Are Iranian Fighter Deaths Soaring in Syria?

Analysts and experts are expressing skepticism after an Iranian official said this week that more than 1,000 soldiers deployed by Iran have been killed since 2012 while aiding the Syrian regime in its civil war.

Mohammadali Shahidi Mahallati, head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans’ Affairs, did not elaborate on comments to the state-controlled Tasnim News Agency about the 1,000 dead. The number is a startling jump from four months ago, when the Islamic Republic put the figure at 400.

“The numbers could be an accumulation of all killed” including Afghans and Pakistanis fighting with Iran-allied forces and Lebanese Hezbollah, said Mohsen Shemirani, an Iranian scholar and political analyst in Tehran

Iran has sent thousands of Afghans living in Iran, mainly ethnic Shi’ite Hazaras, to Syria to fight alongside forces of Hezbollah, and sent members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in support of Syrian government forces. Pakistani volunteers are also part of the forces. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon are fighting alongside Iranians in separate units.

As Iran has increasingly made funerals of war dead public, many of the victims are Afghans and Pakistanis who do not have citizenship or resident status in Iran. They agree to fight in Syria in exchange for monetary benefits and rights for their families, experts say.

“Tehran allows authorities to grant citizenship to the families of Afghans and Pakistan nationals who are fighting in Syria against Sunni militants including the Islamic State,” said Ali Alfoneh, a Washington-based international affairs expert and IRGC analyst.

Alfoneh, who daily tracks and monitors Iranian fatalities in Syria’s war, said that even with the inclusion of noncitizen deaths, the Iranian numbers appear excessive.