A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander has admitted that Iran has sent its troops to help the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight opposition forces.
“Before our presence in Syria, too many people were killed by the opposition but with the physical and non-physical presence of the Islamic republic, big massacres in Syria were prevented,” Ismail Gha’ani, the deputy head of Iran’s Quds force, a shadowy branch of the Revolutionary Guards in charge of overseas operations, said in an interview with the semi-official Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA), according to a report by the Persian-language GozaraNews website.
ISNA published the interview on Sunday night, but subsequently removed it from its website “under pressure,” the report said.
Syria is Iran’s most important regional ally, and Tehran has long used its neighbor’s territory as a base for operations to maintain a lifeline to militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran’s proxies in southern Lebanon and Gaza.
Rumors that Iran has provided military support to Assad, to assist his crackdown on the popular uprising that has challenged his family’s 40-year grip on power, have circulated since the outbreak of protests in Syria in March 2011.
The Gha’ani remarks followed the weekend massacre of more than 100 civilians, including dozens of children, in the Houla township in western Syria, which has triggered an international outcry, including a Sunday statement by the UN Security Council describing the massacre as an “outrageous use of force against civilian population.”
Syrian opposition activists have blamed the killings on pro-government fighters, an accusation categorically denied by the Syrian authorities, who said the tragedy was a terrorist plot aimed at undermining the regime.
UN observers working in Syria have confirmed that tanks and artillery were used in the weekend attacks on Houla, as well as that many of those killed were stabbed or shot at point-blank range, raising questions among observers about who could benefit from the tragedy.