In His Own Words, an Iranian Fighter Explains Tehran’s War in Syria
Wounded combatant’s interview is shockingly candid
An Iranian fighter named Sayyed Hassan Entezari, who was injured and paralyzed fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar Al Assad’s government, recently sat for an interview with Mashregh News, a Website run by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The interview, part of Tehran’s propaganda campaign in support of the Syrian regime, offers rare insight into the proxy fighters’ beliefs and motives.
War Is Boring has translated portions of the interview from Farsi, preserving Entezari’s words. We have added some clarifying details in brackets.
Mashregh News: Please accept ours and our audience’s greetings. To begin this conversation, please introduce yourself.
Sayyed Hassan Entezari: In the name of God the merciful and compassionate, I am Sayyed Hassan Entezari, born in 1975. I had a short childhood before the revolution—I could see but I couldn’t comprehend the moments of the revolution except when Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] came [out of exile] as well as my father’s and my mother’s efforts to welcome the imam’s arrival.
After the revolution, my father was hired to the police force and in this way I came to know the military environment. Meanwhile, my father used to take me to the mosque for mass prayers, and in this way I knew the religious culture.
After that the war [with Iraq in the 1980s] began. It was a special spiritual environment, with the recruitment of volunteer fighters and their send-offs, in which I absorbed the sacrifice and martyrdom cultures.
When the sacred defense [against Iraq] began [in 1980], I was in first grade. My father volunteered to go to the Kurdistan region [where Tehran was battling Kurdish insurgents]. First he went as a volunteer, but the second time he was on an assignment when he had an accident and he was martyred. We lost him in 1982.
We were three brothers in the home and the middle brother who was four-and-a-half years older than me got to know the Basij [militia] in school. We were from a religious family. After getting to know the Basij, he volunteered to go to war.
He briefly went to Kurdistan in 1984. When he got back, he asked our family if he could go again, but our family was concerned for his education. So he took his exams … and successfully passed them. He used to study a lot. In late 1985, he participated in the Badr operation and he was declared missing in action. We lost him, too.
MN: How old was he when he was martyred?
SHE: Approximately 16 or 17. He was lost east of Dejleh and we got his body 13 years later. He had a friend who was martyred two years later. When the friend’s body came, my mother cried and swore. ‘What has happened to my son and where is his body?’ That night my brother’s friend came to my mother in a dream. ‘See these two carpets on the ground?’ he said. ‘One is mine and the other is your son’s.’
Thirteen years later, when the dream proved to be true and my brother’s body came back, we wanted to bury him beside his friend. But beside his friend’s grave was only a hard concrete surface and everybody where bewildered over how to prepare the ground.
Behold the handiwork of God—there was a machine for excavation there. These are not the usual things in a cemetery. When my brother went and talked to the driver, he agreed without hearing about my mother’s dream and we dug through the concrete and my mother’s dream came true 12 or 13 years later.
Well, this was our family’s atmosphere. My brother went to war and I myself entered the Basij and grew in the mosque, but unfortunately I wasn’t old enough [for military service] at the time the war ended. I wanted to go to the battlefield, but my age prevented it. But my friends went and were martyred.
This atmosphere was inside me even after the war. And after a while, my friends used to come and talk about Lebanon and point to the Shias’ war with Israel—and this formed roots in me.
I graduated from high school in math and physics and got accepted to university, but I was interested in religion. So on my friends’ advice, I got into a Hawzah [Islamic school] and studied for three years. Meanwhile, I was very interested in connecting with Hezbollah and Lebanese Shia folks.
It was a war atmosphere and, if you remember, Israel had occupied southern Lebanon. Hezbollah was involved in the war … From the beginning, my mind was with the sacred defense and supporting Shias and jihad and stuff like that. Even in Hawzah, I announced my readiness to come forward and do this and do that …
My dream was always to publish about revolutionary culture. I also attended military school. I got my bachelor’s of science in management from Imam Hussain university [the Revolutionary Guard Corps university] and I entered the workforce. I had a series of professional trainings in the university. I also got my master’s degree in Middle East and North Africa studies from Imam Hussain University.
