On November 30, 2016, Syria watcher Tobias Schneider tweeted out pictures of an Iraqi Shia militiaman boarding an Iranian commercial airliner en route to Damascus. One selfie taken on the plane showed young men in military fatigues in the background. Another photo, likely taken when the militiaman arrived in Damascus, showed a large Syrian Arab Airlines Ilyushin-76 cargo plane on the tarmac. Three days later, the Facebook page of the Iranian opposition site Persian War News published pictures of another Iraqi fighter on his way to Syria’s battlefields.
The photos are undated but their authenticity is not in dispute. They are evidence of Iran’s ongoing airlift of fighters to Syria’s battlefields. And both sets of images show the same airplane staircase logo, that of Faza Andishan Arvand Company—the ground services operator at Iran’s Abadan International Airport.
A small city near the mouth of the Shatt-el Arab River, Abadan is a stone’s throw from the Iran-Iraq border and just across the river’s shallow waters from the Iraqi city of Basra. It is home to Iran’s largest oil refinery and was the scene of bitter fighting in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Since the summer of 2015, it has also been a regular stop for Iranian and Syrian aircraft flying between Tehran and Damascus and the key component of Iran’s giant effort to shift the balance of Syria’s civil war in favor of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In one social media posting, a militiaman even geotagged his selfie to Abadan.