Iran is withdrawing all of its 2,500-strong fighting force from Syria, Israeli television reported Sunday night.
Most of the forces have already been returned home, and the rest are on their way out, Channel 2 said. It said the decision was taken by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.
The forces, drawn from various units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, have been increasingly deployed to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces for more than the past two years. They have sustained some 160 fatalities, with over 300 injured, the TV report said. Among the dead are at least six senior officers, including generals and colonels.
The report did not specify a single reason for the withdrawal, which comes amid a fragile new cease-fire in the bitter civil war, but highlighted an Iranian tradition, breached by their deployment, not to deploy fighting forces beyond the immediate area of Iran.
The report said 700 Iranian military advisers were staying in Syria, to assist Assad.
Tehran will also continue to arm and support Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which has itself dispatched forces to shore up the Syrian regime against local rebel forces, the report said. Iran last week also made explicit that it is funding Palestinian terror attacks against Israel, announcing the specifics of payments to “shahids” and their families.
The tide of the civil war has turned in Assad’s favor of late, since President Vladimir Putin stepped up Russia’s involvement in the fighting with Assad against rebel forces.
The TV report followed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony in Congress last week, to the effect that Iran had withdrawn a “significant number” of its IRGC troops from the Syrian battlefield.
“The IRGC has actually pulled its troops back from Syria. Ayatollah Khamenei pulled a significant number of troops out. Their presence is actually reduced in Syria,” Kerry told US lawmakers.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re still not engaged and active in the flow of weapons from Syria through Damascus to Lebanon,” Kerry stressed. “We’re concerned about that and there’s an ongoing concern.”
Tehran has never released official figures for the number of its troops present in Syria.