MN: What was the initiating point of the Islamic Republic’s role in this situation [the war in Syria]?
SHE: After the crisis started, Iran entered the situation and said this is critical, this is a rebellion and an intrigue inside Syrian and it is different than what happened in Egypt. There, people came in, but no foreigners were involved. They built a fake awakening and linked it to the original awakening
But if you go and study the roots of the rebellion, you can find the footprints of foreigners and weapons-importation. In our revolution, we didn’t have the weapons-importation issue, but here [in Syria] they imported as much weapons as you would want in order to wage an internal war. They started a tribal war.
The truth of this movement was different than the Islamic awakening [the Iranian term for the Arab Spring]. And Iran came in and told the Syrian government to tell the insurgents to come and put their weapons down and talk about their demands. But because they relied on foreigners, they didn’t come. They only said that Bashar Al Assad should go.
The Syrian government had talking points and it invited them [the rebels] to come and reach a political agreement, but because they were foreign-backed rebels, they didn’t come and it ended in the Syrian government’s favor.
This was a fake story and a fake revolution. If you can remember, they held two elections—one for the constitution and the other presidential—and in both elections the people voted for Bashar. If you look closely, all active Syrians from Jabhat Al Nusrah, the Free Syrian Army and all who call themselves Islamic State are related to foreigners from Saudi Arabia to Qatar and Turkey and Israel. All of them are being supported [by foreigners].
This was why they didn’t came for negotiations and they still have weapons in their hands. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and United States are supporting them. They thought because the Syrian government didn’t have any public support, it would be toppled in one or two months. But as we went forward the scene got more clear and the dust of intrigue settled down.
People understood that this is a foreign movement and foreigners have come to fight in the region. Some misguided persons, like Ikhwan Al Muslimin [from the Muslim Brotherhood] joined the movement.
People like Ikhwan were after power. They knew neither the government nor the people would accept them and they wouldn’t reach power either by democracy or by the people. These people got the opportunity and took arms and refused to negotiate.
What was the government supposed to do when the opposing side had weapons in its hands? Is it supposed to lean back and watch its people die, and be toppled? … Against this foreign-supported gang, there was the massage that the Syrian people sent in the election and said, ‘We know Bashar Al Assad is fighting against foreigners.’
And here Bashar Al Assad become a hero to his people. Before, maybe, the people didn’t have this wisdom … but as they went forward, they saw the foreigners’ hands. They understood that foreigners were after their own agenda, saying Bashar should go.
MN: And what was Bashar’s role?
SHE: He was the one who protected the resistance line in the region and established a connecting bridge between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. What Arab country do you know that has provided such a connection for Iran? Syria even supported Iran during the war, even if they [Syria’s leaders] were members of the Ba’ath Party.
Hafez Al Assad [Bashar’s father] stayed beside Iran, even though he was a member of the Ba’ath party. All Arab states embargoed Iran during the war, but it was Hafez Al Assad who stayed beside Iran. We got most of our weaponry through Hafez Al Assad. Nobody can deny this support from Al Assad. He was a supporter of Iran and when this war and intrigue happened to them, how could we abandon them and not support them?
So one of the reasons why we are supporting them is because they supported us during the war and now they are our ally in the region.
Iran made an innovation in Syria. It looked at the situation rationally. Foreigners were saying that Bashar must go and they didn’t care about the people or the regime.
But Iran said that the regime should be preserved, but it needed some reforms, which included some elements in their constitution and their political structure. In this regard, Iran gave consultations about to how elect the president by the people and through a democracy.
In this way, Iran gave political legitimacy to the Syrian regime and Bashar Al Assad, and told the opposition, ‘The president that you claim has no political support has been elected by the people.’
And Iran also corrected Syrian army’s point of view toward the people and told them to differentiate between the ordinary people and insurgents — that if there is a confrontation in a city, you shouldn’t see the people the same as the insurgents and you should differentiate between them.
MN: What was your role as a shrine guardian there and how did the Syrian people receive you?
SHE: Unfortunately, terrorists came and sought shelter inside people’s houses, and cities that had been inhabited by ordinary people emptied. However, a number of people remained in the cities because of their homes and belongings and they were living in fear of the terrorists.
