Iranian defeat in Khan Tuman unsettles regime
WASHINGTON - Of all the battles of the Syrian war, the May 6th debacle at Khan Tuman has shaped the Iranian public’s understanding of the difficulties Tehran faces in Syria. The state media’s initial reports said 13 Iranian “defenders of the shrine” — a euphemism for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces deployed in Syria — along with a large number of Afghan Shias of the Fatemiyoun Division under IRGC command, were killed when rebels overran the village south-west of Aleppo.
At the very least, 18 Iranians, including two colonels, a major and an officer whose rank could not be determined along with a cleric, were killed at Khan Tuman. Rebel footage released on YouTube shows IRGC members taken prisoner.
As many as 30 Afghan Shias, recruited by Tehran, may have been killed in the battle as well. Rebel forces claim Lebanese Hezbollah members were killed in the attack but Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and other party officials dismissed reports it had suffered heavy combat fatalities at Khan Tuman.
Even if one disregards the potential losses of Hezbollah, the combined Iranian and Afghan losses constitute the largest Shia losses for a single engagement since the war in Syria broke out in March 2011.
The IRGC’s top leadership, including Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite al-Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign operations wing, and Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the IRGC, have sworn to avenge those who died at Khan Tuman.
Such statements and other actions of the IRGC indicate the gravity of the situation.
For the first time since war erupted in Syria, the Islamic Republic’s key Arab ally, and the deployment of IRGC forces to support the regime of President Bashar Assad, the IRGC issued a public communiqué about a military action involving Iranians.
In the communiqué, the 25th Karbala Division based in Mazandaran province, which suffered the bulk of the combat fatalities in the May 6th rebel ambush, urged the Iranian public “not to believe enemy propaganda” and avoid “spreading rumours” about the magnitude of the losses at Khan Tuman.
Next, the Revolutionary Guards’ leadership attempted to control public reaction to the unprecedented losses. As the IRGC tried to slowly filter out the names of the dead soldiers, wild rumours circulated on the internet about the deaths and relatives of IRGC personnel deployed in Syria demanded greater transparency.
In the end, the IRGC released the names of 13 “martyrs” through its mouthpieces in the Iranian media, such as the Fars News Agency, Tasnim News Agency and the like.
Once the 13 names were released, the Iranian public, in online responses to Fars and Tasnim, demanded an explanation from the IRGC about who was to blame for the military blunder.
The IRGC leadership responded by dismissing “rumours of the martyrdom of Major-General Soleimani” at Khan Tuman and claimed he was not in Syria at the time. In other words, the Quds Force chief was exonerated of responsibility for the debacle.
In another unusual move, the IRGC announced that surviving members of the 25th Karbala Division deployed in Syria were being returned to their home province of Mazandaran, making this the first withdrawal from Syria admitted by the Revolutionary Guards’ leadership.
Finally, Major-General Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the IRGC, publicly admitted the Revolutionary Guards had lost Khan Tuman to “Turkish and Saudi generals”, under whose alleged command rebel forces operate.
That constituted a remarkable statement since Rezaei consistently belittles the Turkish and Saudi militaries and their strategies in Syria and Yemen, constantly claiming the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, supposedly backed by the Tehran regime, have “defeated” Saudi Arabia, Iran’s rival, with 1970s-era Scud missiles.
More than a month after the debacle at Khan Tuman, the well-executed Syrian rebel ambush outside Aleppo still haunts the IRGC leadership. The encirclement of Aleppo, once the economic heart of Syria and now divided between regime and rebel forces, by pro-regime forces has not been completed.
What is worse from Tehran’s perspective is that much of the Iranian public no longer believes the IRGC’s propaganda, which promised a swift victory over rebel forces in Syria.
The bottom line for the Tehran regime is there is clearly no end in sight to the increasingly costly Syrian war, just more a steady stream of embarrassing body bags and more funeral services for the sons of Iran in a war that Tehran can no longer hide.