The Iranian regime is running to the rescue of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is struggling to contain a growing revolution against his rule. The protests continually reach new heights despite the killing of over 1,700 and imprisonment of 12,000. Now, Iran is offering Assad a massive $5.8 financial aid package in a desperate attempt to stabilize its ally.
Last Friday’s protests in Syria were the largest yet. For the first time, there were large demonstrations in the capital of Damascus, and not just its suburbs. Over one million Syrians came out into the streets, out of a nation of only 22 million. It is likely that the increased turnout was encouraged by the U.S. and French ambassadors’ visit to Hama the previous week, without the Assad regime’s permission, to show support for the protesters. They were met with cheers, flowers and olive branches. The Assad regime is very worried about Western support for its domestic opponents, and retaliated by staging attacks on the U.S. and French embassies. The regime is also stoking sectarian warfare to ensure the loyalty of the Allawite minority it comes from, and to frighten the Syrian people and the West about causing ethnic cleansing and a civil war.
A think tank tied to the Iranian regime says that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is willing to give a $5.8 billion package to Syria, including a three-month loan of $1.5 billion. The Iranians are also considering giving 290,000 barrels of oil per day to Syria for a month to help bolster the economy, and to help secure the border with Lebanon to stop refugees from fleeing with cash. This investment reflects how worried Iran is about losing Syria as an ally, as the overthrow of the Assad regime would upend its strategic position in the Middle East.
Iran rushed to aid Assad shortly after small protests turned into an uprising in March. Reports of Iranian and Hezbollah involvement first came out of Daraa, where the revolution gained steam. Citizens told stories of attackers speaking Farsi and talking with a southern Lebanese accent, as Hezbollah operatives would have. On March 21, a massive stockpile of Iranian weapons destined for Aleppo was intercepted in Turkey. The arms included “60 Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, 14 BKC/Bixi machine guns, nearly 8,000 rounds of BKC/AK-47 ammunition, 560 60-mm mortar shells, and 1,288 120-mm mortar shells.”
The Reform Party in Syria revealed in April that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had taken over a base in Homs Province to oversee the suppression of the revolution. The Syrian military allegedly began being supervised by the Iranians, resulting in Farid Ghadry of the Reform Party of Syria’s declaration that “In essence, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps now occupies Syria and has become its de facto ruler. Syria has become the 32nd province of Iran.”
The Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force also has a base in Damascus, where it has helped the regime arrest hundreds of its opponents by tracking opposition activity on the Internet. The Iranians have provided tools for repression, such as batons and riot gear, as well as sophisticated monitoring equipment used in putting down their own Green Revolution. One Iranian opposition group says in May, four planes transporting weapons and 65 Revolutionary Guards members arrived in the capital. They allegedly set up a base called the Ammar Operations Headquarters to work with the Assad regime.
One of the reasons for Iran’s involvement is the questionable loyalty of Assad’s mostly-Sunni military. There have been consistent reports of defections and in-fighting, though there has yet to be a serious split, as happened in Libya and Yemen. Most recently, over 200 soldiers defected in Abu Kamal in Deir ez-Zour Province, bringing several tanks with them. Other activists said that around 100 members of the Syrian air force’s intelligence branch had switched sides, as had the crew of four armored vehicles. The city erupted after four protesters will killed, including a 14-year old boy. The regime’s ongoing atrocities against children, such as the torture and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb, have served as a major source of fuel for the revolution.
Syrians who have fled to Turkey have also spoken of attacks in Jisr al-Shughour by soldiers that can’t speak Arabic and have full beards, which is uncommon in Syria. One resident said that some of the personnel confirmed they were Iranian. One soldier who fled to Turkey said that Iranians and members of Hezbollah are executing those who refuse to fire on their fellow countrymen. Citizens captured an agent of the regime and videotaped him confirming that Iranians are in Damascus and Aleppo, and that they are identifying and killing disloyal soldiers. Residents of Talbisseh also talked about bearded soldiers, and it’s been reported that Iraqis from the Iranian-backed militia of Moqtada al-Sadr have been dispatched to Syria.
Iran’s rescuing of Assad shows how critical Syria is to the balance of power in the region. If Iran feels the revolution in Syria is of the utmost importance, then so should the West.