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Dispatch | The Hand of Iran: Syria's Civil War and the Islamic Republic's Role


03 Oct 2012 20:39Comments

Iranian citizens discuss their government's part in the ongoing conflict.

[ dispatch ] Iranians anxiously watch the slaughter carried out by the government of Syria, the Islamic Republic's closest ally in the Middle East. Nineteen months into the Syrian uprising, at least 30,000 people have been reported killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. In the eyes of many Iranians, the relentless bloodletting reflects on their own country's government, which has been providing financial, political, and logistical support -- if not more -- to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At a newsstand in Tehran's Vali Asr Square, Danyal, about 30, is reading the headlines on the conservative Kayhan daily, which is closely aligned with the camp of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. On the upper right of the front page, it says, "Bashar Assad: 'Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia Are Supporters of Terrorists in Syria.'"

I ask Danyal if he thinks the Islamic Republic is playing a role in the violence there. "Given our history, military and financial interventions are both taking place," he says. "This meddling will not be beneficial. They're like temporary tranquilizers.

"Intervening in Syria will not help secure Iran's national interests in the region."

The Quds Force, the special operations division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is the primary vehicle for Iranian military involvement in Syria's civil war. Created in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, it has been described as one of the most effective special forces in the world. The Central Intelligence Agency estimate the size of the Quds Force at 2,000 members.

Iranian military officials denied any involvement in Syria until this past May. The first public acknowledgment came in a short interview with the Iranian Student News Agency: Major Esmaiel Funei, deputy commander of the approximately 2,000-strong Quds Force, declared, "When we were not in Syria, there were large numbers of civilians being killed by the insurgents, but the physical, and nonphysical, presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Syria has restricted such killings."

Danyal, who recently earned a degree in medical engineering, reflects on the conflict in light of the Arab Spring and Iran's suppressed Green Movement. "The situation in Syria is somewhere between the rapidly successful Arab revolutions and the rapidly crushed movement in Iran. Now, because of the dual interventions, by Iran and Arab countries, none of which want their national interests endangered, the Syrian situation has become more complicated."

On September 16, in a press conference attended by both domestic and foreign journalists, Revolutionary Guard chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari directly confirmed the Quds Force's presence in Syria, but added, "It does not mean that we have a military presence there. We provide them with counsel and advice, and transfer experience to them. We provide them with our experience, while other countries are not shy of supporting terrorist groups" -- the term used by both the Iranian and Syrian governments to describe the Syrian opposition force. "It is our pride, as the Supreme Leader has said, to defend Syria which is part of the [anti-Israeli] resistance."

A day later, Iran's Foreign Mininistry issued an official denial that there were any Revolutionary Guards in Syria, claiming that the quotes attributed to Jafari by multiple news agencies represented first-hand at the press conference "were selective and incorrect."

Around dusk, I talk about the Syrian situation with Kowsar, a devoted young woman in full hejab. She is headed to Taleghani Mosque in the Khak Sefid quarter, one of Tehran's oldest, to perform her evening prayers. I ask her about the disclosure that Quds Force personnel are in Syria and providing "guidance" to the Assad government. In her view, she says, "military guidance is very different from military intervention."

Last year, Ayatollah Khamenei celebrated the fall of Arab dictators in the Middle East and referred to the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Yemeni uprisings as the "awakening" of the Arab people. By contrast, the popular uprising in Syria is no awakening, in his view, but rather "deviant."

"American and Israeli hands are visible in Syria," the Supreme Leader declared. "They are trying to cause trouble for the Assad government, which is part of the line of resistance, so the nature of the events in Syria is different from those in other countries of the region."

Fatemeh, a 50-year-old art researcher and translator in west Tehran, introduces herself as devout, yet vehemently opposed to the conduct of Iran's religious government in Syria. "Their excellencies proudly announced that Iranian forces are not there to intervene but to advise." Tugging on her headdress to cover a few strands of hair that poke out, she continues in a sarcastic tone, "Really! So they have done an excellent job advising their Syrian cohorts how to torture and persecute defenseless people."

Deriding the Islamic Republic's diplomatic efforts in the region, she says, "Instead of learning and achieving progress in the arena of international diplomacy, they act like spoiled kids who, when down, disrupt the game to avoid being declared losers."

