Two Iranian military advisers, one of them a senior Quds Force officer, were killed by the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria on Thursday. 

Hassan Abdollah Zadeh and Mohsen Abbassi died in an ISIS ambush between the cities of Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra, the Russian state media outlet Russia Today (RT) reported. The advisers were members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force according to various news media sites in the Middle East. 

Iranian news media didn’t release the ranks and number of the killed or wounded as per usual Iranian practice.

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Nevertheless, the Arabic-language Orient News reported that 25 of the militia fighters accompanying the Iranian Quds Force members were killed along Major General Nizar Fahud of the Assad militia. It indicated, according to Syrian sources, that he was killed “while performing his national duty in the city of Sukhna in the eastern countryside of Homs.”

Abdollah Zadeh a Quds Force officer was killed in an ISIS ambush.
Quds Force officer Abdollah Zadeh in an undated photo with the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani. (Iranian Mehr Agency)

Iran’s semi-official Fars News agency first reported the incident which was then picked up by several Arabic-language and Turkish media outlets. The Iranian Mehr Agency published pictures of the two dead.

The Iranian military and the IRGC have become increasingly involved in the Syrian Civil War trying to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and increase their regional influence. They have created proxy militia forces consisting of Shia Afghan, Pakistani, and Iraqi troops that while ostensibly fighting for the Syrian government against the Islamic State, ultimately take their orders from Iran. 

While there is never a release on casualties on the Iranian troops and their proxy militias, most military analysts believe those numbers are in the hundreds for Iranian servicemen and in the thousands for their proxies. 

ISIS lost its last large piece of Syrian territory to the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2019. The group is still active in Syria, however, particularly near Deir ez-Zor. Islamic State forces attacked Syrian government forces there in March. 

Major General Nizar Fahud of the Assad militia was reportedly killed in the ambush. (Iranian news media FARS)

Iran’s Quds Force Is Creating an Elite Proxy Unit

Meanwhile, Iranian military authorities are cherry-picking the best and most loyal fighters from their proxy militias and forming smaller, covert, elite militias that will be better able to attack their enemies. 

Reuters first reported the existence of this new group and said that it was created in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad’s airport last year. 

This new proxy militia was specially trained last year in drone warfare, surveillance, and online propaganda. It answers directly to senior officers in Iran’s Quds Force. The force has a smaller footprint and gives the Iranians the guise of plausible deniability in their attacks. 

They have been responsible for a series of increasingly sophisticated drone attacks against the United States and its allies, according to accounts by Iraqi security officials, militia commanders, and Western diplomatic and military sources.

After Soleimani’s assassination, his successor Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani didn’t have the influence, experience, or knowledge of the region that Soleimani had. As a result, Iran’s proxy forces began to fray, splinter, and became harder to control. At the same time, Iraqi civilians were becoming disillusioned and increasingly angry at these Iranian-led militias and were protesting their undue influence. The formation of this new smaller force is seen as a response to these two factors.

Reuters quoted Iraqi security officials who claimed that at least 250 fighters had traveled to Lebanon last year. There, Iranian Quds advisors and Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist group trained them to fly drones, fire rockets, plant bombs, and publicize attacks on social media.

“The new groups work in secret and their leaders, who are unknown, answer directly to IRGC officers,” one Iraqi security official said.

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Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) told reporters traveling in Iraq with him that the use of small drones by Iranian-backed militia is only going to grow in the next few years. 

“We’re working very hard to find technical fixes that would allow us to be more effective against drones. We’re open to all kinds of things. The Army is working it very hard. Still, I don’t think we’re where we want to be.” McKenzie said.

“They believe they can carry out attacks at a fairly low level that won’t provoke a response, yet will create enough friction that will eventually induce us to leave,” McKenzie added. “I think it’s a dangerous situation.”