By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
A onetime bodyguard for former Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been killed in Syria while fighting Islamic State (IS) militants, according to Iranian media reports.
Abdollah Bagheri Niaraki was killed October 22 while "fighting terrorists" in the suburbs of the northern city of Aleppo, the hard-line Tasnim news agency reported, adding that he was "martyred."
Abdollah Bagheri Niaraki
His death adds to a rising number of Iranians -- mostly members of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- who have been killed in Syria in recent weeks as Tehran deepens its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its regional ally.
The IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency said Niarakari, 34, served in the elite force and was killed while "fulfilling his duty as military adviser in Syria."
Pictures posted on Iranian media showed Ahmadinejad weeping as he visited Niaraki's home on October 23 to personally offer his condolences to his former bodyguard's relatives. Tasnim reported that several IRGC commanders accompanied Ahmadinejad on the visit.
IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif was quoted by Iranian news sites on October 23 as saying that eight Iranians have been "martyred" in Syria in recent days
He denied, however, earlier reports that 15 Iranians had died in the violence in Syria during the past two days.
"Two of the members of IRGC's Ansar unit were martyred in Syria [on October 23]. The number 15 is not accurate," Sharif said.
Four IRGC commanders were among those killed in Syria in recent weeks, including top commander Hossein Hamedani, who reportedly played a crucial role in Iran's support for Assad's regime.
Hamedani was also in charge of the 2009 state crackdown in Tehran against antigovernment demonstrators who took to the streets to protest against Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection.
Opposition websites claimed at the time that Niaraki was also involved in an IRGC-led crackdown against the opposition.
Walking 'A Tightrope'
The deaths of Niaraki and other IRGC members in Syria come amid Western media reports last week that hundreds of Iranian troops have joined an offensive by the Syrian Army in Aleppo.
Russia has launched a campaign of airstrikes that that has provided cover for this offensive against IS militants and more moderate armed groups, some of which have received support from the United States and its allies.
Moscow says the goal of its intervention is to defeat "terrorists," while Syrian opposition forces and Western governments say it is aimed at strengthening Assad, Russia's longtime ally. The U.S. administration has insisted that the Syrian president cannot be part of a postwar government, a position the Kremlin rejects.
Iranian officials have denied its troops are fighting in Syria but say Tehran has increased its deployment of military advisers to assist the Syrian government in its fight against "terrorism." Iranian officials refer to anti-Assad forces, including IS militants and other rebel groups, as terrorists.
Some Iran watchers question Tehran's claim that it is providing only military advisers to help Assad, particularly in the face of mounting Iranian losses.
"Iran is trying to walk a tightrope by maintaining that its troops in Syria are advisers. It is simply a fiction to claim that Iranians are serving as only advisers in Syria," Afshon Ostovar, a senior Middle East analyst with the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), told RFE/RL.
Ostovar, whose forthcoming book on the IRGC is slated to be published next year, added: "We don't know their precise roles, but there is far too much evidence at this point suggesting Iranians are directly involved in the fighting."
Speaking earlier this week during a visit to London, Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian maintained that Iran has no combatant force in Syria but added that Tehran has boosted the presence of its military advisers in the war-torn country.
"Those advisers have the required experience and military expertise for an effective antiterrorism campaign," Abdollahian was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA on October 20.
Ostovar suspects that Iranians are playing more of a command-and-control role in the operations in Syria, but that "this is not preventing them from serving on the frontlines of battle."
"Aside from the several prominent senior commanders that have been killed, more and more of the Iranians killed in action have been mid- to low-ranking soldiers," Ostovar told RFE/RL. "This strongly suggests that these Iranians were in Syria as trigger-pullers, not advisers."
IRNA reported in June that some 400 Iranian and Afghan "volunteers" have been killed in the fighting in Syria in the past four years.
Iranian media say the "volunteers" travel to Syria to defend the Sayeda Zeynab shrine on the outskirts of Damascus. The shrine is a revered pilgrimage site for many Sh'ia Muslims, who believe it holds the remains of the daughter and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
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