BEIRUT — An increasing number of Iranian soldiers and militiamen appear to be dying in Syria’s civil war, and observers credit media from an unexpected country for revealing the trend:
A flurry of reports in Iran’s official and semiofficial news outlets about the deaths — including funerals and even a eulogy to a fallen general by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have surprised analysts who monitor the country’s tightly controlled media. The reports, they say, indicate that at least 67 Iranians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of October.
Just a few months ago, Iranian media said little about the country’s military intervention in Syria to shore up the government. But as Iranian fighters participate in a new Russian-led offensive against Syrian rebels, Iran’s leaders might have a reason to offer more details of their country’s involvement, said Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“They are proud of this and they want to show it,” he said. Since Iranian forces became increasingly involved in the conflict in 2013, he noted, about 10 fighters were being killed every month, but the numbers surged after Russia, another ally of Syria’s government, began launching airstrikes at rebels in late September.
Iran has been a key military and financial backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during nearly five years of conflict, viewing his government as critical
for projecting Iranian influence across the region.
Iran’s elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps helped Assad build powerful pro-government militias to support Syria’s exhausted and broken military. Iran, a Shiite nation, also has ordered thousands of Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and other countries to fight in Syria against the Sunni-led rebellion.
But in Iran’s media, the role of Revolutionary Guard soldiers and Iranian militiamen in Syria has been generally played down. They are described as “advisers” or “volunteers” protecting Shiite shrines.
It is unclear precisely how many Iranians are fighting in Syria. While U.S. officials estimate their number to be in the hundreds, Phillip Smyth, a researcher on Shiite militant groups at the University of Maryland, said 2,000 Iranians or more could be deployed there. And they appear to be increasingly involved in “direct combat” operations during the Russian offensive, which could explain the rising death toll, Smyth said.
The United States long sought to exclude Iran from regional discussions about Syria’s future, largely because of its support for Assad. But last month, Iran was invited to join in a regional meeting on the subject, a sign of acknowledgment by Washington of the broad influence that Tehran wields in Syria.
Alfoneh said that by allowing greater media coverage of the deaths, Iranian leaders might partly be trying to prevent Russia’s headline-grabbing intervention from overshadowing their own.
“The Iranian regime is showing its importance in Syria, using all its propaganda machinery to publicize the names and information of individuals who were martyred,” he said.
That publicity included the death announcement of Mohsen Fanousi, a pro-government Basij militia member thought to have been killed in Aleppo this month. A Basij Web site congratulated Fanousi on his martyrdom, saying in an announcement that he “left and joined God knowingly.”
A video posted on the semiofficial Fars News Agency shows the funeral of a man identified as Qadir Sarlak, a Revolutionary Guard fighter killed in Syria on Nov. 5. The video shows what appears to be fellow Revolutionary Guard members, many of them wearing fatigues, crowding over his coffin and symbolically slapping themselves as a show of grief.
Even Khamenei tweeted a photo of himself visiting the grieving family of Hossein Hamedani, a Revolutionary Guard general who was killed last month in Aleppo.
Sustaining so many casualties may once have generated a backlash in Iran. Support for an autocratic leader such as Assad — whose forces are responsible for many of the conflict’s more than 250,000 deaths — is not a popular cause for many Iranians, analysts say.
But the rise of the vehemently anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Islamic State militant group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, has made justifying the fight in Syria easier for Iranian leaders, said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He added that many Iranians may not be aware that their countrymen appear to be mostly fighting other rebels, not the hard-line Sunni fighters of the Islamic State.
“I think that the capacity for the Iranian people to accept casualties in Syria is greater than a couple of years ago because there is greater consensus of a need to fight what they think are all ISIS people,” said Hokayem, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Sam Alrefaie in Beirut contributed to this report.