April 11, 2016

Translation: The Deployment of Artesh Special Forces to Syria


Soldiers from Iran’s conventional military service, the Artesh, are fighting and dying in Syria. At least three members of the Artesh Special Forces were reported killed on April 11, marking the first time the Artesh has sustained casualties abroad since the Iran-Iraq War.  The decision to deploy Artesh forces underscores Tehran’s expanding support to Damascus, discrediting reports that Iran might be pulling forces out of the conflict.

This deployment also marks a considerable shift in the role of the Artesh. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its clandestine wing, the Quds Force, have historically been responsible for operating abroad in both military and paramilitary capacities. The Artesh’s mission has been constitutionally limited to defending Iran’s borders. Senior commanders within the Artesh, however, have appeared determined to portray the Artesh as a force capable of operating beyond Iran’s borders in order to protect the interests of the Islamic Revolution.[1] The fact that two of the Artesh’s casualties were relatively junior officers, moreover, suggests that they were embedded at the frontlines with pro-regime forces, similarly to how IRGC Ground Forces deployed during the fall and winter offensives around Aleppo city.[2]  

The following translation of an article from Iranian newspaper Shargh provides more detail on the Artesh’s evolving rhetoric towards the fight in Syria as well as the training and organization of the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade, elements of which have deployed to the conflict. [3]



The Deployment of Artesh Special Forces to Syria

The green berets of the 65th NOHED [Airborne Special Forces] Brigade of the Artesh have been dispatched to Syria as “advisors.” Amir Ali Arasteh, the Deputy Coordinator of the Artesh Ground Forces, announced this development. These forces specialize in “asymmetric warfare.”

One can consider this announcement to be the culmination of other comments made by Amir Arasteh a few days before the start of the Iranian New Year. During a closing ceremony for a quick reaction training course and second round of sniper training on March 16, 2016, Arasteh told reporters that “this training course is not reserved for advisory forces in Syria and Iraq. In some cases, however, we will use these individuals as advisors.”[4]

In a conversation with Tasnim News Agency [on April 4], Amir Arasteh discussed the advisory presence of Artesh Ground Forces in Syria, particularly from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade, saying, “The 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade is a component of the Artesh Ground Forces. We are deploying the 65th Brigade along with other units to Syria as advisors. This deployment is not limited to the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade.[5] Advisors from the 65th Brigade are already active [in Syria].”[6]

Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan referred to the presence of Iranian military advisors in Syria and Iraq [on November 16, 2015], stating, “Currently, the Iranian Armed Forces General Staff has given the mission in these two countries to the IRGC Quds Force. However, in the event that it is felt the presence of Artesh forces is also needed, then we will be active in these countries without hesitation.”[7]

Pourdastan discussed the question of whether the Artesh Ground Forces might help Syria against aggression by the Zionist regime [on May 5, 2013]:  “The Syrian army is powerful and capable of defending itself. It does not need the help of any country’s army, but if such a need arises, we can help them in a training capacity.”[8]

Several IRGC commanders had confirmed an IRGC advisory presence in Syria before the April 4 statements [confirming an Artesh deployment to Syria]. IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami was among them, stating [on October 26, 2015], “The Syrian army has requested more extensive advisory help from us. We have increased the number of our advisors there.” He announced that “the quantity and quality of our country’s advisory forces has increased” and added, “Our advisory forces could not remain behind closed doors. They had to be out on the field. The increase in the number of our advisory forces resulted in a rise in the number of our men dying. Of course, the total number of martyrs has not been great, but it is higher than before.”[9]

And [on February 18, 2016], IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour referred to the advisory presence of IRGC Saberin [Special Forces] units in Syria, saying, “...we dispatched a Saberin unit along with other ground forces units to the area so that the shrine of Hazrat Zainab [in Syria] and likewise the shrine of Ahlul Bayt in Iraq were not violated.”[10]

Now Arasteh…has announced the deployment of Special Forces from the Artesh’s 65th NOHED Brigade to Syria, known as the “green berets.”  Yet another mission was given to this brigade during the Persian year of 1393 [March 21, 2014 - March 21, 2015], however. Artesh Ground Forces Deputy Commander Kiomars Heydari stated [on December 8, 2014], “According to Artesh Commander Major General Ataollah Salehi, we are currently planning to have 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade commandos present in some Artesh Navy operations. We intend for 65th Airborne Special Forces commandos to be dispatched with Artesh navy flotillas and take part in combatting piracy.”[11]

What is the NOHED Brigade?

“NOHED” is the abbreviation for the “Airborne Special Forces.” These forces were created in the Persian year of 1332 [1953-1954].  According to Amir Khosro Khosravi, the former commander of the NOHED 65th Brigade, 10 service members from the Artesh Air Force and Artesh Ground Forces were dispatched to France in [that year] and their first exercise was skydiving.  They were the first paratroopers in Iran. In 1338 [1959-1960] this unit was expanded into a parachute battalion. In 1349 [1970-1971] it was renamed the 23rd Airborne Special Forces Brigade.

Two other units—a hostage rescue unit and a psychological operations company—were added to the structure of the 23rd Brigade in the 1350s [1970s] in response to current demands.  The brigade therefore consisted of hostage rescue unit, a psychological operations and support unit, and an irregular warfare unit. Of course the early 1360s [1980s] was also when the imposed war [Iran-Iraq war] occurred and the Artesh Special Forces Brigades was transformed into the 23rd Special Forces Division with the addition of conscripts.

