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Media Watch | Iranians Abducted in Syria Accused of Revolutionary Guard Ties

by PAUL MUTTER

07 Aug 2012 23:55Comments

Press Roundup provides a selected summary of news from the Farsi and Arabic press and excerpts where the source is in English. Tehran Bureau has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy. Any views expressed are the authors' own. Please refer to the Media Guide to help put the stories in perspective. You can follow breaking news stories on our Twitter feed.

AlArabiyaAllegedKidnappers.jpg 11:55 p.m. IRDT, 17 Mordad/August 7 On Friday, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting reported that 48 Iranian pilgrims visiting the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque in Damascus were abducted by "armed terrorist groups" while being bussed through the city. This is not the first time Iranian nationals have been abducted during Syria's internal conflict. Eleven pilgrims were abducted in February, as were seven engineers in January, who were accused of being Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps agents; according to Iranian media reports, some of the latter have been released as a result of Turkish intervention.

Reuters reported on Monday that three of the 48 captives were accidentally killed by a government bombing raid, and that their alleged captors have threatened to execute the remaining abductees in response to the raid. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Ankara to seek Turkish assistance in the case, declaring, "Turkey has links with the opposition in Syria, so we think Turkey can play [a] major role in freeing our pilgrims."

According to footage broadcast by the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al Arabyia, the kidnappers are members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and they are holding the pilgrims on the grounds that they are actually part of a Revolutionary Guard reconnaissance team. The following translation of the statement by one of the purported kidnappers is based primarily on BBC Monitoring Middle East's partial transcript of the video, along with reports from other news outlets:

God be praised and with his help, one of the groups of the Al-Bara Brigade has captured 48 of the thugs of Iran who were present in Damascus on a reconnaissance mission in the city. During their interrogation, it became clear that they include a number of Iranian officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. These are the documents that were with this officer. This is the military identity card of this officer and these are the licenses of carrying weapons. We warn Iran and all those who work with and support this regime and tell them that this regime will inevitably go. We also warn Iran that we will attack all [its] positions in Syria. All the Iranians who work on Syrian territory will have the same fate of these prisoners, [either capture or death], God willing. God be praised.

A Mr. Muhammad Inad told his interviewer after the video statement was shown that "it became clear that they are Iranian fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This capturing operation is very serious and consequently, it will bring big pressure to bear on the Iranian government."

The operation, he said, "is a very advanced step, which shows that the FSA has a great ability to carry out such qualitative missions." A man claiming to be an FSA brigadier captain, also interviewed by Al Arabiya, asserted that "one of the prisoners who were captured is an officer who has his military identity card and two identity cards on carrying weapons" and "when we interrogated him, we have found some photographs of military operations in Iran in which this officer has participated in."

In the same broadcast, an Iranian media commentator dismissed the alleged documents -- which are shown in the Al Arabiya video by one of the men held under guard and are extremely difficult to read -- as forgeries produced by the FSA. The Iranian Foreign Ministry denies that any of those taken were Revolutionary Guard members and has reportedly asked for Turkey and Qatar to approach the kidnappers to secure the release of the 48, as those governments maintain both public and clandestine ties to Syrian opposition forces.

The details of the report from the "Syrian opposition" side highlight the problematic coverage of the conflict there. Muhammad Inad is described on Al Arabiya as a member of the Syrian National Council, based in Istanbul. The expatriate group is aligned with the Turkish headquarters of the FSA, which claims to have ordered neither Friday's kidnappings nor any like them in recent months. The FSA itself is less an organized military force than the name of the umbrella command nominally in control of several anti-regime militias and army defectors' battalions operating in the country who have adopted the label or are described as the "Free Syrian Army" in news reports. Due to media restrictions imposed by the Syrian government and the ongoing fighting throughout the country's major urban centers, information about the FSA's overall composition and goals has been difficult to come by. As such, no independent verification has been provided for the suspected kidnappers' claims, if the tape on Al Arabiya is indeed authentic.

The Iranian and Syrian governments as well as Hezbollah describe the FSA's fighters as Sunni jihadists backed by the Western powers to overthrow Assad and further isolate Iran. Though the Western powers refute these charges, which have been echoed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, elements of the "Islamic Army in Iraq," an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni combat group that has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iraq, are widely believed to be operating in Syria. Having apparently betrayed their former Ba'athist handlers in Damascus, their presence in the conflict is drawing growing international attention even though their true strength is unknown. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are known to be supporting the FSA to varying degrees, mostly in the form of intelligence sharing, humanitarian aid, and communications coordination. Advanced weaponry has been promised by the Saudis and Qataris, but at this stage, most of the FSA's weaponry is believed to be captured Syrian Army stocks, or smuggled into the country via Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey from black market dealers and Syrian expatriates.

In the weeks prior to this most recent kidnapping, Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi had proclaimed that "no request for coming back to Iran has been sent to the Foreign Ministry" by any Iranian nationals living in Syria, though in light of the prior kidnappings, state news outlet Press TV noted that Iran had imposed a ban on travel to the country. Iraqi and Iranian media sources have hinted that worsening regional tensions have curtailed commercial contracts to transport pilgrims from Iran to other countries in the region since the "Islamic Army in Iraq" is thought to have orchestrated several attacks on Shia pilgrimages to Iran's neighbor. Official Iranian government-organized pilgrimages to Syria, which thousands of Shia pilgrims visit each year to see such holy sites, have been suspended since the January and February mass abductions were reported.

A Syrian official told the Revolutionary Guard-controlled Fars News Agency that "the terrorists affiliated to the so-called Free Army are in charge of the abduction of the Iranian pilgrims" and that the government's security forces were searching for the perpetrators. The Islamic Republic News Agency reported on Saturday that the pilgrims were all released, but the report was retracted within hours of its publication.

Abductions of religious pilgrims have been increasing in recent months as the Syrian civil war intensifies, and not just Iranians are being targeted. In May, eleven Shia Lebanese citizens returning to Lebanon from Iran by way of Syria were taken in the city of Aleppo by a self-proclaimed rebel organization. According to the Lebanese Daily Star, one of the abductees was put on television to plead for their release, the captors' demanding that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah renounce his vocal support of Bashar al-Assad. The Lebanese press reported shortly thereafter that another unknown group proclaimed it had kidnapped Syrian opposition leaders in retaliation, and last week families of the abductees staged protests outside of the Lebanese president's residence.

Aleppo is now the location of a fierce battle between Syrian security forces and elements of the FSA. Syrian state television has asserted that the rebels are being routed, though claims of a quick defeat cited in Reuters have been since retracted by the British newswire, as the reports were found to be the work of hackers.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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