Presiding over a ceremony mourning the loss of his country’s top commander in Syria, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Deqhan vowed the total extermination of the Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
“We are witnessing the start of new developments in Syria (that) will pave the way for the full annihilation of the Takfiri groups,” Deqhan declared at the Oct. 14 memorial for the late Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamadani, according to the semi-official FARS news agency. Takfiri is a reference to radical Sunni groups.
It wasn’t the first such funeral, and it likely won’t be the last.
At least six generals from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have been killed in Syria since 2013, according to an official of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Three of those, including Hamadani, who was killed Oct.9 in the embattled northern city of Aleppo, have died since the beginning of the month.
A seventh Revolutionary Guard general was killed by an Islamic State sniper in Iraq last year.
Experts say the deaths of so many senior officers in Syria underscore the Iranian commitment to preserving Assad’s government in a “rump” Syria that includes most of the country’s major cities and the coastal province of Latakia, the traditional center of Assad’s religious sect, the Alawites.
It also is a reflection of the difference between Iran’s fighting tactics and those of Western militaries, whose senior officers usually direct operations from heavily protected command centers far in the rear.
Iran’s willingness to incur senior officer losses in the Syrian conflict underscores the importance it places on retaining Syria as a central partner.
U.S. intelligence official
Just one U.S. general has been killed in a conflict zone since the Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago. That officer, Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, was shot by an Afghan soldier during a visit to a Kabul military academy in August 2014.
The need for close battlefield supervision by senior commanders has grown as the pro-Assad force has become a diverse amalgam of fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran as well as Syria, cobbled together to compensate for the Syrian army’s serious manpower shortages. In addition to coordinating with one another, the units must be synchronized with airstrikes from Russian and Syrian jet fighters and helicopter gunships.
“When you need as many bodies on the ground to do the fighting . . . they need better coordination,” said Philip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who tracks Iranian-backed Shiite militias. “You need guys who are hard core and can really provide the stiff style of leadership and command, people who are not going to flinch under fire.”
J. Matthew McInnes, a former senior analyst for the U.S. Central Command who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy institute, said he believes the toll among Iran’s senior commanders will grow. “I expect that as we see escalation, the opposition and the Islamic State are going to go after the Iranian leadership,” he said.
The generals haven’t been Tehran’s only casualties. Colonels, lower-ranking officers and enlisted men also have died, and there’s disagreement over whether at least one of the generals the Defense Intelligence Agency official said was killed recently was a colonel when he died. Smyth said he believes Iran is hiding the toll, going so far as to wipe accounts of deaths from social media.
But there is no doubt that the role of the generals has become critical. Hamadani, for example, appears to have been replaced on the ground by Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the powerful and popular commander of the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard unit responsible for foreign military and spying operations.
The deaths of Hamadani and the other generals also illustrate the deep involvement in Syria of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which answers directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Quds Force has been providing Assad with advice, weapons and intelligence since 2012, helping prevent the Syrian leader’s fall that year. But its role intensified earlier this year after the Syrian government suffered a series of defeats that also prompted Russia’s recent military intervention.
Hundreds of Iranian fighters, including members of a rapid reaction force used to protect Iran’s borders, have deployed for new offensives aimed at shoring up Assad and short-circuiting U.S., European and Saudi demands that he be excluded from any political settlement, experts said.
There are several reasons for Tehran’s commitment to Damascus.
Syria is a key lever through which Iran exerts its regional influence, especially as it seeks to counter Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which is bent on ousting Assad, whom it holds responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians belonging to Syria’s Sunni majority.
Saudi Arabia is backing Syrian rebels with arms, including U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have been critical to slowing the recent offensives.
The idea that Syrian forces, pro-Syrian militias and Iran are all coordinating their operations is somewhat unprecedented.
Michael Connell, Center for Naval Analysis
Moreover, Damascus acts as a conduit through which the Revolutionary Guard funnels missiles and other arms to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia movement that formed decades ago to counter Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon. The loss of that pipeline could seriously hurt Hezbollah in the event of another confrontation with Israel and would weaken Iran’s regional sway.
“Iran’s willingness to incur senior officer losses in the Syrian conflict underscores the importance it places on retaining Syria as a central partner in its deterrence strategy against Israel, in containing Sunni extremism, and in support of Iran’s regional Shia allies,” the Defense Intelligence Agency official said.
Michael Connell, a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, a federally funded research and development institute, said that he was surprised at the success Iranian commanders have had in coordinating the forces under their charge.
“What I find unprecedented is the degree of coordination that is happening between Iran and Russia,” said Connell. “The idea that Syrian forces, pro-Syrian militias and Iran are all coordinating their operations is somewhat unprecedented.”
The senior Iranian officers also use their presence at the front to inspire their fighters and reinforce the notion that they’re performing a religious duty – safeguarding the shrine in a Damascus suburb of Sayyidah Zaineb, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and a highly revered figure in Shiite Islam.
“You need a guy on the ground who can help manage and tie it all together into an Islamic project,” said Smyth.
Iranian generals killed in Syria
Gen. Hassan Shatari, killed February 2013
Brig. Gen. Mohamed Jamali-Paqaleh, killed November 2013
Brig. Gen. Mohamed Ali Allahdadi, killed January 2015
Brig. Gen. Farshad Hassounizadeh, killed October 2015
Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamadani, killed October 2015
Gen. Moslem Khizab, killed October 2015
Source: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency