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Mystery surrounds Iranian Guards commander's death

The killing on Wednesday of a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, identified by two different names, has underscored the murky nature of Tehran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.


At a funeral service in the Iranian capital of Tehran on Thursday, footage broadcast on state TV showed mourners bearing the flag-draped coffin of a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ commander whose killing has underscored the involvement of the powerful Iranian force in the Syrian conflict.

Iranian media and official statements provided two different names of the deceased man, highlighting the murky nature of the workings of the Revolutionary Guards Corps – or Pasdaran, as it’s commonly called.

The semiofficial Fars news agency identified the slain commander as Gen. Hassan Shateri and said he was in charge of reconstruction projects in southern Lebanon.

But an official statement issued by the Iranian embassy in Lebanon identified him as engineer Hussam Khoshnevis and denounced the “terrorist attack” that killed him. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah-owned Al Manar TV also identified him as Khoshnevis.

The discrepancy suggests that Shateri was probably undercover as a civilian official at the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

Official Iranian statements were vague about the circumstances of his death, with Fars reporting that Shateri was killed on Wednesday on the road linking Damascus with Beirut. The news agency blamed "mercenaries and supporters'' of Israel.

However a Syrian opposition commander told Reuters he was killed in an attack by rebel fighters near the Syrian town of Zabadani close to the Lebanese border.

There was little doubt however, that the deceased was an important figure in the Iranian security establishment.

"This is a very senior Iranian official, several media reports indicate that he was responsible for the al Quds force in Lebanon," said FRANCE 24’s Beirut correspondent Selim El Meddeb.

The al Quds force is an elite, special operations unit within the Revolutionary Guards.

High-ranking Iranian figures attending Thursday's service, included Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Revolutionary Guards chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari and al Quds head, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani.

A proxy Sunni-Shiite war

As the Syrian conflict looks set to enter its third year, there are increasing signs that the civil war is exacerbating the Sunni-Shiite divide within Islam and is being used as a proxy by competing governments.

The governments of Sunni majority nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Syrian opposition. Shiite Iran and Hezbollah- its close ally in Lebanon - back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect.

In September, in a rare acknowledgment of Tehran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards chief, said members of the Quds Force were inside Syria, but were not involved directly in military work.

“Compared to the scale of support the Arab countries have given to opposition groups in Syria and their military presence, we haven’t taken any action there,” Jafari told a news conference in Tehran, according to the Fars news agency. “We have only given intellectual and advisory help and transferred experience.”

Iran prepares for a Syria without Assad

But with no end to the Syrian conflict in sight, Iran and Hezbollah are also pursuing different strategies to maintain their influence in Syria.

According to a Washington Post report published on Monday, Iran and Hezbollah are building a network of militias inside Syria to preserve and protect their interests in the event that Assad’s government falls or is forced to retreat from Damascus.

The report quoted a senior Arab official as saying Tehran is pursuing a two-track strategy in Syria. “One is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses,” said the unnamed official.

Many analysts predict that Syria could be split into ethnic enclaves with the Alawites holding on to a stronghold along the coastal and mountainous strip in northwestern Syria around Latakia and the Mediterranean port city of Tartus.

According to the Post, Tehran is supporting Jaysh al Shabi in Syria, which David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, described as “essentially an Iran-Hezbollah joint venture”.

Hezbollah is also believed to be sending its fighters inside Syria. Over the past few months, the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement has acknowledged that some of its senior fighters have died “while fulfilling” their “jihadi duty”. While Hezbollah declines to provide details of their deaths, Lebanese experts note that there is no conflict against Hezbollah inside Lebanon.

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