Iran confirms more than 1,000 of its fighters killed in Syria
London - Iran has confirmed the deaths of more than 1,000 of its fighters sent to Syria to support President Bashar Assad.
“The number of martyrs from our country defending the shrines has now passed 1,000,” the head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs’ and Veterans’ Affairs, Mohammad Ali Shahidi Mahalati, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
By “shrines” Mahalati was referring to Shia religious sites in Syria, most notably the Sayeda Zeinab mosque near Damascus, revered because the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried there.
The combatants are not solely Iranian but include Shia Afghans and Pakistanis living in Iran. In May, Iran passed a law that allows granting citizenship to the families of foreigners killed fighting for Tehran.
Observers noted that the figure marked an increase from the 400 deaths cited by Mahalati in August. Half of those fighters were Afghans, recruited for a division known as Fatemiyoun.
Iran denies sending troops to support Assad, saying it only sends military advisers and volunteer fighters. Tehran also provides the Syrian regime with financial and diplomatic support.
Critics say the death toll is likely to be higher than announced by Iranian officials.
“Even though the head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs has disclosed the death toll of fighters deployed by Iran to Syria to have exceeded 1,000, unofficial estimates have put the number far higher, with up to 3,000 forces killed,” said Mosa Zahed, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime and the founding director of Middle East Forum for Development in London.
“Considering the fact that Tehran recruits not only Iranian nationals but also Afghani, Pakistani and Iraqi citizens, who it subsequently assigns to military divisions that are organised along the lines of their nationalities, it is reasonable to assume that the death toll is far higher than stated,” he added.
Zahed said there was a rising public sentiment against Iran’s military involvement in the region.
“Tehran portrays the Iranian people to be increasingly sympathetic to Iran’s regional expansionism… [but] the truth is, the voice of the ordinary Iranian people has been heard loud and clear when thousands protested against the authorities on the occasion of Cyrus the Great’s birthday in October at his tomb in Pasargadae and chanted: ‘Let go of Syria, think of us’, ‘No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, My life be sacrificed for Iran’,” Zahed said.
It remains difficult to gauge public sentiment, argues Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari, who is now studying in England.
“People in Iran do sometimes debate the issue of sending fighters to or being involved militarily in countries of the region, but it’s not a topic that’s high on their list of priorities,” said Ziabari. “People are more concerned about how relations with the international community, especially following the nuclear deal, could improve their livelihoods and the economy. They also often discuss the state of their own rights and freedoms and the wish to expand them.”
But Ziabari stressed that even in the event of strong Iranian public disapproval of the government’s involvement in Syria, withdrawing support for Assad is unlikely. “The Iranian government, like every other government in the world, will do what it sees suitable in terms of its large-scale policies and what it defines as national interests, without necessarily seeking the approval of the public and holding a referendum on every single controversial issue.”
The view from rebel-held areas in Syria puts the bulk of the blame for the country’s destruction and civilian fatalities squarely at the doors of Iran and Russia, for backing the Assad regime. From their perspective, the March 2011 uprising, that started as peaceful before morphing into a civil war would have toppled Assad had it not been for his support from Tehran and Moscow.
“We think the real figure (of Iranian fatalities in Syria) is higher than what they announced because we Syrians have been dealing with them on the ground for many years now, even before Iran started admitting their presence on our land,” said Emad Karkas, a Syrian journalist from Idlib province.
“We saw their presence from the outset of the revolution, before the people took up arms against the regime. But now in some areas, there are more of their fighters and others from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for Assad than there are Syrian troops and militias,” said Karkas.
“The Syrian rebels don’t encounter many Syrians in battles any more. The rebels often find themselves taking on foreigners fighting for Assad or foreigners fighting for the Islamic State.”