Iran is bringing home the body of a highest ranking military officer killed in April in southern Syria, Iranian news agencies reported, at least the second senior Iranian to die there this year while supporting Damascus in the war.
Hadi Kajbaf, a major general in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was killed near the rebel-held town of Busr al-Harir, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Damascus, the IRGC-linked Tasnim agency reported late Friday.
Kajbaf held the highest ranking used in Iran's armed forces, making him more senior than an IRGC brigadier general who was killed in January by an Israeli missile strike in Syrian territory near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, along with a number of fighters from Hezbollah.
Three other Iranians were killed alongside Kajbaf including a mid-ranking Shiite Muslim cleric, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
Iranian military and financial support have been crucial to helping Assad survive the war, now in its fifth year. The conflict is a focal point for Shiite Islamist Iran's power struggle with Sunni Saudi Arabia, which supports the insurgents battling to topple Assad.
Southern Syria is one of the regions where Assad has faced significant setbacks since March. The insurgents fighting there include the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and groups that profess a more secular outlook and are backed by Assad's Arab foes.
The late highest ranking Iranian general's son, Sajad Kajbaf, told Tasnim the body was due to be flown to Iran Friday night after being delayed by a day. It was not clear how Iran had obtained the body, which was taken by the rebels when he was killed.
An unknown number of Iranian military advisers have deployed in Syria in support of the Syrian army and the militias fighting alongside it. Hezbollah is now deployed more widely than ever in Syria.
Iran has denied its troops are in Syria.
Iran projects power in the Middle East by allying with regional proxies who follow Shiite Islam or its offshoots. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiism.
U.S President Barack Obama has also been secretly supportive of Iranian expansionism to fill the void America is leaving behind.
Reuters contributed to this article.