Iran is intensifying its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad by sending 150 senior Revolutionary Guards commanders to Syria to help repel opposition attempts to overthrow the government.
By Con Coughlin, Defence Editor
Western intelligence officials say that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has personally sanctioned the dispatch of the experienced officers to ensure that the Assad regime, Iran’s most important regional ally, survives the threat to its survival.
In addition, Iran has shipped hundreds of tons of military equipment, including guns, rockets, and shells, to Syria through the regular air corridor that has been established between Damascus and Tehran.
Intelligence officials believe the increased Iranian support has been responsible for the growing effectiveness of the Assad regime’s tactics in forcing anti-government rebel groups on the defensive.
In the past few weeks, pro-Assad forces have seized the offensive by launching a series of well-coordinated attacks against rebel strongholds in Damascus and Aleppo.
The Iranian operation to support Mr Assad is being masterminded by Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Guards’ Quds force which is responsible for overseeing Iran’s overseas operations. The decision to increase Iran’s support for Syria was taken after the Syrian defence minister and Assad’s brother-in-law were killed in a suicide bomb attack at Syria’s national security headquarters in July, together with a number of other senior defence officials.
The Revolutionary Guards officers were flown to Damascus in chartered Iranian aircraft which were given permission to fly through Iraqi air space. Iranian military equipment is said to have been shipped to Syria by the same route.
Iranian opposition groups also claim that some of the 48 Iranians taken hostage by Syrian rebels last month were part of the 150-strong detachment of Revolutionary Guards sent to support the Assad regime.
A spokesman for the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) claimed that the Iranians being held by Syrian opposition groups included several brigadier-generals and a number of colonels who had many years of experience serving in the Revolutionary Guards.
“Iran has taken a strategic decision to deepen its involvement in the Syrian crisis,” a senior Western security official said. “The Iranians are desperate for their most important regional ally to survive the current crisis. And Iran’s involvement is starting to pay dividends.”
On Thursday, Syrian army bombardment was reported to have killed at least 20 people in an area of southern Damascus which houses a large Palestinian community. Assad loyalists have accused Palestinian refugees living in the capital of siding with the rebels, and have retaliated by launching repeated attacks against the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Iran’s support for pro-regime forces in Syria, particularly the supply of arms and ammunition, is making a vital contribution to the regime’s fightback against rebel forces, who only a few weeks ago were threatening to overrun the Syrian capital. Tehran’s position has been prompted by fears that any change of government in Damascus could jeopardise Iranian support for Hizbollah, the militant Shia Muslim militia it backs in Lebanon.
Under the Assad regime Damascus has allowed Iran to ship regular supplies of arms and equipment to southern Lebanon to enable Hizbollah to sustain its aggressive stance against Israel. The ayatollahs fear that any change of regime in Syria might cut the supply line. Intelligence officials believe that many of the Iranian commanders sent to Syria have previous experience of working in Lebanon with Hizbollah.