Now Iran has trained its army to be careful when clearing an urban area so that the ordinary people won’t be hurt by terrorists. But unfortunately, people were living with fear among the terrorists and terrorists used them as human shields.
Our training was to surround the terrorists … and complicate the situation so that the terrorists gave up or could be confronted in a different way.
Let me give you one example. On one occasion, terrorists entered a residential building and took the residents as hostage. Maye the first idea that entered the [Syrian] army’s mind was to explode the whole building to eliminate terrorists. But innocent civilians would have been killed by this method.
But our folks told [the Syrian army to say to the terrorists] that if the terrorists put their weapons down and left the area, they would be safe. And they did that and it prevented the spilling of the blood of many civilians. This was an example of Iranian training.
Or for example when terrorists entered a village and the army would go to clear it, the army’s and regime’s viewpoint was that the house which a terrorist has occupied is the terrorist’s house. They didn’t differentiate between the people and the terrorists and would consider the house’s belongings as war trophies and would take everything.
Iranians told the army that this viewpoint should be corrected, and a village or residential area which has been occupied by terrorists should not be subjected to looting. The people are forced to live with the terrorists and it is not right to take their belongings.
Now they saw how our folks treated them and when they encountered us they would greet us with sweets or even their children would come to checkpoints and get humanitarian aid from our Basij folks there.
One of our friends was taking down a story about a woman and eight orphans in a village. The husband of the woman was killed by mistake by the army and our boys would give her a part of their monthly salary so she could afford her living. Now that people see our boys’ kind behavior there and their attention to the orphans and their training of the army, this kind interaction and the army’s corrected methods are becoming a culture there.
It is true that war has a brutal face and many of their economic and social structures have been damaged. But if we look at this from another angle, there is a similarity between Iran’s presence [in Syria] and how Hezbollah [was founded].
Because back when Israel occupied southern Lebanon, Lebanese Shia were not familiar with the principles of the Islamic republic. But people like Dr. Chamran and Haj Ahmad Motavaseliyan and Martyr Ibrahim Hemmat went there and delivered the culture of Islamic Republic and planted the seed of resistance which was able to stand against the world’s fourth army and force it to kneel.
I love Martyr Chamran and I study his books and Hezbollah owes its foundation to this martyr.
Even though the Syrian army didn’t have a positive view toward its own people while confronting the terrorists, our boys treated them as their religious brothers. For example, our boys would give a part of their rations to Syrian children who were suffering from the financial crisis due to the war.
So when Syrian people saw us, they treated us as friends. Because they saw that we didn’t have any expectations and were helping them only to prevent the killing of innocents. This is why the Syrian people stood beside Bashar’s regime and they are seeing that the Islamic Republic is exporting this beautiful culture to them.
Another activity of the Islamic Republic there is forming Basij circles. The Syrian army couldn’t handle this three-year crisis, because any army would be fatigued [after that long]. Iran came and said why don’t you form popular support for yourself and ask your people for help. Trust your people same as we trusted our people in war.
This was how the National Defense Force was formed. The NDF boys would have 45-days assignments to encounter terrorists. Of course, some of them get martyred and some return to their birthplaces. Iran trains the NDF with the same perspective it delivered to the army to differentiate between ordinary people and terrorist, because at the beginning the NDF had the same perspective as the army.
I should mention this that some of Syrian Shia are Alawites. They believe in 12 Imams of Shia, but they don’t get the Shia religious instructions because of the two centuries of the Ottoman Empire. For example, they have been negligent with daily prayers.
But with the presence of our boys, along with them the culture of jihad and martyrdom has been explained to them, and this is why they could stand against terrorists this long.
I dare say the vast majority of places which terrorists have captured have fallen without a fight. It means the terrorists took those areas before the Syrian people and the regime could find themselves and those centers fell without a fight.
Now those important centers and areas are being forced out of terrorists’ hands, but with the intervention of some of foreign governments like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, this crisis has continued to this point. The imported troops constantly make up fake crises, like giving the terrorists chemical weapons and hitting some areas with those weapons and blaming the Syrian regime for that.
