By Amir Toumaj
On May 6, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) lost the Syrian village of Khan Touman, strategically located near the Aleppo-Damascus highway southwest of Aleppo, to Jaysh al Fath, a jihadist-led alliance of rebel groups. Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s Syria branch, and other jihadi groups publicized footage of the assault and its aftermath on social media, which included images of captives and dead bodies. This ambush has garnered significant public attention in Iran, with some observers describing the rout as the Guard’s worst loss in the Syrian war.
According to an unconfirmed report by Iranian outlet Jam News, 80 pro-government combatants were killed, including members of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the IRGC. Footage on social media shows a large number of Afghans and Iranians, and possibly some Hezbollah fighters, among the dead. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia Harakat al Nujaba, or Movement of the Noble, has also announced the names of 11 members who were killed in the ambush. An alleged text message exchange among trapped Afghans in Khan Touman has since gone viral, particularly for its ominous ending: “God willing we will be martyred, not captured.”
The Revolutionary Guard has thus far acknowledged the wounding of 21 and the loss of 17 military “advisers,” including the deaths of two senior officers: Brigadier General Second Class Javad Dourbin, a retired commander who went to Syria last month, and Brigadier General Shafi Shafii, a commander in the Guard’s external arm the Qods Force. Thirteen were regular ground forces from the 25th Karbala Division, stationed in the northern Iranian province of Mazandaran. Bearing the brunt of the ambush, this unit has rotated back to Iran. One soldier was from the IRGC Hazrat-e Seyyed ol-Shohada Unit (Tehran province) and another from Karaj, Alborz province.
According to parliamentarian Mohammad Esmail Kowsari, a former senior Guard commander, five or six Iranians were captured in Khan Touman. According to a journalist with the IRGC-affiliated Fars News, Jaysh al Fath executed three Iranian prisoners and took five to an undisclosed location on May 10, raising the purported number of prisoners to eight.
Videos and photos taken of two of the captives claimed that they were Iranians or Hezbollah fighters, though Hezbollah has denied that any of its members were captured in the ambush. The two appeared to be native Syrian Arabic speakers (Jund al-Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group, claimed the execution of one of them yesterday). Other footage of prisoners shows two Afghan Fatemiyoun Division members.
Although Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani missed a scheduled briefing of Iranian parliamentary-elects on May 8, with sources citing “travel,” he was in Iran on May 11 to attend the funeral of his former commander. Rear Admiral Second Class Mohammad Nazeri, commander of the IRGC Navy Eba Abdollah Commando Unit, was Soleimani’s trainer in 1979 (and was also present during the arrests of the British and US navy sailors in 2007 and 2016). The IRGC officially announced at first that Nazeri was “martyred” on Guard Day during a mission in the Persian Gulf; subsequent public statements and biographies indicate that he succumbed to chemical complications sustained after being gassed in the Iran-Iraq War.
Nonetheless, Iranian officials and commanders have attempted to downplay the loss of Khan Touman. Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader’s top foreign policy advisor, boasted that the pro-regime coalition in Syria is “stronger” than ever.
Velayati met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on May 7 to reassure him of the Islamic Republic’s commitment to his government. Velayati then reiterated to the media that Assad remaining in power is Tehran’s “red line.” The IRGC Karbala unit issued an official statement on May 7 praising “martyrs” and urging people to remain calm and to ignore “the psychological warfare of the takfiris on social media.” The commander and spokesman of the unit echoed this view in subsequent press statements. IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami, said on May 10 that the fall of Khan Touman was not a strategic setback and that the “Axis of Resistance” is in control of the war.
Senior Iranian officials and commanders have indicated that forces would retaliate for Jaysh al Fath’s ambush. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told a reporter on May 9 that “Iran and its allies – meaning Russia, Syria, and Hezbollah” consider the assault “a major pre-planned violation” of the ceasefire that would not be left unanswered. Mohsen Rezaei, former IRGC commander and current member of the Expediency Discernment Council, warned of “harsh revenge” in an Instagram post the same day. Salami similarly vowed on May 10 that recently lost areas would be retaken. The spokesman of the 25th Karbala Division announced on the same day that the remains of 12 Iranians killed in Khan Touman would be retrieved after “the liberation of areas.”
State and IRGC-affiliated media outlets have also been claiming that preparations are underway for a “large-scale” counterattack with the participation of the Syrian military, Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Iranian forces to retake Khan Touman. For example, Iranian media reported immediately following the ambush that Nujaba launched IRAMs at Fath’s positions, purportedly destroying two BMB armored vehicles and a 23-millimeter cannon mounted on a technical truck, killing several fighters. Iranian outlets also claim that the group captured a Jabhat al Nusrah drone.IRGC-affiliated Tasnim reported on May 16 that the Syrian army and “resistance forces” have killed dozens of Fath combatants in operations south of Aleppo including in Zerbeh and Khan Touman. Iranian media reported late May that “Syrian army” forces launched a “massive operation” to retake the town. IRGC has announced two fatalities in these battles, including a cleric.
