A friend in need
Western intelligence suggests that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is becoming more active in Syria after the armed opposition has made gains on the ground, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in Aleppo
It is no secret that Iran has aided the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad politically and militarily from the time the uprising began in the country 17 months ago. However, this support has now evolved from covert assistance to public support, especially after the victories won by the armed opposition in northern Syria against regime forces.
Many Western intelligence reports over the past few weeks have suggested the nature of the Iranian support to its Syrian ally, which goes beyond traditional political and military assistance and includes sending Iranian elite forces and members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IRG) to help the Syrian military crackdown on the protests.
Contrary to statements made by the Iranian leadership in Tehran criticising any foreign interference in Syria's internal affairs, the Syrian opposition asserts that Iran has not only been assisting the Syrian security agencies with electronic interception and espionage, but has also been sending armed fighters, snipers and elite forces to train and assist the Syrian security forces.
The opposition said that it had arrested 48 Iranians in Damascus who were members of the IRG in a targeted operation last month.
The US Wall Street Journal newspaper has also reported that over the past two months Iran has sent elite military and IRG units and hundreds of infantry soldiers to Syria to support the Al-Assad regime in fighting the armed opposition. IRG commander General Salar Abnoush was quoted as saying that Iran had "trained Syrian security agencies on security and espionage," adding that Iran "is taking part in the war in Syria in its military as well as cultural aspects".
The newspaper reported that intelligence data had confirmed that the supreme guide of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had held a secret meeting with Iran's National Security Council in Tehran in order to discuss the ramifications on Iran if the Syrian regime was overthrown. Khamenei had ordered the IRG's Al-Quds Corps to step up operations against the West and its allies because of their support for the Syrian opposition seeking to topple Al-Assad.
Tehran could not remain passive in the face of threats to its national security, Khamenei said. It must make clear to the West that there were "red lines" that could not be crossed in dealing with the events in Syria.
Also according to Western reports, Khamenei, who has the final word on Iranian policy, has appointed Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Al-Quds Corps, as the Iranian contact person with Al-Assad in confronting the protest movement.
Reports in the Arab and western media said that Iran was sending hundreds of IRG and Basij forces from Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan to Syria to replace lower-ranking soldiers who have defected from the regular Syrian army. These forces have been given non-combat assignments such as guarding weapons depots and assisting in the running of military bases.
The Al-Sabah newspaper, which is close to the Turkish government, reported that it had intelligence about cooperation between Al-Assad's brother Maher Al-Assad, commander of the ferocious Syrian Fourth Division, and Iranian intelligence in combating the Syrian opposition around the world.
Turkey is now hosting more than 2,000 Syrian opposition figures and thousands of Syrian officers who have defected from the regular Syrian army.
Statements by Iranian officials have confirmed such reports, with Iran's Defence Minister Ahmed Wahidi recently saying that his government "will fulfil its security agreement with Syria if the latter is unable to resolve the current problems." IRG intelligence chief Hussein Taeb also said that Iran "is obligated to support Syria and not allow a breach in the resistance front".
The Iranian news agency, which is affiliated to the government in Tehran, also quoted IRG spokesman Mohamed Ali Aswadi as saying that "if the US attacks Syria, Iran will respond along with Syria's allies, and this will be a shock for the US."
Aswadi added that Syria's allies "will uphold the joint defence treaty [with Syria] if the US launches an attack", a reference to a 2006 joint defence agreement between Iran and Syria. The details of the pact are unknown, and it is unclear if other countries have also signed it. Aswadi's statements were later removed from the Iranian news agency's website.
The Syrian opposition believes that one of the goals of the US in seeking to topple the Syrian regime is to weaken Iran and to stop it from sending weapons to its allies in Lebanon and Palestine. However, the US has not been prioritising this goal since it is preoccupied with overthrowing the Syrian regime.
Tehran has denied any Iranian military participation in the Syrian regime's crackdown on its opponents, and it has even tried to appear to be impartial. It has said that its efforts are focussed on finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis based on former UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, which was adopted by the UN.
Iran has also proposed a national dialogue between the regime and its opponents inside Syria, saying that this should take place without preconditions.
The Syrian political and armed opposition reject this idea, saying that any dialogue must have an agenda, international sponsorship and conclude in a plural and democratic regime in Damascus that observes the peaceful rotation of power.
Observers believe that Iran, which recently hosted the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, is biased towards the Syrian regime and has been doing its best to prevent its collapse.
Evidence of this bias came in Iran's support for the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but its hostility towards the revolution in Syria, where it has supported the version of events put out by the Syrian regime that focuses on fighting terrorism and foreign conspiracies.
Shia Iran views the Syrian uprising as a proxy war with the US and Israel and other western states that are seeking to expand their influence in the Middle East. It has stated that Iran along with the Alawite regime in Syria and the Shiite group Hizbullah in Lebanon form an "axis of resistance" to western influence.
The Syrian opposition, which is mostly Sunni, argues that there are sectarian roots for Iran's support of the Syrian regime and a connection between religion and politics in Iran's regional ambitions. Iran wants to create a "Shia crescent" that would start in Iran, go through Iraq and Syria, and end in Lebanon, the opposition says, seeing it as a Persian predisposition towards an historic prejudice against the Arabs.
"It is no exaggeration to say that Iran is a pillar of the Syrian regime," Loay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It is supplying the regime with political, military, intelligence, technical and financial assistance, and as a result Iran is not eligible to lead the diplomatic effort in the Syrian crisis."
"The Syrian revolution has now entered its 17th month, and the opposition has been able to take control of parts of Syria. This threw the Iranians and Russians off balance, and as a result Tehran is trying to take control of various political initiatives."
"However, in reality it is trying to cover up for the regime's military operations and buy time in the belief that the regime can win through force and only needs more time to do so. This is a mistake and a miscalculation."
Although Iran's assistance to the Syrian regime has been unlimited, observers say that there have been disputes within Iranian ruling circles about "putting all of Iran's eggs in the Syrian regime's basket."
Over recent weeks, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi has talked about ideas to connect with the Syrian opposition and to hold a dialogue with the regime with the aim of politically resolving the crisis.
Khamenei also assured UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the NAM summit that resolving the crisis would mean a halt in sending weapons to "irresponsible" groups inside Syria, a reference to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that controls large areas of Syrian territory.
Ali Larijani, chair of Iran's upper house of parliament, said that some countries were "not allowing democracy to take hold in Syria". Larijani also cautioned against "allowing arrogant forces to stir up havoc and destabilise the region".
Admitting that there is a crisis in Syria could mean that Iran will stop claiming that the Syrian revolution is a Zionist conspiracy. On the other hand, describing the massacres that are taking place in Syria today as a "crisis" is itself a crime in the eyes of the country's opposition and a way of continuing support for the regime.
The opposition believes that allowing Iran to be part of any political resolution to the situation is unacceptable, arguing that Iran will never pressure the Syrian regime, which is its military, ideological and religious ally in the region.