Syrian rebels said a group of people captured near Damascus included members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, as fighting raged outside the capital and in Aleppo.
The claim contradicted Iranian descriptions of the abducted people as pilgrims. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Turkey and Qatar, which have backed the Syrian opposition, to help release the captives, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. IRNA said 48 pilgrims were abducted.
Shiite Muslim-led Iran has been the closest regional ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is dominated by officials from the Alawite sect, affiliated with Shiite Islam. Turkey and Qatar are largely Sunni Muslim states, and the rebels are largely drawn from the Sunni majority.
“This is embarrassing for” Assad’s government, Andrew Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria,” said in a phone interview. “It shows the degree to which things have gotten out of hand.”
Al Arabiya television’s video showed the Iranians sitting under a flag of the rebel Free Syria Army and surrounded by armed men. Their confessions as members of the Iranian guard will be posted in a video after interrogations, then a list of demands will be presented for their freedom, Al Jazeera television said, citing Captain Abdel Nasser Shmer, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Al Baraa Brigade. The authenticity of the videos couldn’t be confirmed.
Government troops are fighting rebels outside Damascus and in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial hub. The pro-government Al Watan newspaper said the army is bracing itself for a “decisive battle” to clear Aleppo of rebels.
At least 19,000 people have been killed in the past 17 months, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as a peaceful revolt against Assad’s rule has turned into a civil war.
Al Jazeera, citing the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said 113 people were killed across the country yesterday. Twenty-nine Syrian soldiers also died in the fighting yesterday, the observatory said on its Facebook page today.
Soldiers clashed with rebels in Aleppo’s Salaheddine district, attacking them with heavy weapons and killing one rebel as they tried to retake the neighborhood, the observatory said. In Damascus province, fighting continued in some towns and loud explosions were heard in Ein Terma, the group said.
As the fighting escalates, U.S. and European military and intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that a battle to the death between Assad loyalists and the opposition could strengthen Islamic extremists in Syria and neighboring states.
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi denied Israeli media reports that his country had sent troops to Syria to help Assad, the Tehran Times said. Iran hasn’t dispatched any soldiers and Syria’s government hasn’t asked Iran to do so, Vahidi told reporters in Tehran on Aug. 4, according to the newspaper.
“Assad needs Iran as something of a protector and adviser,” said Paul Sullivan, an economics professor specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington. “Iran is also a source of income for Syria in the form of arms shipments.”
The Islamic Republic “firmly” rejects rebel claims that the people abducted near Damascus include members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said.
“Those who carried out this operation preplanned it, and they have kidnapped Iranians before,” he said in a report on Iranian state television’s website. “Their aim is to put pressure on Iran to end its support for the Syrian nation.”
The abducted Iranians were on a bus from Damascus airport to a Shiite shrine outside the capital when they were kidnapped, according to Iran’s state-run Press TV. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said “armed terrorist groups” seized a bus carrying Iranian visitors in the Damascus countryside. “The authorities are working to handle the situation,” SANA said.
The captured Iranians were on a mission and at least one had a military identity card, according to the rebel officer shown in the video aired by Al-Arabiya.
Earlier this year, rebels kidnapped four Iranian engineers, releasing two in May and the remaining two in June, Press TV reported. Three Iranian truck drivers were kidnapped in May, the Iranian station said.
“This is bound to hit Assad’s pocket hard as they are probably the only tourists visiting his country these days,” said Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. “What should particularly concern the Iranian government is that this kidnapping could cause panic among thousands of Iranians living in Syria.”
Syria’s first man in space, Mohammad Ahmad Faris, fled to Turkey and joined the forces fighting Assad, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said yesterday.
The U.S. State and Defense Departments have begun planning for Assad’s fall, the New York Times said, citing unidentified Obama administration officials. The U.S. is preparing for humanitarian relief for the country and is pressing opposition forces in Syria not to retaliate against army, police and municipal arms of Assad’s government, the newspaper reported.