwa Dawood claimed six kills before later inflating the number. Heydari and Baghbani were among the dead.
4. While finally establishing much of the story of Baghbani and Heydari, initial media coverage exaggerated — in some cases, to the point of serious distortion — the Iranian role in the Syrian conflict.
While the footage and supporting evidence bears out the declaration of Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari that his men are helping train part of a 50,000-member National Defense Force, the effort is far from an extensive, co-ordinated leadership of those militia — and certainly not “Iranian command of Syrian forces in the civil war”, as claimed by Al Jazeera.
Instead, the evidence points to a somewhat ad hoc effort, with some serving IRGC officers being joined by veterans volunteering to come out of retirement. Those veterans bring experience of other interventions in the Arab world, such as Iraq and Lebanon, but do not have the physical fitness or status of an elite force.
The Iranians — a small group in these clips — appear to lack basic provisions, equipment, and weapons. They scrabble for supplies and equipment, buying their own food from a local market and trying to gather ammunition for training and small missions. They complain that the Syrian Army does not give them adequate support, and they eventually lead an under-prepared force into a final skirmish.
On the political and ideological fronts, the IRGC’s effort has some significance at home and abroad. It shows practical support of the military approach of Damascus, especially its shift to rely on National Defense Forces in many areas, and it promote the Islamic Republic’s message that it leads the fight for Shia Islam against foes.
It is easier, however, to win these victories of “soft power” rather than carry out a sustained campaign of “hard power”. At a time when Iran is stretched economically and when the country is divided over backing of Assad, a vast IRGC expense on a systematic program of training and some involvement in the battlefield would be publicly sensitive — a sensitivity recognized by the distortion of Heydari’s real role in Syria by the Iranian media after his death.
In September 2012, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari commented on the role of Iranian forces in Syria.
Even before Jafari spoke of the IRGC’s military involvement, the Iranian presence was an open secret. Guards officers were carrying out advisory, logistical, and intelligence roles in Syria. EA WorldView had established Tehran’s interest in reconstruction and infrastructure projects, promoting the Islamic Republic’s “soft power” while trying to hold hearts and minds for President Assad.
The death of Hassan Shateri, the highest-ranking Guards commander killed in Syria to date, in a Lebanon-bound convoy had confirmed that role in reconstruction. The abduction of more than 40 Iranian men by insurgents inside Syria in August 2012 raised further questions about the Guards’ activities. There have also have also been reports of deaths of Iranians in clashes near Damascus, particularly around the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine, indicating that they were present in Shia militias defending the location.
Jafari told reporters in Tehran that some of the IRGC’s extraterritorial unit, the Qods Force, are present in Syria to provide “intellectual and even financial” assistance to the Assad regime, but denied that Tehran was playing a military role in the conflict. Instead, Jafari situated the assistance he said the IRGC was providing in an ideological and soft power framework.
Jafari said, “The IRGC…have no military presence, even though some countries do not refrain from supporting terrorism in this country, which we condemn.Everyone knows that the IRGC and its Islamic movements unit was formed to help oppressed peoples and the revolution and is acting in this regard.”
According to Iran’s ISNA news agency, Jafari added: “Ever since the Qods Force [the elite unit of the Guards] was formed, its aim has been to protect innocent peoples, especially Muslims. A number of Qods Force [members] are in Syria but not as a military presence in that country.”
Continuing with his ideological theme, Jafari said that Iran had no need to send military aid to Syria because that country had popular militias who were fighting alongside the Syrian Arab Army.
The IRGC Commander compared these Syrian fighters to the Basij, Iran’s popular, plainclothes militia:
There are more than 50,000 Syrian people who have organized as a people’s army, or a force of Syrian Basij, who are standing beside the army in the face of the unfair attacks from the countries of the region and outside the region.
Jafari noted that the Qods Force were also present in Lebanon, again in a “non-military capacity”.
