The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has confirmed the death of a senior Iranian Special Forces officer in Syria. Colonel Second Class Mohammad-Reza Zarealvani was a member of the Ground Forces (IRGC-GF) Saberin unit who was killed during an “advisory operation” on Sept. 27, according to a statement by the IRGC’s Ansar al Hossein Corps (Hamedan province).
The IRGC continues to call its regular forces in Syria “advisors,” though the announcements of Iranian fatalities and the engagements of IRGC-backed Shiite militias indicates that IRGC-GF officers lead these forces directly in combat.
The eulogy for Zarealvani claimed he was killed “by the takfiri DAESH (the pejorative acronym for the Islamic State) terrorists [while] defending the shrine of Sayida Zaynab and in defense and strengthening of the Islamic resistance front.” Iranian official propaganda regularly refers to all of the Syrian opposition as “terrorists,” not just the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s affiliates.
Although the location of the IRGC officer’s death was not immediately given, forces allied with the Syrian government including IRGC-led Shiite militias, launched major offensives in Aleppo on the same day he was killed. US officials told Fox News on Sept. 26 that 3,000 Iranian-backed militias converged on Aleppo and The Guardian put the number of Shiite fighters at 5,000.
Just yesterday, Iranian outlets announced that a member of the all-volunteer Basij – the IRGC’s paramilitary force – affiliated with the Komeil Basij Resistance Base’s 345th Hazarat-e Javad al Aemmeh area of Tehran province was killed. The Basij serve as auxiliary forces to the IRGC Ground Forces. This particular Basij member was killed in southern Aleppo.
Earlier this month, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite foreign operations unit, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), was photographed in southern Aleppo inspecting the positions of the Harakat al Nujaba Iraqi Shiite militia [See LWJ report, Soleimani’s presence in Aleppo underscores strategy of crushing rebels.] Soleimani directs Iranian strategy in Syria in coordination with top Russian and Syrian military commanders.
Since mid-July, the majority of announced IRGC deaths were senior Ground Forces officers with the ranks of major and above in the ongoing battles for Aleppo. A handful were also brigadier generals. This indicates that senior IRGC-GF officers are involved in planning operations at the highest level and then directly leading Shiite militias in battalion-sized units and above. These commanders take pride in directly participating in battle at the front lines, exposing them to enemy fire.
Iranian fatalities since July have included a Basij anesthesiologist medic and a regular Army artillery third lieutenant, highlighting the diverse roles that Iranians play in the combat theater under the commander of Qassem Soleimani.
IRGC-backed Shiite forces encompassing Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, Afghan Fatemiyoun, and the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun Brigade are also known to have operated in Aleppo. And, most recently, at least 17 Afghans have been killed since mid-September, according to data compiled by independent analyst Ali Alfoneh. Since August, when Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Battalion was deployed, at least 29 Hezbollah members have been killed, with seven this past month, according to Alfoneh.
The death of the IRGC Basij member is noteworthy. The Guard has deployed its regular ground forces and Basij to Syria when it has needed to inject additional manpower for offensives. It remains too soon to tell, however, whether significant regular IRGC forces have been deployed now. Nonetheless, the death of the Basij member is a sign that at least some regular IRGC forces are engaged in combat as part of the IRGC-led Shiite expeditionary force, possibly on an ad hoc basis.
No matter the cost, Iran and its allies are committed to military victory in Syria. After all, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said two days ago that “the final word [will remain] for the battlefield.” The on-the-ground actions of Iran and its Russia and Syrian allies reflect this strategy.
Amir Toumaj is a Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.