Screen capture of a video showing an Iranian officer supervising Syrian army troops.
Videos published online seem to show Iranian military officers working with soldiers from Syria’s regular army, giving them advice and instructions for combat. This footage revives the debate over Iran’s military presence in Syria, even as Iranian authorities continue to deny that they have sent any fighters there.
The videos surfaced online on September 9. They were published by the Daoud brigade, a rebel group based near Idlib, in northwest Syria, which fights the regime alongside rebel soldiers from the Free Syrian Army as well as jihadists from Jabhat Al Nusra. A spokesman for the Douad brigade told Al-Jazeera that they had obtained these videos from a camera they found during fighting in the Aleppo region. About a dozen regime soldiers were killed that day, according to the Daoud brigade, including an Iranian commander named Ismaïl Haydary, who can be seen in the videos. Iranian authorities claim this footage was faked; however, the footage has been reviewed by France 24 staff who speak Arabic and Persian, and they conclude that several details in the videos are strong evidence of their authenticity.
In this first video, the cameraman films inside a building bearing the inscription “Sayyida Rokaya headquarters” (named after the daughter of Hussein. Hussein was the son of Ali, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, who is revered as a martyr by Shiite Muslims). The cameraman can be heard reading a poster in Arabic, and then translating it into Persian. He then films banners celebrating Ali and Hussein, who are revered by Iranian Shiites – but not by Alawites, who adhere to the branch of Shiism that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad belongs to. In the video, you can also see posters explaining the rules and security regulations that fighters must follow. This text is written in both Arabic and Persian.
In this second video, an officer gives orders to soldiers. This man’s uniform bears a Syrian flag in the back, but he speaks Persian with the cameraman. He talks to the soldiers in rather poor Arabic, with a thick Persian accent. He asks how many snipers are present (at 0’26”) and orders the soldiers to let enemy troops approach until they are just 50 metres away before opening fire.
At the end of this video, about three minutes in, the officer speaks in Persian to a soldier standing in a tank. This soldier bears a strong resemblance to Mohsen Haydary, a 29-year-old Iranian soldier that a Persian news site claimed died as a “martyr” two weeks ago. This website described Mohsen Haydary as a “defender of the Sayyida Zaynab mausoleum”, a Shiite holy site located near Damascus.
Mohsen Haydary is not the only Iranian identifiable in these videos. This next video features Ismaïl Haydary (no relation to Mohsen), the Iranian commander the rebels claim they killed.
There has been some confusion as to Ismaïl Haydary’s identity. Some media outlets have described him as a documentary filmmaker. However, an official Iranian website published photos of his funeral, which took place in Iran, describing him as a “martyred general” and – like Mohsen - as a “defender of the Sayyida Zaynab mausoleum”. Portraits of him displayed at his funeral clearly show that he is the same man featured in the videos.
A portrait of Ismaïl Haydary at the funeral. Published by an Iranian news site.
Finally, in this last video, an Iranian officer and a cameraman carry out a conversation in Persian. The officer explains that the battle being fought in the region is particularly decisive, and talks about how hard it is to dislodge the rebels. At 3’50”, he stops to talk to a Syrian man whom he introduces to the cameraman as being a member of the Republican Guard, an elite division of the Syrian army headed by Assad’s brother Maher Al Assad. The two men embrace; the Iranian man then asks the Republican Guard officer to deploy his troops “even if the armed groups attack” (4’03”). The latter says he’ll follow these instructions and adds that he’s got soldiers securing the road.
The Syrian officer in the video does not seem troubled by the presence of a camera. All the videos are filmed in rather high quality, and the frame is stable. This lends credence to the Douad bridage’s claim that the footage was filmed with a camera and not a mobile phone. Perhaps not coincidentally, in late August, when the two Iranians seen in the videos were killed, a Persian news site mentioned that an Iranian filmmaker by the name of Hadi Baghbani had died in Syria. According to this site, Baghbani was killed by “Salafists” while filming “the Syrian army’s progress in its battle against jihadists”. The videos published by the Douad brigade may well have been found in his camera.
The numerous details cited above point to the authenticity of these videos. They show that Iranian military officers are helping supervise soldiers in Syria’s regular army. This is a claim that the rebels from the Free Syrian Army have repeated for a long time, but until now, it was difficult to prove. These videos also show that while these Iranian officers at times act as advisors, they also appear to give operational commands.