Around six o'clock, I keep an appointment with a political activist close to the Green Movement at the Shafagh Cultural House in north Tehran. Asking me to keep his name confidential for reasons of personal safety, he says of the Islamic Republic's rulers, "Honest to God, they are more fearful than Assad himself."

13910625195236270_PhotoL.jpgTurning to the subject at hand, he says, "Technically I don't know how much they they are interfering." Lighting a cigarette, he continues, "I believe that it is at the level of delivering firearms and providing military advice."

I ask him why supporting Assad is so crucial to the Islamic Republic. "After all, it is Iran's only ally," he says. "From a regional foreign policy point of view, Syria is the only strategic ally. From a larger viewpoint, if Syria is cut down, the West will have just two uncooperative systems to deal with: one, North Korea; the other, Iran."

Iranian diplomatic and military officials continue to boost their Syrian counterparts. On September 5, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with representatives of the Syrian Parliament. In public remarks, he stated, "Syria has passed the crisis phase.... Today, we can see that the Syrian people's enemies have failed to fulfill their ambitions to destroy the political structure of that nation, and our calculations show that despite remaining difficulties, Syria has negotiated the instability phase." He went on to promise that Iran would "use all its might and influence to cleanse the Syrian land of terrorists."

The government has called on all Iranian media outlets not to run stories critical of the Assad regime. Nonetheless, reformist dailies such as Etemaad and Shargh have published veiled rebukes of the murder of civilians by the Syrian army. (Shargh was shut down last week, nominally for publishing a cartoon that officials said mocked veterans of the Iran-Iraq War.) I ask a leading reformist journalist if Syria is of central concern to Iran's opposition media. "I don't think so," he replies. "We have so many domestic problems that don't allow us to focus on Syria."

"I have no doubt that the Islamic Republic is meddling in Syria. The rape of prisoners there is the only evidence needed," he opined.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has requested that the International Court of Justice investigate the accusations brought against Syrian officials that they have encouraged and coordinated sexual violence. The Iranian journalist claims that the use of sexual torture as a means of opposition suppression was taught to the Syrians by Iranian "advisers." He says, "Kahrizak immediately came to mind when I saw reports of rapes," but offers no proof.

Kahrizak is the detention center near the southern edge of Tehran where hundreds of mostly young demonstrators were held after they were arrested during the protests that followed Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election. At least four young protesters died from torture they suffered there, and there were dozens of reports of the rape of male and female detainees alike. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has taught the Syrians how to break down their opponents," said the journalist.

Not all Iranians are opposed to their government's support for the Assad regime. At a Ten-Plus station, which houses both police and other government services, I speak with one of the agents, 60-year-old Abbas, and turn the conversation to Syria.

"You are younger than necessary to understand why we support Syria. When Iran was alone in its eight-year war with Saddam's Iraq, without any other allies, it was Hafez Assad's Syria that provided Iran any protection." Abbas is referring to Bashar's father and predecessor as Syrian president.

"Syria is our shield against Israel," he says. "Don't look at the issue superficially. Please don't follow the news in foreign networks alone. They don't present the whole issue.... We have a strategic agreement with Syria; we must stand against terrorists. Bashar Assad is more helpful to us."

In 2006, a letter of understanding to expand naval cooperation in the Mediterranean was signed by Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The agreement's terms could not be carried out until the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak last year. Restrictions on passage through the Suez Canal were subsequently relaxed, allowing two Iranian naval vessels to reach the Mediterranean and dock at the Syrian port of Latakia.

I ask Abbas about the 30,000 people that have been killed in the uprising. Doesn't that void Assad's claims to legitimacy? "Divide the reported number of dead by a hundred. They exaggerate," Abbas replies.

"Further, most of them are Salafis and Wahabis, blood enemies of us Shiites. We have to always support Assad."

As he busily stamps passport applications, Abbas concludes, "Believe me, spilling no one's blood pleases me. But if Assad goes, Iran will face difficult times."

Aerial photos of Damascus by Iran's Fars News Agency.

related reading | The Specter of Syria's Alleged Chemical Weapons | Iraqi, Syrian Developments Threaten Iran's Geopolitical Sway | Does Tehran Hold the Key to Syria?

on Frontline | The Battle for Syria

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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