By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
A well-known Iranian religious singer recently traveled to war-torn Syria, where he performed for Iranian fighters deployed there to bolster Tehran's regional ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saeed Haddadian, a popular singer in conservative segments of Iranian society, said in a February 3 interview that he traveled to Syria with his son to honor Iranian forces who "do in action what we say in words."
Iranian religious singer Saeed Haddadian
The fighters, known as "defenders of the shrine," are reportedly trained and deployed by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij forces. They also include Afghans who are reportedly pressured by Iran to fight for Assad in exchange for financial rewards and legal residence.
Iranian media and websites associated with the group claim the fighters travel "voluntarily" to Syria to defend the Sayida Zeinab shrine in the suburbs of Damascus and fight "terrorist groups" and "extremist forces." The area around that shrine was the scene of a grisly bombing on January 31, claimed by the extremist group Islamic State (IS), that killed more than 50 people and injured at least 100 others.
Haddadian's trip comes amid reports of a spike in the number of Iranian fighters and "military advisers" killed in Syria.
Funeral in Mashhad, Thursday February 3rd, for three Iranians recently killed in Syria
(photos by Islamic Republic News Agency)
In recent weeks, Iranian media have published the names and photographs of dozens of Iranians and Afghans killed in Syria, where Assad's forces are fighting both IS and more moderate armed groups, some of which have received backing from the United States and its allies.
Iranian media outlets have also reported on large funerals held for these fallen fighters.
Video footage posted online shows Haddadian performing in a room full of men who are frantically beating their chests and at times singing along.
WATCH: Saeed Haddadian Performs
The hard-line Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, said Haddadian performed for the "defenders of the shrine" two days before an unspecified operation in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Both Tasnim and the Fars news agency, which is also affiliated with the IRGC, reported on February 3 that about a dozen Iranian fighters were killed while fighting in Syria, including IRGC Brigadier General Mohsen Ghajarian, who was said to have been killed "in the province of Aleppo" while carrying out an "advisory mission." The exact date of his death was unclear.
Haddadian said that an unspecified number of clerics have also been killed in Syria recently.
"It's a great achievement. The media should cover it. The clergy does good work there," Tasnim quoted him as saying.
Haddadian spoke in grandiose religious terms about the situation on the front lines of the bloody war five-year-old war in Syria. In his comments, he did not mention Assad, whose fragile reign has been propped up with military interventions by both Russia and Iran.
The United States and its allies accuse Assad of committing war crimes against his own people and say he must step down as part of a political transition to end the bloodshed, while Moscow and Tehran have stood by the Syrian president.
A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing IS targets in Syria and Iraq. Washington has said Russia's bombing campaign in Syria, launched in late September, and ground operations by Iranian forces and the Tehran-backed Hizballah militant group are aimed at propping up Assad rather than destroying IS extremists.
Iran says it only has military "advisers" on the ground in Syria who are not taking part in combat.
Haddadian said one of the aims of his trip was to breathe in what he called the "spiritual" atmosphere among the Iranian fighters.
He also said that the morale of the troops is "excellent" and that many of the fighters he met asked him to send their greetings to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
"I sing twice a year in the presence of [Khamenei]. That's why they wanted me to convey their greetings," he said.
Haddadian also said that a group of non-Iranian fighters would demonstrate that they are "like-minded" by chanting in Persian: "God is Great, Ali Khamenei is the leader."
At one point, he claimed, he was about 500 meters away from the front line.
"We went to a location where I laughed when I saw how the weapons were positioned. The mortar launchers faced three sides," he said.
Haddadian added that his son asked the commanders about the location of "the enemies."
"They said, 'You should ask where they're not!'" he said, claiming that the comment made them laugh.
Saeed Haddadian wearing military fatigues in Syria
Haddadian spoke to Tasnim after several photos published online showed him and his son wearing military fatigues in Syria, sparking rumors that they had been killed in the fighting.
"Not everyone can achieve the grace of martyrdom," he said in reaction to the rumors.
He added: "God willing, you will one day hear the news of my martyrdom."
Haddadian said that his son had sent the photo to his friends, who had then shared it on social media.
He added that he is very much against the publishing of such images online.
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