March 17, 2017
The head of the Martyrs Foundation announced last week that some 2,100 soldiers have been killed in Syria fighting under Iranian command.
The death toll of “some 2,100 martyrs” was announced last Tuesday by Mohammad-Ali Shahidi, the head of the Martyrs Foundation, which provides pensions for the families of the war dead.
Shahidi did not give nationalities, so it was not clear if this number included Afghans, Pakistanis and other nationalities recruited by Iran in addition to Iranians. But that appeared likely
In mid-November, Shahidi said more than 1,000 Iranians had been killed in Syria, a huge increase from the 200 dead announced by Shahidi August 13. Exactly 100 days passed between the two announcements with 800 more war dead or an average of eight per day.
Iran has said it does not send combat troops to Syria, only military advisers, most of whom are Pasdar officers. There have, however, been numerous reports of many Iranian zealots volunteering to fight in Syria. Iran has not indicated what its policy is on allowing those individual volunteers to go to the front.
The government has said that the families of anyone killed fighting in Syria under Iranian command—whether an Iranian national or a foreigner—would receive financial aid from the Martyrs’ Foundation.
In August, Shahidi said about 400 families have been referred to him. He then said about half the dead were Iranians and half Afghan. If the total war dead rose from 400 to 2,100 in that 200-day period it would indicate a death toll of 8.5 per day.
Iran has been recruiting foreign fighters—Pakistanis, Iraqis and others, but mainly poor Afghans who are refugees and are enticed into uniform with promises of Iranian citizenship.
The Islamic Republic is often very loose with its use of numbers. There is reason to believe that the figures released in this case might be an accurate number for the scale of Iranian deaths in Syria.
First of all, the huge jump in the total announced by Shahidi is not something Iran would likely care to parade as it indicates much deeper and more costly involvement in Syria than it would like to admit.
Secondly, the first death toll was announced in November 2015. In that month, Iran, Israel and the United States all said about 50 Iranians had been killed in fighting in Syria, suggesting Iran was not fudging the figure.
The numbers then were similar—not identical.
Iran said “fewer than 50” Pasdaran had been killed in Syria.
The United States said “about 50.”
And an Israeli said “55-plus.”
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, gave the “fewer than 50” figure in a November 11 television interview.
Many Iranians initially opposed the involvement in Syria because there was little sympathy for the Assad dictatorship. But, in the last year, the war in Syria has been seen more as a fight against the Islamic State and polls show Iranian involvement in the fighting receiving substantial support from the Iranian public, even though the operations Iran is involved in target anti-Assad rebels rather than the Islamic State.
Pasdar officers have told the public it is better for Iran to tangle with the Islamic State inside Syria than to wait until they invade Iran and directly threaten the lives of Iranians.