Four members of the Iranian special forces were killed in Syria Monday while fighting against the Islamic State group, according to Iranian media reports.
The Tasnim news agency, which is considered close to the Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, reported the deaths but did not elaborate on the circumstances.
It’s unclear exactly how many Iranians are fighting in Syria, but the Iranian death toll in the war-torn country rose significantly in mid-October with reports that 1,500 more Iranian troops had been deployed, according to a recent report by the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning policy institute in Washington.
Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has provided military and financial support throughout the five-year civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is deeply involved in trying to broker a political solution to end the five-year-old civil war between Assad and rebels, told Congress in late February that Iran was recalling its IRGC forces from Syria.
But Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC’s aerospace division, told reporters on March 9 that Iran is still deploying troops to Syria. Last Monday, Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Gen. Ali Arasteh, deputy chief liaison of the Iranian Army’s Ground Force, as saying that the army has dispatched a number of commandos to Syria.
Iran was training, advising and assisting Syrian forces through September of last year, but stepped up its activity a month later after Russia began its air campaign.
Reports surfaced last year that Iranian forces were pulling out of Syria.
But “it is more likely that the IRGC was rotating and repositioning its units, however, for casualties began to pick up again in early December,” said Frederick Kagan who wrote the AEI report with Paul Bucala.
According to the think tank report, Iranian media and other sources reported at least 187 Iranian casualties between October 2015 and February 26. Since the report was published, the authors have recorded at least five more Iranian deaths, including one during the recent battle to recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which was conducted by Syrian troops under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
The ranks of IRGC killed in Syria suggest that Iran has been sending mostly officers — not enlisted military personnel — to the fight. Iranian officers accounted for 80 of 132, or 60 percent, of the casualties reported among the IRGC ground forces and navy between October 2015 and February, the report said. “No normal fighting force with a full complement of all ranks takes 60 percent of its casualties among its officers however much they lead from the front,” the authors said.