During the last year, social networking sites (SNS) have served as a platform for commemorating the hundreds of Iranian combatants killed in the military campaign in Syria since 2012. Iran became involved in Syria in an effort to prevent the collapse of the Syrian regime, its most important strategic ally in the Arab world. In the summer of 2015, the rebels’ cumulative gains forced Iran to dispatch significant reinforcements and become actively involved in the fighting. At that stage, Iran’s involvement began to exact a heavy price on human lives. Since the launch of the Syrian army’s ground offensive in northern Syria in October 2015, nearly 300 Iranians have been killed, according to multiple estimates. The total number of Iranians killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war there is estimated at more than 400. Faced with these heavy losses the Iranian regime is making extensive efforts to mobilize public support for its involvement in Syria. Their efforts include honoring the fallen with funerals, memorial services and conferences in their memory, as well as extensive activity on SNS, all intended to enhance the public’s commitment to making a sacrifice on behalf of the Islamic Republic, and present military involvement in Syria as a vital national interest.
The efforts of the Iranian regime to mobilize public support for military involvement in Syria are not new. A few months after the Syrian civil war began, groups identified with the regime launched Facebook pages devoted to the fighting in Syria from the perspective of Iranian fighters. These pages included reports regarding the accomplishments of the Syrian regime and its allies in their battles against the rebels, propaganda content opposing the rebels, details about the combatants from Iran, Hezbollah and Arab countries who were fighting the rebels, extensive coverage of fallen Iranian fighters and other content of a religious-Shi‘ite nature. The regime’s recent intensification of its propaganda efforts, because of the heavy losses Iranian forces have sustained, is intended to strengthen positive Iranian public opinion and forestall any possible criticism.
The messaging app Telegram, which is very popular in Iran, is a conspicuous component of these efforts. Several dozen channels have been opened on Telegram to memorialize the fallen, with membership ranging from a few hundred users to several thousand. Extensive activity is also evident on other SNS including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Although it is difficult to definitively identify the people behind these pages, it is clear that official agencies or institutions are involved because of, inter alia, the regime-oriented content that was published.
The memorial activity on SNS is characterized by extensive use of religious-Shi‘ite rhetoric, extensive quotations from the Koran and hadith, and enthusiastic support for the value of sacrifice in defense of the Shi‘ite holy places in Syria. The Iranian casualties are called “fallen defenders of the holy shrine” (شهدای مدافع حرم) referring to the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in the southern suburbs of Damascus, where the Shi‘ites believe that Zaynab, the daughter of Imam Ali and the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed, is buried. The memorials include references to dates on the religious calendar and imbue them with current content. For example, 21 April was observed as Father's Day in Iran, based on the birthdate (according to the Islamic calendar) of Ali ibn Abu-Talib, the eldest son of the first Shi‘ite Iman. Many Iranian users of SNS marked the day by commemorating the numerous fathers who were killed during the battles in Syria, leaving orphaned children behind.
The use of religious-Shi‘ite rhetoric is similar in character to its use in Iranian propaganda during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). . As part of the regime-led propaganda efforts, the Iranians utilize the foundational myth of Karbala, which recounts the sacrifice of the first Shi‘ite Imamn Husayn ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, against the Umayyad caliph Yazid I. Invoking this myth is intended to goad the public into joining the battle, and be an inspiring model for combatants. The slogan identified with the campaign at the time was “Every day is Ashurah and every place is Karbala.”
Alongside the religious content, the commemorative channels are used for uploading personal and familial content, including photographs of the fallen, biographical details, selections from the memories and testaments they uploaded before their deaths, songs or poems written in their memory, and eulogies written by relatives and friends who praise the deceased at length.
Despite the tendency to avoid explicitly political content in commemorative contexts, the memorial channels on Telegram are also used to report on developments on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, which include many expressions of support for the regime and its leader, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Thus the commemorative activity is harnessed to reinforce public support for the Iranian regime and its policy in Syria. It should be noted that there are additional channels for routine reports on the military campaign, which the regime uses for the same purpose.
The extensive use of SNS to commemorate the Iranian fighters killed in Syria is additional evidence that despite the Iranian regime’s reservations about SNS, elements associated with the regime are willing to use them to transmit messages consistent with the values of the Islamic Republic. The broad reach of the SNS supplies them and their supporters with a convenient, accessible means for rallying the public around shared national symbols, and encouraging collective consciousness. Online memorials for the fallen create an opportunity, not only to increase public support for the campaign in Syria, but also to nurture an ethos of self-sacrifice for the good of the nation and to reinforce Iranian national solidarity.
 Ali Alfoneh, "The IRGC Morphs Into an Expeditionary Force", POLICYWATCH 2615, The Washington Institute, May 12, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-irgc-morphs-into-an-expeditionary-force.
 Raz Zimmt, “Support for Syria comes to Facebook: supporters of Iran’s military involvement in Syria increase their social network presence.” Spotlight on Iran, August 25, 2013, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20561. See also, Efrat Harel, “Religion and nationalism: The question of the Iranian identity during the Iran-Iraq War,” in Iran: The Anatomy of Revolution (Tel Aviv, 2009), pp. 148-173 [in Hebrew].
 Efrat Harel, “Religion and nationalism: The question of the Iranian identity during the Iran-Iraq War,” in Iran: The Anatomy of Revolution (Tel Aviv, 2009), pp. 148-173 [in Hebrew].