Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria three months ago, Israeli security officials told The Times of Israel. The decision to withdraw the forces was likely made due to the rising number of casualties among Iranian soldiers fighting in Syria and the subsequent growing public outcry back home.
The officials confirmed the withdrawal to The Times of Israel days after a report in Bloomberg quoted American sources saying such a withdrawal was in its early stages, and after Iran issued a denial. The Israeli sources stressed, however, that most of the troops have actually now been withdrawn.
Iran sent some 2,000 Revolutionary Guards fighters to Syria in September. There are just 700-800 remaining, the Israeli sources said.
The pullout has sparked concern for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite terror group that is also fighting alongside ally Bashar Assad, the embattled Syrian president.
The high number of Revolutionary Guards casualties in Syria came as a shock to Iranian commanders, notably including IRGC Al-Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani, who has been closely following developments in the war-torn country.
While Israel does not know the precise number of Iranian fatalities, the figure is thought to have reached several dozen since September, with hundreds more wounded.
The Iranian press now publishes obituaries of IRGC fighters killed in Syria on an almost daily basis. Earlier this month, senior IRGC officer Abdul Rashid Rashwand and 14 other fighters of lower rank were buried in a single day.
Rashwand was the fifth senior IRGC officer to be killed in Syria since September, but not the last. This week also saw the death of General Hossein Faradi, a Revolutionary Guards officer who had previously commanded Afghan forces in Syria.
The reports of fatalities are creating widespread dismay in Iranian public opinion, and especially among the families of the dead and wounded. There is anguished debate over how necessary it is for Iran to deploy its fighters to Syria. This at a time when the country is preparing for parliamentary (Majlis) elections. It is also holding elections for the council to select the Islamic Republic’s next supreme leader.
Many of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s allies apparently have a good chance of being elected to the council, but the military intervention in Syria and the ensuing casualties may harm their prospects, analysts say.
Iranian forces have over the last few weeks focused their activities in the north-western area of Syria, trying to repel the advance of the “Fateh Army” — a conglomeration of several opposition groups. The Iranians are coordinating their activities there closely with what is left of Assad’s Syrian army as well as with fighters from Hezbollah.
The extraction of Iranian troops from Syria is a source of discomfort and genuine concern for Hezbollah. The Shi’ite terror group’s men are worried about their prospects as the war in Syria continues, since the support they are receiving from Russian warplanes has so far failed to effect a significant change in the country’s years-long civil war.
Hezbollah has seen between 1,300 and 1,500 of its fighters killed, and 5,000 injured, in battles in the Syrian civil war — which means it has lost as much as a third of its fighting force, according to Israeli estimates cited by The Times of Israel earlier this week.