These reports by the Iranian media aim to highlight the central role of the Syrian army assisted by Iranian “advisers.” They also provide unverifiable figures of large numbers, perhaps in the hundreds, of opposition deaths. Kayhan, the supreme leader’s unofficial mouthpiece, ran the headline “the resistance took revenge, 500 terrorists killed in Khan Touman” on May 11. An op-ed in the newspaper boasted, “no military has the Islamic Republic’s capability” to “confront takfiri terrorism.”
The top IRGC brass has staked its reputation on retaking Khan Touman. Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan has gone on record on several occasions promising that “the Islamic resistance” would retake the town. Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, Armed Forces General Staff deputy, has also told reporters on several occasions that forces would “retaliate” for Khan Touman. Other commanders have echoed this.
Iranian officials and IRGC-affiliated outlets have been projecting a narrative that forces backed by the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey violated an extended ceasefire to launch the ambush, though they did not mention that Nusrah was excluded from the truce. Shamkhani told parliamentary-elects on May 8 that “Americans and their regional and terrorist allies,” including Nusrah, took advantage of the “goodwill” of the ceasefire.
Rezaei has similarly censured the “terrorists” who “took advantage of the ceasefire,” accusing Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia of supporting these groups. In a condolences letter, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani blasted “the devilish deception of takfiris and their dishonorable attack” and proclaimed the ambush will strengthen the “iron will” of the defenders “pure Muhammadean Islam” to drive back the “army of blasphemy, polytheism and Satan.”
On May 8, the IRGC-affiliated media agency Tasnim underscored the same two themes of truce-breaking and foreign support. An op-ed in Fars News published the next day proclaimed that the ambush showed “there can be no hope to a political solution in Syria.” Kayhan’s lengthy op-ed published the following day questions the merits of the ceasefire, proclaiming that assaults on Al Ais last month and Khan Touman earlier this month are proof that “terrorists groups and the governments that back them” including the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were never committed to the ceasefire.
Iranian officials did not criticized Russia over the ambush, but the media has objected to perceived Russian inaction. Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told Iranian media that during his travel to Moscow earlier this month he discussed “causes of ceasefire violations” including “terrorist and armed groups that are incorrectly called moderates and take advantage of the ceasefire.” Russia’s indifference was similarly criticized by reformist-leaning newspaper Ghanoon – which ran the headline “Aleppo became Karbala” (the 680 CE battle that sealed the Sunni-Shi’a schism) the day after Nusrah’s ambush. Tabnak, owned by Rezaei, also attacked Russian “indifference” and its alleged failure to provide air cover against Jaysh al Fath’s assault while Russian forces “leisurely” enjoyed a symphony orchestra in the ruins of Palmyra. Kayhan insinuated that Russia was naive to believe negotiators were coming around to accepting Assad’s continued rule, so a ceasefire could help Assad consolidate power. The newspaper stated that Tehran was always skeptical towards the truce arrangements. Iranian special forces were also reportedly angry about the lack of Russian air cover in an intense engagement with Nusrah in April. But Iranian media has reported that the Russian air force is backing ground forces in recent attempts to retake Khan Touman
Although Iran and its militias have been suffering increasing casualties, with official tallies between 400 and 700, the IRGC can sustain its involvement for a long period of time. According to an announcement made by a former Guard commander who was in Khan Touman as an “advisor” two weeks ago, 1,200 Iranian fighters have been killed in Syria since 2012, a higher figure than their official numbers. The figure may reflect unreported deaths or losses by the Qods Force, who are known to not publicize their fatalities. The commander claimed that many have registered as “volunteers” to deploy, but that they do not have permission yet. He also reiterated repeated warnings that if Iran loses in Syria, it would have to fight the same forces in its western province of Kurdistan.
As the Syrian uprising in 2011 has devolved into an all-out civil war, the Revolutionary Guard has steadily escalated its military presence to keep Assad in power at any costs. The IRGC initially deployed Shi’a militias and focused its efforts on training and organizing a Syrian model of Hezbollah. When Assad’s losses mounted and his army depleted, the IRGC deployed its own ground forces, coinciding with the Russian military intervention in September 2015. The Iranian government has deployed special forces from its regular military, the first time these forces have operated beyond Iran’s border since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. It is extremely unlikely, however, that Tehran will escalated into a full ground invasion. It will continue to prefer relying first and foremost on non-Iranian Shiite proxy forces, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and allied Iraqi and Afghan units.
Nothing will change the Islamic Republic’s strategic calculus, even if there is a serious domestic backlash. It is completely committed to the Syrian war and keeping Bashar Assad in power. As long as Syria remains in a permanent state of crisis or war, it will be in need of continued Iranian support.
U.S. officials say that they are trying to move beyond localized and short-term ceasefires to restore a nationwide truce. In reality, their policy in Syria right now is ‘DAISH first, Syria later.’ They would be willing to accede to Iranian influence in Syria and Assad staying in power if this objective is achieved. Continuous violations by the regime, its allies, and a potential IRGC assault in southern Aleppo — undermine prospects for a sustainable ceasefire in Syria.