An Iranian acknowledgment that its troops are active in Syria alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces has increased tension in the region as American, British and other Western navies carry out joint exercises in the Persian Gulf.
While there have been reports of members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) working with the Syrian army almost since the beginning of the uprising in Syria 19 months ago, a statement by IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari in Tehran on Sunday was the first official acknowledgment of the fact.
Maj-Gen Jafari said that “a number of members of the Quds Force [IRGC’s elite overseas unit], are present in Syria but this does not constitute a military presence”. He insisted that his men were providing Syria only with “intellectual and adviser help”.
This appears to contradict a speech to new recruits given three weeks ago by another IRGC general in which he is reported to have said that “today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well”.
Israeli and Western intelligence agencies have long believed that the IRGC is working closely with the Syrian forces in putting down the uprising, a claim that Tehran in the past has denied.
The acknowledgment now could be a sign that the Iranian regime is worried that Assad’s hold on power may be weakening and they want to signal to other powers that they will continue to do everything to support him.
This message was underlined on Wednesday when Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Damascus for talks with Assad. Maj Gen Jafari said on Sunday: “If Syria came under military attack, Iran would also give military support.”
In an interview with The Times this week, Syrian Major-General Adnan Sillu, who defected recently to Turkey, said that IRGC officers were often present at high-level Syrian military meetings.
Maj-Gen Sillu claimed in the interview that discussions were held on the use of chemical weapons “as a last resort” against Syrian civilians and rebels in case the government lost control of large areas. He said: “They [the regime] wanted to place warheads with the chemical weapons on missiles — and transfer them to Hizbollah. It was for use against Israel, of course.”
American and British leaders have warned the Assad regime that any use of chemical weapons would be “crossing a red line” and would lead to international intervention.
Israel has made clear to Syria and other regional governments that it will also intervene militarily to prevent any transfer of chemical weapons to Hizbollah.