In a sign of the Iranian government’s increasing openness over its involvement in Syria’s civil war, state television will air a documentary during the Iranian New Year known as “Nowruz” praising the thousands of pro-Iranian fighters who died in Syria over the years.
The documentary is in 13 parts and will air for 13 days, corresponding with the 13-day celebration of New Year in Iran.
The documentary, which will present pro-Iranian Pakistani and Afghan fighters as the guardian of Zeinab shrine, a major Shi’ite holy site in Syria, will be aired on Iran’s official TV Channel, IRIB 2 in a show titled “From Heaven.”
Experts say that by airing the documentary during Nowruz, Iran wants to ensure that it reaches most of its citizens in the country, because television viewership increases dramatically during the holiday season in the country.
“Schools and most organizations are closed for literally 13 days in Iran for Nowruz, and TV is a big part of that long holiday,” said Majid Beheshti a British-based former TV producer at Iranian TV.
State TV traditionally airs New Year’s programming that highlights Nowruz festivals and stories of Iranian history and origin. But this year will mark a break with that tradition.
“Iranian government has often glorified its military involvement in Syria, but this is the first time that a documentary about fallen fighters in Syria is going be aired on prime time at one of the three major TV channels of Iran,” Nureddin Yousefi, a Tehran based TV and movie critic, said.
Defending The Shrine
Tehran claims its forces are in Syria only to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus, a Shi'ite holy site.
But since 2012, Iran has acted as a major ally of the Syrian regime in Damascus, and backed Syrian troops in their war with rebel groups across the country.
The Iranian presence in Syria initially began with Iranian advisers going there, but later on, the country expanded its role by deploying elite forces from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has a strong footprint now on almost all front lines where Syrian government forces engage with the rebels.
Iran has been trying to justify the legitimacy of its presence in Syria and win domestic support for its continued involvement in the conflict on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
The new documentary seems to be part of those efforts to camouflage the Iranian military presence into defending a noble and religious cause in a foreign land.
But critics, like British-based former Iranian TV producer Majid Beheshti believe it will do little to achieve that goal.
“Nowruz programs are mostly of happy themes and comedies when people can forget about routines and have some fun among families. Bringing a program with that propaganda theme on one of the most viewed Iranian TV channels in Nowruz prime time is not probably going to win people’s hearts and minds,” Beheshti said.
Amir Khorshidi Fard, the producer of the show where the documentary about the shrine defenders will be aired, argued that it will present a clear picture of who the defenders are and will shed light on their diversity.
“The show, which features the Iranian militias killed in Syria trying to figure out the identity of “those martyrs” will also tackle rumors about the high salary they receive to defend the shrine,” Amir Khorshidi Fard told VOA.
Khorshidi added that focusing on family members of the fallen fighters in a documentary will give people a better understanding about shrine defenders and will humanize them.
Among shrine defenders in Syria, there are large number of foreign fighters as well, including Afghans and Pakistanis who are lured by various incentives to fight for Iran in support of Assad in Syria.
Western media outlets estimate the number of Afghans fighting in Syria to be between 10- and 12,000 fighters they are part of the “Fatemiyon Brigade.”
Iran also has recruited more than 1,000 Pakistan Shi’ites to fight alongside Iranian-backed fighters supporting government forces in Syria’s civil war.
Pakistani fighters are part of the “Zainabeyon Brigade.”
Pakistani authorities recently banned a local humanitarian organization for luring and sending Shi’ite youths from several northwestern areas in Pakistan to Iran.
Shi’ite youths were reported receiving military training before their deployment to Syria.
For years since Iran’s military involvement in Syria began in 2012, funerals of the fallen foreign fighters were kept from public view. But recently Iranian authorities have begun to go public about them and glorify them.
Last month, Tehran municipality held a ceremony commemorating fallen Afghan fighters in Syria.
Mehdi Jedinia wrote this story for Voice of America