ANKARA (Reuters) - An Iranian Revolutionary Guards general has been killed near Aleppo while advising the Syrian army on their battle against Islamic State fighters, the guards said in a statement on Friday.
The Guards said General Hossein Hamedani was killed on Thursday night and that he had “played an important role ... reinforcing the front of Islamic resistance against the terrorists”.
Iran is the main regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has provided military and economic support during Syria’s four-year-old civil war.
Hamedani, a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, was made deputy chief commander of the elite forces in 2005.
It was the IRGC, loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that suppressed student protests in 1999 and also silenced the pro-reform protests that followed 2009 presidential elections. They were the most widespread protests since the 1979 Islamic revolution
Hamedani was head of an IRGC unit in charge of security in Tehran, where police, the Guards and its Basij militia allies clashed with protesters. Since 2011, Hamedani has been subjected to international sanctions for violating human rights.
An Iranian official said Hamedani was a close ally of the head of the Quds Force, which is an overseas arm of the IRGC.
“Hamedani was a very influential figure and very close to (Qassem) Soleimani. He was an expert of Syria. A very valuable commander and a true believer of Islam and the (1979 Islamic)revolution (of Iran),” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Tehran denies having any military forces in Syria, but says it has offered “military advice” to Assad’s forces in their fight against “terrorist groups”. Another Iranian Guards commander was killed in Syria in June.
Iranian news websites have published pictures of Soleimani on the front lines in Iraq helping Iraqi forces fight against IS. Regional sources also told Reuters that Soleimani travelled to Russia in July to plan for the Russian military intervention that has reshaped the Syrian war.
Assad’s longtime ally Russia launched its air campaign in September, saying it would also target IS. But its planes have also hit other rebel groups opposed to Assad, including groups backed by Washington.
In the biggest deployment of Iranian forces yet, sources told Reuters last week that hundreds of troops had arrived since late September to take part in a major ground offensive planned in west and northwest Syria.
Iranian lawmaker Esmail Kosari said Hamedani helped coordination between Syrian armed forces and the voluntary forces in their fight against the Islamic State militia (IS).
“For years, Hamedani played a very important role in Syria as an adviser ... he played an important role in preventing the fall of Damascus. Then he returned home at the end of his assignment,” Kosari told the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
“He returned to Syria for a few days because of his deep knowledge about the area ... and he was martyred in Syria.”
Tasnim said that Hamedani’s body will be returned to Iran “tonight or tomorrow morning”.
The United States and its allies have been waging a year-long air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, while pushing to diplomatically edge Assad from power.
Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Dominic Evans and Tom Heneghan