Thus with the Islamic Republic’s help, Basij culture is being formed there and people volunteer to protect their homeland from terrorists. The views of some of Alawite neighborhoods toward the Islamic Republic have changed dramatically.
Let me explain an example. When our boys went to one of the biggest Alawite regions, they told the head of one of the major tribes to call upon his youth to take up arms and help the regime, and this is interesting that they [the tribe] said that if the Syrian government had asked them, they wouldn’t have complies. But because we are representatives of the Islamic Republic, they would do this willingly.
So see how their view toward the Islamic Republic has changed, and this formation of volunteer forces to defend against terrorists is a sign of their trust toward the Islamic Republic?
MN: How is the situation in Syria right now?
SHE: The majority of the areas captured by the rebels are small cities. Cities which fell to their hands without a fight and are now largely uninhabited. Most of the people have left their homes and fled the area.
MN: In which parts of Syria are these cities located?
SHE: If we consider all of Syria, it is mostly the areas bordering Turkey in the north. Because there is more cross-border activity there and the terrorists can get weapons. The area which is under their control is being cleared by the army. But this is a tough job, and the type of war—which is urban warfare—makes it a hard kind of fighting.
MN: Have you witnessed the martyrdom of other shrine defenders?
SHE: Yes, some of them were my comrades. One of them was a documentary filmmaker named Hadi Baghbani. His films fell into the rebels’ hands and the BBC did a lot on the movie, in which Haj Isamil Heidari talks and says that our first enemy is Israel and unfortunately they dragged us into this conflict.
We are supposed to go and fight Israel. Unfortunately, one of the purposes of that war [in Syria] is to distract us from our first enemy. They have engaged us with each other in a fake crisis so Israel would be safe.
MN: Can you explain how you were injured?
SHE: Somewhere there was an operation to take an area and we were there with the units as consultants. But there was a problem and some of our forces got martyred and the operation didn’t fulfill its goals. I was deputy to one named Sayyed Mousavi [the former bodyguard of Said Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator]—may God bestow mercy upon him—who was martyred there.
Actually, we were their reserve force to rescue them from a crisis and I was wounded there and Sayyed Mousavi was martyred. I was shot in my spine and when enemy fire eased, they took us back and transferred me to a hospital.
In the hospital they removed my kidney and my spine injury was diagnosed. After three or four days they transferred me to Damascus and then to Iran. This was one month after my arrival in Syria.
MN: How was the attitude of doctors toward you?
SHE: This is a memorable incident for me. The city which we were in was an Alawite area. The nurses used to stand above our heads and cry and say, ‘This is our country but you are here and defending us.’ This was a beautiful sight to see. They attended to us with compassion. I won’t forget their behavior.
MN: How have they [Iranian officials] treated you regarding the percentage issue? [The “percentage” of sacrifice determines an injured combatant’s government benefits—100 percent being a martyr.]
SHE: First I had a series of problems in my percentage determination. First they calculated a very low percentage for me, but then I went to a medical committee and they assigned 70 percent for me. Now I get my medication and equipment more easily—before I had problems. Thank God my problems were solved.
MN: Do you wish to go to Syria again?
SHE: I wish I could be fine again and go to defend the shrine. Because I think this is the righteous side of the battle and I would like God to give me my health again to serve in this battle again.
MN: Have there been any incidents in your life which are a true example of a miracle or God’s blessing?
SHE: There have been incidents. When I was injured, my friend saw dreams [about the incident]. I’ll give you an example. When I was hospitalized, I was truly desperate. My house was on the third floor and it had forced me to remain in hospital for six to seven months [instead of going home]. Just because of the condition of the house and stairs.
This was a source of pressure for me and my wife. Because we needed to change houses and my wife was desperate. Buying and selling houses was not easy. In the Moharram month [a holy month of grieving for Shias], my wife went to a small Khaimah [a black tent for grieving ceremonies], where small children were lamenting and pleading to the Imams.
The day after that, there was a buyer for our house and then we quickly found a suitable house with an elevator and our problem was solved. It was unbelievable to find a buyer and a suitable house on such a short notice. This a part of their [God and the Imams] blessing upon us. They don’t let a Shia remain alone.