PHOTO: Iranian special forces pose for a picture at al-Hadher, south of Aleppo
As Iran sharply escalates its involvement in Syria’s civil war, Kristin Dailey writes for Foreign Policy about some of the men volunteering for the battles:
When 59-year-old Asghar Abyari learned that his son Abbas would soon head off to war in Syria in late December 2015, he was furious. But not for the reason one might expect.
Since November, Asghar and Abbas, 24, both members of Iran’s voluntary Basij militia, had been undergoing military training in hopes of joining Tehran’s advisory mission to support Syria. The mission began deploying in 2012 to advise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in their fight against the growing insurgency. By the time the Abyari men began training in 2015, Syria’s horrific civil war had stretched into its fifth year, forcing Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani to expand the mission to include volunteers from all six branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the Basij. Soleimani still maintained command of the mission, but now officers from each branch were assembling units composed of assorted IRGC volunteers to serve under his command.
From the advisory mission’s inception, Suleimani had decreed that only one man per family would be allowed to join the deployments — a decision meant to minimize each household’s potential sacrifices. But to Asghar, it was yet another impediment. By early December, his training group had been whittled down to 500 men from its initial roster of 1,000. Less than half of those who remained would be selected to join the unit that would deploy near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in late December.
Asghar and Abbas were driven by a holy conviction to defend sacred religious sites, like the shrine of Hujr bin Adi al-Kindi, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, which Sunni rebels desecrated in April 2013. “These people have no moral borders or humanity,” Asghar told me. “We knew then that they would attack other shrines and holy sites that are respected by Muslims and Christians. We felt that if we didn’t defend these places, nobody would be safe, and they would make a government that would spread this cancer to the entire world.”
A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Asghar tried to convince his son to go to another Iranian province and volunteer for the Syrian mission there. Asghar thought that would let both of them slip through the cracks and get around the one man per household rule. But Abbas ignored his father’s pleas. In late December — IRGC sources refuse to reveal the exact dates of their movements for security reasons — he left for the front line with his unit, which joined the Assad regime’s fight to retake several villages around Aleppo, including Khan Tuman, Nubl, and Zahraa, the last two being predominantly Shiite villages northwest of the city that had suffered under a crippling, three-and-a-half-year siege by rebel militias.
On Jan. 10, during fierce fighting in Khan Touman, Abbas was shot. A makeshift ambulance was sent to the front line to retrieve him and several wounded comrades. But on its way back to a field hospital, the vehicle came under a TOW missile attack. Abbas and the vehicle’s other occupants were instantly killed, joining the hundreds of Iranian fighters who have died in Syria.
In its ongoing campaign to retake Aleppo, Assad’s army has relied heavily on the manpower and expertise of its Iranian allies. Since Feb. 3, the Syrian army — backed by Russian forces, the IRGC, and Tehran-backed militias — has reversed many of its military defeats on the outskirts of the city. Washington and Moscow are engaged in talks to maintain a cease-fire in Aleppo, but whether these efforts will succeed remains unclear. Iranian officials accuse rebels of exploiting the recent cease-fire in Aleppo to recapture Khan Tuman, where Abbas was killed in January. Jaish al-Fatah, an alliance of rebel groups that includes the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, killed at least 13 IRGC advisors and captured another five to six in the fight to retake Khan Touman.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has vowed to launch an assault on the rebel-held eastern part of the city. And Iranian officials have promised harsh retaliation in Khan Tuman.
The war, now in its sixth year, has taken a heavy toll on the Syrian army, whose forces, by some accounts, have been halved since the start of the conflict. Iran’s support is more crucial than ever. And as the war drags on, Iran’s involvement in the conflict is deepening. While the advisory mission began as an effort to lend strategic advice to the Syrian army, Iranian forces are now intimately involved in planning specific battles.