(Repeats Wednesday item)
* Iran leaders present Syria as existential war
* Volunteer fighter numbers rise
* Perceived threat from Islamic State
* Fighters who die praised as heroes
* War deepens region's sectarian strains
By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Babak Dehghanpisheh
DUBAI/BEIRUT, Sept 21 Abandoning a long-standing
reticence, Iranians are increasingly candid about their
involvement in Syria's war, and informal recruiters are now
openly calling for volunteers to defend the Islamic Republic and
fellow Shi'ites against Sunni militants.
With public opinion swinging behind the cause, numbers of
would-be fighters have soared far beyond what Tehran is prepared
to deploy in Syria, according to former fighters who spoke to
Reuters, and commanders quoted by Iranian media.
Iran has been sending fighters to Syria since the early
stages of the five-year war to support its ally, President
Bashar al-Assad, in the struggle against Sunni rebels backed by
Gulf Arab states and Western powers.
Once Tehran described these forces as military "advisers"
but with around 400 killed on the battlefield, this discretion
has slipped and several thousand are now believed to be fighting
Islamic State and other groups trying to topple Assad.
Many Iranians initially opposed involvement in the war,
harbouring little sympathy for Assad. But now they are warming
to the mission, believing that Islamic State is a threat to the
existence of their country best fought outside Iran's borders.
"The first line for the security of Iran is Syria and Iraq,"
a would-be volunteer named Mojtaba told Reuters by email from
Tehran. Mojtaba, who asked that he be identified by only his
first name, said he had been trying in vain to get out to fight
in Syria for the past two years.
While Islamic State still holds large areas of Syria and
Iraq, it has so far failed to stage attacks in neighbouring Iran
like it has in Turkey.
Nevertheless, Iranian media have reported the breaking up of
cells linked to the jihadist group at home, and the large
numbers of people such as Mojtaba willing to join the battle in
Syria suggest Tehran has the stamina to pursue its involvement
there for years if it wishes.
"DEFENDERS OF THE SHRINE"
Iran alludes to its fighters in Syria as "defenders of the
shrine", a reference to the Sayeda Zeinab mosque near Damascus,
which is where a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said
to be buried, as well as other shrines revered by Shi'ites.
It is casting its recruitment net wide. As well as Iranians,
it has gathered Shi'ites from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and
Pakistan to battle the Syrian opposition in what has become a
Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini, the Revolutionary Guard
Corps commander for greater Tehran, said last month there were
so many volunteers that "only a small number of them are sent to
(Syria)", according to the Defa Press site.
Fighters killed in Syria are praised as heroes on state
television and given lavish funerals. Iranian wrestler Saeed
Abdevali dedicated the bronze medal he won at the Rio Olympics
to the families of "defenders of the shrine" who have been
Some volunteers, disappointed at the long waiting list, take
a shortcut. They fly directly to Damascus and volunteer at the
Sayeda Zeinab shrine, according to postings on Modafeon, a web
site dedicated to news and pictures of the "defenders".
The potent message of protecting the shrines has drawn in
Shi'ite Afghans, some of whom live in Iran and others in
Afghanistan. These Afghans fighting in Syria under the
supervision of the Revolutionary Guards are known as the
A 26-year old Afghan student living in Mashad in northeast
Iran described how he was sent with other Fatemiyoun to fight in
Damascus and Aleppo for about 45 days after limited training.
"My motivation is the same as the Iranians," the student,
who asked not to be identified because of security concerns,
said. "We are both fighting in Syria, so it shows our cause is
far beyond geographic borders. We are fighting to defend our
sacred beliefs and Shi'ite ideology."
Asked if he thought Iranian society had grown more welcoming
to those who fight in Syria, he said "One hundred percent. When
I was deployed, people were saying that they were doubtful if
our fight would change anything. But now they respect the
fighters more, as they are more familiar with the threats the
rebels in Syria and Iraq can cause to Iran."
He said that pay, or the promise of gaining Iranian
citizenship upon their return from the battlefield, are also
incentives for some Afghans to volunteer. The Afghan fighters
get about $450 a month, according to a Fatemiyoun commander
interviewed by the Tasnim news site.
Senior officials regularly discuss the role of the
Revolutionary Guards and Iranian special forces in Syria in
terms of confronting the existential threat that mostly Shi'ite
Iran faces from Sunni militant groups such as Islamic State,
which is also known as ISIS.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace in Washington, said this appealed more
to public opinion than support for Assad.
"Fighting Shi'ite-hating bloodthirsty ISIS jihadists is
easier to sell to Iranians than wasting billions on a ruthless
dictator who gasses his population," he said.
A video regularly featured on Iranian state television shows
a group of children wearing fatigues and combat boots singing
about a religious duty to fight in Syria.
"The red lines around the shrine are made of my blood," they
sing. Children under 18 may go to Syria to serve in non-combat
support roles as long as they are accompanied by a guardian,
according to postings on the Modafeon web site.
LESSON FROM EUROPE
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described the wars
in Syria and Iraq, where Iranian-backed authorities are also
fighting Sunni militants, as crucial to the survival of the
Islamic Republic. If Iranians had not gone and died fighting
there, "the enemy would enter the country", he said,
This perception has won over many doubters. Sasan
Sabermotlagh, a 34-year-old decorator in Tehran, said he was
initially "100 percent" against the war, but he and many others
he knows had changed their mind.
Despite Iran's often fraught relations with the West,
Sabermotlagh cited attacks staged by Islamic State in Europe in
recent months. "Now that people completely know (Islamic State)
and after the incidents in France, Germany and elsewhere, you
can say that 90 percent of the people who criticised the
'defenders of the shrine' don't anymore," he said.
Sabermotlagh even considered joining the fight. "When I see
the videos and the pictures it has a big effect on me," he said.
"I think if (Islamic State) or a similar group find their way to
Iran then we will suffer similar things."
The presumed glory of the war is such that some people
invent military service records to gain others' admiration. In
August, Iran arrested four men in Mashad "accused of trying to
attract young people's attention by putting together fake
stories about their presence on the frontline", a local
judiciary official was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin in Dubai and Babak
Dehghanpisheh in Beirut, Editing by William Maclean and David