Iran’s Armed Forces has shifted its media strategy in a bid to gain greater control over how the war in Syria is reported. Instead of adopting its usual celebratory tone while boasting about the country’s military might, the forces have opted for a much more subtle and vague approach, downplaying Iran’s role in the conflict. With at least seven Iranian soldiers losing their lives in Syria in April, senior military officials are undoubtedly trying to distance themselves from the fallout — perhaps not only to protect the image of the military, but also to look after some of the political players with reputations at stake.
On April 4, Iran announced that it had dispatched military advisors from the Iranian Army’s 65th Brigade to Syria. If accurate, this was the first time that the army — which operates separately from the Revolutionary Guards and other armed institutions in Iran — had been assigned to a military operation outside the country since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Seven days later, on April 11, news emerged that four members of the brigade had been killed in the outskirts of Aleppo. General Ahmad Reza Pour Dastan, commander of the grand forces of Iranian Armed Forces, reported that Al Nusra Front, the Syrian division of Al Qaeda, had killed the elite soldiers.
Quickly, military officials began to play down the role of the Iranian rangers, after previous references to their expertise and courage. Despite detailed reports about the clash between elements of the 65th Brigade and the Al-Nusra Front, Commander Pour Dastan reiterated that the rangers had not been in Syria as part of a combat mission, but were only deployed in an advisory capacity to train Syrian soldiers in rapid-response operations.
Then, on April 13, the media reported that a fifth army ranger had been killed in Syria. The names of two more rangers were added to the list on April 20. The army again downplayed its rangers’ role in the recent military operations, and the presence of all branches of the Iranian military in Syria in general.
On the other hand, prior to this, comments from the army’s commander-in-chief, Major-General Ataollah Salehi, had raised confusion about who was even responsible for the elite soldiers in Syria. He told reporters on April 1 that those who had been dispatched to Syria had gone on a volunteer basis, a claim that was at odds with comments from other army commanders about the mission. He avoided mentioning which military organization bore responsibility for the Iranian advisors in Syria, but said that the army was not behind the operation — giving the impression that the Revolutionary Guards were. “Some volunteers were sent to Syria,” he said. “It is possible that elements of the 65th Brigade were among them.”
[Mehr News published photos of miltary exercises carried out by the 65th Brigade. Military officials said soldiers from the elite unit had been sent to Syria in an advisory capacity only. Several of them were killed in April.]
The elite force, which is known as Nohed 65th —“Nohed” being the Persian acronym for “Special Airborne Forces Division”— was set up in 1990. In 2015, Mashregh News referred to the unit as “one of the 10 most powerful commando units in the world.” Tasnim News Agency reports that members of the rapid-response force are trained to a high standard, and use parachutes, kites and paragliders in their operations.
Iranian media had originally responded enthusiastically to the news that members of the brigade had been deployed, publishing photographs of the unit’s former operations, and highlighting the skills, talent and expertise of the unit’s personnel. Some websites and newspapers also published photos of them after arriving in Syria. Following the announcement of the four fatalities, the fallen soldiers were honored on the Ranger Facebook page.
Since Iran’s initial involvement in Syria five years ago, the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force has largely been responsible for Iran’s military intervention there, and not the army. Besides elements from the Revolutionary Guards, the Qods Force has also organized Defenders of the Shrine, a force of Iranian volunteers, and two other units of fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan. With this in mind, it seems likely that Major-General Ataollah Salehi was referring to the Qods Force as the agency behind the operation.
General Salehi’s statements clearly show that Iranian army is uneasy about closely associating itself with interventions in Syria. They may understandably be worried about further casualties that could hurt the reputation of the army’s special forces. Or perhaps he and his colleagues are concerned with other political and social considerations. What seems certain is that, for the moment at least, some of Iran’s most senior military officials have taken the decision to retreat from media propaganda about their role in Syria, choosing instead the safer option of remaining vague about Iran’s role in the ongoing conflict.