Iran has begun to ask its teenage boys to volunteer to fight in Syria in a sign the hard-line Islamic regime’s military is suffering rising casualties in the five-year war and needs a morale boost, an opposition group says.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) released a translated video it says was produced by the Tehran’s Bassij Music House and was shown over several days on state-run television this month.
The selling pitch to youngsters: You will be defending sacred Shiite shrines in Syria and will position yourselves to invade Israel, whose destruction is an Iranian regime priority.
The four-minute clip shows a group of boys in a courtyard, with three of them singing to another boy they are trying to recruit as he watches from a window. The singers are dressed in camouflage and combat boots. On camera, they tie on a cloth headband to complete the warrior look.
“This promotional clip first of all manifests the anti-human nature of the regime which seeks to even mobilize the children of its own loyalists as cannon fodder,” said Shahin Gobadi, an NCRI official based in Paris.
“We monitor the Iranian regime’s state media thoroughly. Our people noticed this on the state media, and then our people were able to download it from one of the regime’s websites.”
Iran is already sending unconventional fighters to Syria to protect its ally, President Bashar Assad.
The BBC reported this month that the regime has rounded up, or recruited, thousands of ethnic Afghans and sent them to Syria. Some quit the battlefield and ended up in refugee streams to Europe.
“The men, who are mainly ethnic Hazaras, are recruited from impoverished and vulnerable migrant communities in Iran, and sent to join a multi-national Shia Muslim militia — in effect a ‘Foreign Legion’ — that Iran has mobilized to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” the BBC said.
The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the dominant military force in Iran, has made major commitments to fight wars in Syria and Iraq.
The NCRI said the Guard Corps has taken heavy casualties in battling a range of rebel groups, including the al Qaeda-connected Nusra Front and the Islamic State terror army. At least one prominent Guard general was killed in Syria during the battle for the city of Aleppo.
Tehran contends its troops are only advising the Syrians. The NCRI opposition group says there are 8,000 Iranians in Syria fighting on the government’s side. Outside experts have put the number much lower, at about 2,000.
On Thursday, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, was turned once again into a major battleground in the civil war. Airstrikes and artillery killed more than 60 people in the past 24 hours, including dozens at a hospital in a rebel-held neighborhood,
Aid agencies warn that Aleppo is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster with the collapse of a two-month cease-fire and stalled peace talks.
The intensified violence — by far the worst since the partial cease-fire began — coincides with reports of a military buildup outside Aleppo that many fear is a prelude for a government attempt to force a complete siege of the city’s neighborhoods.
Battle-hardened residents were shocked by the bloodshed. Opposition activists accused the government of carpet-bombing rebel-controlled areas, while Syrian state media said more than 1,000 mortar rounds and rockets were fired at government-held districts, killing 22 people.
Video posted online by opposition activists showed rescuers pulling bodies from shattered buildings in the rebel neighborhoods of Sukkari, Kallasa and Bustan al-Qasr.
Chief opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush blamed the government of Mr. Assad for the violence, saying it shows “the environment is not conducive to any political action.”
“What is happening is a crime of ethnic and sectarian cleansing by all means,” Mr. Alloush told The Associated Press, adding it was an attempt by Mr. Assad’s government to drive residents from Aleppo.
A Damascus-based Syrian military official denied the government had hit the hospital. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov also denied bombing any hospitals in Aleppo, saying its aircraft have not flown any missions in the region for several days.
Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group, said fighter jets from the international coalition have not carried out any airstrikes in Aleppo in the past 24 hours.
About 200 civilians have been killed in the past week in Syria, nearly half of them around Aleppo.
With the U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva completely deadlocked, Syrians are watching the escalating violence with dread, fearing that Aleppo is likely to be the focus of the next, more vicious phase of the 5-year-old war.
In Iraq the Revolutionary Guard has been fighting and organizing Shiite militias since 2014 to contest Islamic State terrorists who invaded western and northern Iraq.
Mr. Gobadi said the recruitment pitch for teenagers is the first time Tehran has turned to children volunteers since its long war with Iraq in the 1980s.
The song encouraging teenage volunteers refers to their supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and to Shiite shrines in Syria.
“On my leader [Khamenei’s] orders I am ready to give my life,” the boys sing, according to an NCRI translation. “The goal is not just to free Iraq and Syria; My path is through the sacred shrine, but my goal is to reach Jerusalem. … I don’t regret parting from my country; In this just path I am wearing my martyrdom shroud. … From Mashhad [northeast Iran], I will walk on foot to Damascus. I am like the bird who flocks to the sacred shrine.”
The headband is tradition, Mr. Gobadi said, explaining why they don it during the song. Historic Shiite shrines are located near Damascus.
Much of the Iranian ground-forces fighting has been near Aleppo, to the north of Damascus.
“Since the Iran-Iraq War it has been customary for the IRGC and Iranian paramilitary forces to wrap a piece of cloth on their heads,” he said. “They write religious sentences or verses on them as a sort of slogan. In this particular case the loose translation is that ‘we defend the sacred shrine with all we have.’ In the Iranian regime’s lexicon, ‘defending the sacred shrine’ is the equivalent of deploying the forces of the IRGC and, more recently, the regular army to Syria to defend the Assad regime as it massacres the people of Syria. This is while the majority of the Iranian regime’s casualties are near Aleppo, which is several hundred kilometers away from the holy Shiite shrines near Damascus.”
The Guard Corps was founded after the 1979 revolution to protect the Islamic regime and carry out its edicts. Since then it has grown into the country’s most powerful military force at about 150,000 personnel, according to the United States Institute of Peace. The Corps has its own navy and a foreign intervention arm known as the Quds Force.
With a large army of about 350,000, plus the Guard Corps, it raises the question of why Tehran would urge teenagers to join the fight.
Mr. Gobadi said the bid to attract teenage volunteers is designed to boost morale among deployed troops and at home, where there is dissent against Iran’s direct involvement in a foreign war.
Iran has also recruited thousands of foreigner fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon to go to Syria, he said.
The BBC report said thousands of Afghans have been recruited into the Guard’s all-Afghan Fatemioun Brigade. Like the boys’ song, the call to arms is to protect Shiite shrines.
The network quoted Professor Scott Lucas of Birmingham University as saying, “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps decided that the Syrian military could not succeed on their own. The front lines were too depleted and men were trying to avoid conscription.”
Iran acknowledged this month that it sent new commandos to Syria from the army’s elite 65th Brigade.
⦁ This article was based in part on wire service reports.