ISIL fighters advancing on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo have killed an Iranian military commander providing military advice to troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's army said Thursday.
The development comes as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant reportedly seized several villages in Aleppo province from rival groups in what some have described as the biggest advance by the ISIL since it launched its latest offensive.
ISIL fighters killed Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani overnight, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — the elite branch of the Iranian army, said in a statement carried by its official media outlet on Friday.
The IRGC said in its statement that Hamedani had been playing an "important role ... reinforcing the front of Islamic resistance against the terrorists."
Hamedani is one of the most senior IRGC commanders to be killed in Syria. He was a veteran commander who had an important role in Iran's war with Iraq from 1980 to ’88. In January, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria that also killed six Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. Several senior IRGC officers have also been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war.
Iran is a staunch ally of Assad’s and has provided his government with military and political backing for years and has kept up its support since Syria's civil war began in 2011.
ISIL’s surprise attack north of Aleppo came despite intensive Russian airstrikes that Moscow, another close ally of Assad’s, insists are targeting ISIL, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the advance by ISIL, which began Thursday night, was the armed group’s biggest since it launched an offensive against rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside near the Turkish border in late August. It said the group seized the villages of Tal Qrah, Tal Sousin and Kfar Qares north of Aleppo city.
ISIL also seized a former army base, known as the Infantry Academy, that rebels captured from the Syrian army two years ago. The base is about 10 miles northeast of Aleppo city. ISIL-affiliated accounts on Twitter announced the group seized those villages.
It was not clear whether Hamedani's killing was related to the new ISIL offensive. Alongside the Russian air campaign, regional officials have told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria since late September to take part in ground operations with the Syrian army and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
The Syrian Observatory also reported a new wave of Russian airstrikes on Friday morning in Hama and Idlib provinces, apparently in support of a ground offensive launched this week by Syrian troops and allied militia against rebels.
Al Jazeera and wire services