Perhaps inevitably, Jafari’s statements was treated with skepticism by Western media. When his comments were cited as “fact”, they were been exaggerated or taken out of context, including because of a lack of verifiable open-source intelligence from Syria. Articles in autumn 2013 supplemented these exaggerations by invoking and speculating on the role of Qods Force Commander Qassem Suleimani in Syria.
THE BAGHBANI VIDEO
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 between Liwa Dawood and pro-Assad forces.
2. According to videos posted on Liwa Dawood’s YouTube channel, and according to several reports, Liwa Dawood was fighting on near the “Poultry Farm”, near the village of Asan in the southern Aleppo countryside.
The Aleppo Media Center tweeted that insurgents controlled the area on August 19:
مركز #حلب الإعلامي: عاجل: الثوار يسيطرون على منطقة الدواجن في ريف حلب الجنوبي
— Aleppo Media Center (@aleppomediacent) August 19, 2013
Location of Asan:
3. In an August 19 Facebook post, 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:
— Mark (@markito0171) August 20, 2013
5. At some point after August 19, Liwa Dawood said that some of its insurgents had battled a pro-regime Shia brigade that it named as Liwa Abu Fadhal al-Abbas (LAFA).
6. Later reports gave various figures, ranging from 15 to 40, for the number of people killed in the fighting around the Poultry Farm on August 19. A report by the Arabic outlet Zaman al-Wasl says that the Abu Saif al-Zahrani battalion from Liwa Dawood were involved in the attack, and that they seized the camera after killing “more than 25” people from LAFA.
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.
7. Liwa Dawood said that they had captured a camera containing a large number of video clips showing an Iranian presence in Syria. Shortly after those reports, the Iranian media reported the death of two men identified as “filmmakers”, who had been killed “near Damascus”: Hadi Baghbani and Esmail Heydari.
8. Liwa Dawood posted some of the footage it found on the seized camera on its YouTube channel.
Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English used portions of the video on September 9. Subsequently, the video clips were made “private”; however, blogger Brown Moses, who had downloaded them, re-posted six of them as a playlist (see below).
The footage identifies one Persian-speaking man as Esmail Heydari.
9. Liwa Dawood left these videos, which purportedly show its insurgents fighting near the Poultry Farm on August 19, on its playlist:
THE ORIGINAL SIX CLIPS
Only the six clips re-uploaded by Brown Moses were initially available, as Liwa Dawood withdrew most of the footage while sending it to a Dutch TV channel.
Some of the footage was taken in the “Poultry Farm”, but other clips were from south Aleppo in an administrative building belonging to an Iranian-led faction named the Sayyida Rokayya Brigade.
Aleppo: The Sayyida Rokayya Headquarters
One clips shows two Iranians in a building of at least two stories. Several posters in Arabic, and a Persian warning about security, identify it as the “Sayyida Rokayya Headquarters”.
Sayyida Rokayya was the daughter of Hussein. He was the son of Ali, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, who is revered as a martyr by Shia Muslims.
The Poultry Farm
Other clips show Iranian personnel in military fatigues with pro-regime, Arabic-speaking Shia forces in a rural location with a couple of single-story small buildings — the “Poultry Farm”. In one clip, a Syrian fighter says he is from a local village.
One clip shows an Iranian officer, named as Yahya, gathering together a small group of IRGC fighters. The Poultry Farm is clearly what its name suggests — it is not a military base, as it has no periphery fortifications, has no apparent control tower and no military vehicles apart from one, aging armored vehicle. There are only a small number of pro-regime fighters — none of them are members of the Syrian Arab Army.
Baghbani accompanies the IRGC and local Syrian fighters, suggesting that they were not expecting to go into battle, or at least not into a fierce clash with insurgents that could threaten their lives.
A second clip shows an Iranian officer in a cornfield, as heavy gunfire is heard at some distance. The clip does not appear to show an anticipated battle but an ambush — given that Baghbani, questions and comments show he has very little if no military experience, has been taken into the field. The officer shown in the clip is not wearing a helmet or body armor, indicating that there is either a shortage of equipment and/or that he was expecting a serious confrontation.
