After the Iranian government had long denied all direct involvement in what by now can be called a Syrian civil war, an apparently unsanctioned slip of tongue by a senior Revolutionary Guards officer has redrawn Iran's official position of neutrality regarding the Syrian issue.
Earlier this week the semi-official students news agency ISNA published an article on its website, quoting the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard's Qods Force, Ismail Qaani that Iran had been involved “physically” in Syria. Only hours later the same article disappeared from the website. By then however, it had been cached and re-posted on other sites, such as Baztab.com.
In the article Ismail Qaani had stated that Iran was supporting the Syrian people, “both physically and non-physically“ and that the presence of the Qods Force in Syria was responsible for preventing the rise of even greater violence. He also admitted that there were drawbacks in Syria's government apparatus and that Iran had asked the Syrian government to address them.
The Qods Force (literally Jerusalem Force) was established during the early days of the Islamic Republic, tasked with the export of the Islamic Revolution, and is said to be responsible for extraterritorial operations and liaising with militant Islamic organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. It answers directly to the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Following the appearance and then disappearance of the interview on ISNA's website, reformist newspapers such as Rah-e Sabz and Mardomak had picked up on the story, commenting that neither the Revolutionary Guards Corps nor the judicial branch was willing to explain the incident. None of the official government outlets did at this point respond to the story.
However, on May 29 the official Fars news agency posted an interview with Seyyed Hasan Firuzabadi, Chief of Staff of Iran's Joint Armed Forces, in which he commented on the questions arising from the deleted article on ISNA.
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In the interview, Firuzabadi backpedalled significantly from Qaani's stance, saying that Iran merely provides “spiritual and moral” support to the Syrian people and that Western accusations of Iran fighting with Syrian government forces against the Syrian people were false.
Yet, Firuzabadi indirectly confirmed the notion that Iran actively supports the government in its struggle against the opposition. The commander said Iran's support for Syria dated back a long time and that Iran would clearly help “the only country that firmly resisted Israel during the last 40 years”.
He further claimed that Iran had a significant role in the “positive decisions taken by Bashar al-Assad's government” that were based on a need for a stable security situation. “We want that Syria is secure and stable, which is largely achieved,” Firuzabadi added.
Firuzabadi also took a clear stance on the armed opposition. “Criminals who are roaming the country and are not willing to negotiate” had been seen “carrying Israeli weapons,” he claimed. These people were “an American deployment of mercenaries” and responsible for the killings in Syria, he told Fars.
These comments, taking clear sides in the conflict and even admitting direct involvement, come after Iranian officials have time and again denied any direct involvement of Iran in the issue. In fact, Qaani's statement is the first direct admission by an Iranian official, military or civilian, that Iran's forces are actively involved in the conflict. Not merely by providing aid or weaponry to either of the fighting parties, but actually with the Qods Forces' boots on the ground.
Iran's desire to prevent al-Assad's regime from falling is hardly surprising. Syria has been Iran's staunchest strategic ally in the region despite severe ideological differences between the Baathist al-Assad regime and the Islamist outlook of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They have been the only two countries uncompromising in their firm anti-Israel stance. Syria not only figures as a rare friend for Iran, a country that sees itself surrounded by hostile or mistrustful neighbours, but also serves as an important strategic link in Iran's alliance with Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement.
The admission by an Iranian regime official of direct military involvement of Iranian troops in the conflict comes amidst discussions over the need for a tougher stance of the West on Bashar al-Assad's regime and will raise concerns over the emergence of a proxy-conflict fought out at the expense of Syrian civilians.