Iran’s Losing Major Operatives in Syria
With the aid of Russian airstrikes, Iranian-backed foreign fighters, and a combination of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regular and militia forces are on the march. Yet Iran and its proxies have taken some significant high-ranking casualties since the start of their recruitment and deployment drives to Syria.
These losses all serve to map out the current offensive being launched in the northwest of the country, including Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. While other significant losses had been suffered in past engagements, deaths of key members were often more sporadic or concentrated on one group during a specific battle. If the goal is to secure an Assad-led coastal Syrian rump-state, it is coming at high cost to Assad’s Iranian ally.
The most well known of Tehran’s casualties was the 67-year-old Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) brigadier general, Hossein Hamedani. Announced as having been killed on October 9, Hamedi was reportedly killed in Aleppo. Officially, he was described by the Iranians as a “high-ranking military advisor” to Assad. But to write Hamedani off as merely an “advisor” would be the equivalent of referring to Napoleon as just “a French general.”
Hamedani’s career spanned the decades as a true believer in Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamic Revolution in Iran. In the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran and like his cohort, IRGC Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani, Hamedani received his baptism by fire combating insurgents in Iranian Kurdistan and fought in the Iran-Iraq War. Additionally, he had served as deputy commander in the IRGC-controlled Iranian militia known as the Basij. More recently, Hamedani was a key figure involved in suppressing Iran’s Green Movement, which protested the rigged 2009 presidential election. According to Iranian publications, Hamedani later went on to operate out of Najaf, Iraq.
Hamedani was also one of the more vocal IRGC leadership elements operating in Syria. While IRGC involvement in Syria is general knowledge, Tehran often masks their intervention. Still, on May 2014, Hamedani announced IRGC involvement in the conflict, and went so far as to say that thousands of IRGC and Basij would be sent to Syria. In 2014 he remarked, “today we fight in Syria for interests such as the Islamic Revolution.”
In Syria, Hamedani’s expertise in spreading Iran’s Islamic Revolution, combating insurgent elements, and propping up local strongmen truly gleamed. In his last interview, the IRGC leader noted that with his assistance, Iran had been able to not only spread Iranian ideological influence, build up Assad’s forces, and extensively push back anti-Assad elements. In other obituaries, it was also claimed he had participated in 80 “major operations” to help further these goals.
Praising the IRGC and Basij while gloating over the expansive presence Iran had gained in the region, in 2014 Hamedani told Iranian veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, “know that by establishing the Basij the third child of the revolution is being born in Iraq after Syria and Lebanon. It is no longer just Iran that says ‘Down with America.’ All nations are in unison and are shouting the slogan.”
With the loss of Hamedani came the loss of a major leadership element within the IRGC, one Tehran will not likely be able to regain. Still, Hamedani was not the last IRGC commander to have met his end in Syria in the past few days. On October 12, two more IRGC brigadier generals were slain. Farshid Hasounizadeh and Hamid Mukhtarband were former commanders of the Sabreen and 1 Brigades, respectively.
While Hamedani was the recipient large memorial celebration by Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s “first among equals” in terms of proxy groups, Hezbollah itself has also been suffering leadership losses in Syria.
Announced killed on October 10, Hassan Hussein al-Hajj (aka Abu Muhammad al-Iqleem/Al-Hajj Maher) was a vaunted Hezbollah commander, one who the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar named as one of the most, “prominent leaders of the Resistance [a euphemism for Hezbollah and other Iranian-controlled organizations].” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-linked Fars News showcased Hajj’s role claimed he was involved in “Major operations…with Russian air cover.”
Al-Hajj’s career was further illuminated by semi-official Hezbollah Facebook martyrdom pages and other pro-Assad social media pages.
Photographs possibly from the late 1980s or 1990s showed Hajj conversing with a then black-bearded Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general since 1992. It was asserted that Hajj was an early supporter of Hezbollah, starting in 1983 and launched his first major operation in 1986. In July 1993 and April 1996, he took part in Hezbollah’s operations during Israel’s Operation Accountability and Operation Grapes of Wrath. He was also active in the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War. There were also claims that Hajj “directly participated” in an ambush of Israeli soldiers it was claimed crossed the Israel-Lebanon border in August 2014.
Before his command position in Idlib, Hajj served as a commander in the mountainous Qalamoun region. During the Qalamoun campaign he had fought in the major Battle of Yabrud. The battle for the town started in late 2013 and ended in mid-March 2014. He had also allegedly fought in the internecine battles in the Damascus-eastern suburb of Ghouta.
Soon after the announcement of Hajj’s death, Mahdi Hassan Obeid (Al-Hajj Abou Rida) was declared killed on the night of October 12. According to Ad-Diyar, a paper with links to Hezbollah ally the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Obeid had reportedly fought the Israelis in the so-called south Lebanon Security Zone, until Israel’s pullout in 2000. He once again fought the Israelis in 2006. The paper asserted he later joined the battle in Syria to combat a “Zionist American conspiracy” crafted by the West to destroy Hezbollah.
Despite Obeid’s high rank and limited background, his death further demonstrates the hard slog Hezbollah and other Iran proxies are facing during their new offensive. He, like Hajj, was reportedly killed fighting in Idlib.
In mid-September, Sayyid Alaa Kasad Mahudar al-Musawi from the Iraqi Shia Iranian proxy Harakat al-Nujaba (aka Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba) was also killed in Syria. Harakat al-Nujaba has been a leading Iraqi Shia militia used by Tehran to funnel fighters into Syria. Over the summer and early fall, the group has upped its recruitment and deployment of fighters to Syria.
Musawi’s death, like many of the Iraqi Shia killed in Syria, was greeted with less fanfare than his Lebanese or Iranian compatriots in Western or even Arabic-language media. This was assisted by Harakat al-Nujaba’s demure and vague official martyrdom announcement. Other posts claimed he had died “Defending Sayyida Zaynab” (a Shia shrine south of Damascus), a common narrative utilized to explain why Shia foreign fighters were killed fighting in Syria.
Prominently mentioned, however, was the fact that Musawi was considered a “martyr commander.” It was later established that he was a lead commander for the Iraqi Shia militia in Aleppo. Underscoring his importance, Nujaba TV, the group’s satellite TV station, regularly played clips of Musawi lecturing and leading other fighters.
Loyalty, expertise, and leadership skill are hard to come by.
As the war in Syria grinds on, that new commanders for Iranian proxy elements will rise to the foreground is a certainty. However, these new commanders’ formative experiences will be shaped more by Syria’s hyper-sectarian conditions and brutality, something which may lead to even more radicalism. For the IRGC, growing a new leadership crop to control these elements will also face similar difficulties as Iran continues to expand its reach across the Middle East.
Regardless, to prop up Assad and to show its Russian allies it can act on the ground, Tehran is bleeding out some of its top military leadership which helped form the current IRGC-controlled proxy network operating today.