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” or “takfiris” amid fighting “near Damascus” around August 22 and that he was buried in his hometown, Amol, some days later. Tasnim News said Heydari was a documentary filmmaker and also gave him the honorific “Defender of the Zainab Shrine”.
State News Agency IRIB’s Arabic service said that Heydari had produced more than 22 documentaries, that he was aged 30, and that he left behind a three-year-old son.
A day earlier, Iranian media reported that another filmmaker, Hadi Baghbani, was killed by “takfiri terrorists” also near Damascus.
Hardline Mashregh News says that the two men were killed by “Wahhabis” but “days apart”. Mashregh does not identify either man as an IRGC commander or a fighter. Instead, both men were “artists” who were in Syria to make a film: “They were not armed, they came to Syria to record the truth with their cameras”.
However, it is clear from the footage that Heydari is an Iranian officer fighter and that he is the subject or one of the subjects of Baghbani’s documentary.
What can we say about Heydari’s connections to the Revolutionary Guards?
Revolutionary Guards personnel turned out in force for his funeral, video of which was posted on YouTube. Heydari was given the honorific “Sardar” in some reports while at least one report indicated that he held the rank of Captain.
From this footage and from the clips filmed in Syria, Heydari appears to be an Iran-Iraq War veteran, rather than the 30-year-old portrayed by State outlet IRIB. In addition, in the Syria clips, Heydari refers to training of Syrian militias not only in Syria but also in Iran.
Baghbani had been in Syria on a previous occasion. He was allowed by the Guards to return in August 2013 to film their officers. This may have been possible because of Heydari’s influence — he, like Baghbani, comes from Amol in Mazandaran Province in northern Iran.
This tribute video shows images of his funeral.
What Does Heydari Tell Us About His Time In Syria?
In one of the clips captured by the Liwa Dawood, Heydari gives an interview to Baghbani about his experiences in Syria. He speaks of travelling for more than a year through the country and being on the battlefield, saying:
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.
Further detail is offered as Heydari and another Iranian officer take Baghbani to the Poultry Farm. Heydari describes the front lines in that part of Aleppo Province, indicating that Iranian officers are involving in training of some of the militia who will defend those lines.
THE LIWA DAWOOD BRIGADE COLLECTION
In late October, after Dutch and British TV outlets used their material, the Liwa Dawood Brigade made more than 40 clips available on YouTube — a brief description and links to some of the footage:
The Iranian House in Southern Aleppo
The Drive to the Poultry Farm
At the Poultry Farm
The Mission to Find Insurgent Snipers
THE ORIGINAL SIX CLIPS
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 that Heydari is giving orders to Syrian regular 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
A 48-second clip of Heydari, who briefly chats with another Iranian, resting at a stop on the way to Tal Afan.
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
An Iranian communications operator who shows little interest in talking to the cameraman. 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?”
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 Heydari or his cameraman films (we cannot see Heydari in the shot, so it is possible or even likely that he is filming since the footage was found on his camera), an Iranian commander discusses a mission with a small number of Arabic-speaking men, likely local Syrian National Defense Force militia with knowledge of the local terrain. There are at least four Iranians here, including Baghbani: Yahya the commander, a man accompanying him, and a man standing on a tank.
At 0:20, someone asks in Persian, “What’s up?”. Yahya 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 Yahya in Persian, “Four go with you, and four will stay here”.
Yahya 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 mission.
At 3:09, Yahya 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 IRGC & Syrian Militia/Ambush By Insurgents
The next video in the sequence is a four-minute clip 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.
Given that we know the insurgent Liwa Dawood brigade ambushed a group of pro-regime fighters on August 19 or 20, in which Heydari and Baghbani were killed, it is likely that this footage is the last Baghbani shot and he was killed during this ambush.
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 Administrative Center In Aleppo
Shots of exterior and interior of a building, with posters in Arabic and green “Ya Hossein” flags.