Claims that Iranians and Lebanese Hizballah members are aiding President Bashar Assad's troops in their ferocious crack down against dissent are almost as old as the 10-month Syrian uprising. Yet despite the thousands of amateur videos that have captured so much of the gruesome, bloody repression, precious little evidence has emerged to back the allegations of foreign assistance, beyond the assertions of antigovernment activists and the testimony of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence.
On Thursday, al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite channel, broadcast amateur footage purportedly showing five of seven Iranians captured by Syrian military defectors belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the besieged central city of Homs. A Syrian rebel who gave his name as Abu Bassem told the channel that the seven were nabbed by the FSA's Farouk Brigade on two separate occasions. Five of the men were allegedly Iranian soldiers, operating as snipers under the direct supervision of Syria's much feared Air Force Intelligence branch in Homs, Abu Bassem told al-Jazeera in a phone call from the city, while the other two were civilians working at a local power plant in Jandar, near Homs.
Five of the men are shown in a six-minute, 20-second snippet. Bearded and cloaked in black, they sit against a white wall, with a lone rifle propped up between the second and third man. A scrolling red ticker on the screen says that they are Iranian Revolutionary Guards and calls on "all Iranian Revolutionary Guards to immediately withdraw from Syrian territory." One of the five men holds up a laminated photo identification card. The Enduring America website posted a Farsi-to-English translation of his comments: "My name is Sajjad (Haider Ali) Aminan and I am a member of the revolutionary armed forces of Iran. I am leader of a five-member special team. I entered Syria on Oct. 16, 2011. The others entered Syria on different dates."
The men then all state their names: Ahmad Aziz Askari, Hasan Hasani, Majid Qanbari, Kyumars Qobadi. One says that they have killed "many civilians in the city of Homs, including many women and children."
The footage then cuts to two laminated photo ID cards, showing their back and front, as well as three passports. The pages are flipped, one by one, including all of the blank pages.
Is this proof of Iran sending military reinforcement to prop up its main Arab ally? Or could something else be happening there? On Dec. 21, Syrian state media reported that eight foreign engineers, including five Iranians, were abducted "by terrorists" as they traveled on a company bus to their place of work, the Jandar power plant on the outskirts of Homs. The nationalities of the other three engineers were not stated. Shortly afterward, Iran's Press TV reported that "two more Iranian experts, who were trying to clarify the situation of the five abducted engineers," were kidnapped. Their whereabouts are unknown. On Jan. 2, an unknown group called the Movement Against the Expansion of Shiism in Syria sent a claim of responsibility for the abductions to the Agence France-Presse office in Nicosia, Cyprus.
The men in the video bear a resemblance to the five engineers abducted in December, as portrayed in a photo circulated in the Syrian and Iranian press. Their names also appear to match. The men, who are all dressed casually in jeans, jackets and track pants pose alongside a man identified as their Syrian cook. They are not the only Iranians nabbed in Syria. "Eleven Iranian pilgrims traveling by road to Damascus were kidnapped by an unknown group," Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, was quoted as saying on Thursday by the state news agency IRNA. "We call on the Syrian government to use all means ... to release the Iranian nationals," he said.
Sectarian tensions have been rising in the multiethnic, multisectarian patchwork of the Syrian state as the death toll spirals beyond 5,000. Resentment toward Assad and some of his Alawite co-religionists is strong among certain quarters of the majority Sunni population. Although Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, comprise some 12% of Syria's 22 million people, they are disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of Syria's political, business and military communities. There is also rising anger toward Assad's staunchest regional backers, Shi'ite Iran and the Shi'ite Lebanese militant group Hizballah (Party of God), which is now frequently referred to by Syrian activists, refugees and defectors alike as the "party of the devil." It's not inconceivable that a busload of Iranian pilgrims were nabbed by antigovernment elements, perhaps as bargaining chips.
Abu Bassem of the FSA's Farouk Brigade stressed during his interview with al-Jazeera that he and his group were not against Shi'ites. "We are not sectarian," he said. "We ask Iran to admit they sent members of Revolutionary Guards to Syria. He said that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had until Jan. 28 to withdraw all Revolutionary Guards from Syria.
Pressed by the anchor about what would happen should the deadline lapse, Abu Bassem said: "We are not terrorists, criminals or killers. We are against anyone who threatens innocent Syrians. We caught these people, they were armed. They are snipers. They were killing our Syrian brethren. We will try, God willing, to return them to their families safely, but given the difficult circumstances Homs is experiencing, we cannot guarantee their safety."