The 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade was once again separated from the 23rd Division and made independent in 1370 [1991-1992], with three battalions including the hostage rescue unit, the psychological operations and support unit, the irregular warfare school, and a communications unit. Amir Nouzar Namati replaced Amir Khosro Khosravi as the Commander of the 65th NOHED in 1393 [2014] at the recommendation of Amir Pourdastan, the commander of Artesh Ground Forces, and with the orders of Major General Amir Salehi, the Artesh Commander.

NOHED Training

The Special Forces soldiers of this brigade can undertake missions in guerilla and partisan warfare and conduct freefall and parachute jumps over land and water as well as in desert and mountainous regions.[12]  The Artesh website says of this brigade, “These special forces have a special period of 6 months where they have three hours a day to practice parachuting...”

Amir Nouzar Namati, the commander of the 65th NOHED said during an interview [on January 18, 2015] that “those who enter the NOHED Special Forces Brigade begin with the skydiving course and the Special Forces course which last for a relatively long time. Then they are trained in courses such as hostage rescue, parachuting, freefall, sniper training, special operations, diving and nearly all the courses that irregular troops would require so that they are able to undertake missions in enemy territory.”[13]

The 65th Brigade includes a company called the psychological operation unit, which is the first psychological operations unit of its kind in the country’s armed forces. This unit is responsible for conducting “positive” psychological operations for our armed forces and “negative” operations against the enemy. The forces of this unit have taken special courses in journalism, audio, and imagery as well as other courses. This unit has been highly effective in its field and has created the necessary psychological groundwork for operations in the armed forces.

These Special Forces…undergo special training in demolition, intelligence and operations, medicine, communications, individual, and squad weapons. They receive other training known as the “NOHED course.

NOHED Weapons

Amir Nouzar has discussed the weapons that these Special Forces use, stating, “The Special Forces often use equipment that has been tailored to their specific mission. For example, if [the unit] was located in an enemy area and setting up an ambush, we would need a heavy volume of firepower and this requirement would have been anticipated within the organization. Therefore, we use types of weapons that are needed for the mission and easy to transport in the target area.” He added, “In each team, the mission and the required types of weapons are anticipated. Like in the majority of our units we have a team of snipers that can conduct their own tasks with the weapons they carry and training courses in which they have participated. Within our teams we use various weapons; we employ light weapons ranging from pistols to medium machine guns, sniper rifles and shoulder-fired weapons as well as antitank weapons.”[14]

[1] “Iran News Round Up March 3, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 3, 2016. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/iran-news-round-march-03-2016.
[2] For more on the IRGC’s model of expeditionary deployments and the distribution of ranks among casualties, see Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 24, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/analysis/bucala-kagan-irans-evolving-way-of-war-how-irgc-fights-in-syria-march-24-2016.
[3] “Esteghrar-e takavaran-e artesh-e iran dar suriyeh” [The Deployment of Artesh Special Forces to Syria], Shargh, April 5, 2016. Available in Persian: http://www.sharghdaily.ir/News/89443/%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AA%D8%B4-%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%87.
[4] Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan announced the creation of an Artesh “quick reaction force” on March 3. See “Iran News Round Up, March 3, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 3, 2016.  Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-march-03-2016. The “second round of sniper training” mentioned likely refers to an advanced sniper course.
[5] Translators note: Recent reports have also identified Artesh casualties from the 45th Special Forces and 388th Brigades in Syria. “Shahadat-e do takavar-e artesh-e Iran dar suriyeh + acks” [The martyrdom of two commandos of the Artesh in Syria + pictures], ABNA, April 11, 2016. Available: http://fa.abna24.com/service/iran/archive/2016/04/11/701434/story.html.   
[6] “Iran News Round Up, April 4, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, April 4, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-april-04-2016.
[7]“Goruh-haye terroristi bazigaran-e jang-haye niyabati/Daesh tavan-e ta-aroz nadarad” [Terrorist groups are playing in proxy wars/ISIS does not have the ability for an offensive], Mehr News Agency, November 16, 2015. Available in Persian: http://www.mehrnews.com/news/2968333/%DA%AF%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D8%B3%D8%AA%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C%DA%AF%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AC%D9%86%DA%AF-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D9%86%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%AA%DB%8C-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%B6-%D9%86%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AF.
[8] “Aamade-ye amuzesh-e Artesh-e Suriyyeh hastim” [We are ready to train the Syrian Army], Hamshahri,  May 5, 2013. Available in Persian:  http://hamshahrionline.ir/details/212572/Defence/Infantry.
[9] See “Iran News Round Up, October 27, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 27, 2015. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-october-27-2015; For more on IRGC activities in Syria see Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan‘s report, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria.”
[10] The Saberin units are special forces units under the IRGC Ground Forces. See “Iran News Round Up, February 18, 2016,” AEI’s Critical Threat’s Project, February 18, 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-february-18-2016.
[11] Major General Salehi is stating that Artesh forces will be placed on the Artesh Navy counter-piracy flotilla likely in the Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden. This is important considering that such a deployment would be well-placed to participate in Houthi operations in Yemen. See “Komand-haye nohed be khalijeh aden miravand” [“NOHED” commandos will go to the Gulf of Aden], Fars News Agency, December 8, 2014. Available in Persian: http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13930916000931.
[12] The Artesh NOHED(Airborne Special Forces) and IRGC Saberin (special forces) units have trained and conducted military exercises together in the past. See “Hamkari-e NOHED va saberin sepah” [The cooperation of the Artesh NOHED and IRGC Saberin], Farhang News, January 18, 2015. Avalaible in Persian: http://www.farhangnews.ir/content/108337.
[14] Ibid. 
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