“The aid from Iran is increasing, and is increasingly focused on lethal assistance,” said one of the officials, insisting on anonymity to discuss intelligence reports from the region.
The expanded Iranian role in the conflict has been underscored by reports — supported by U.S. intelligence findings — that an Iranian operative was recently wounded while working with Syrian security forces inside the country.
The flow of military aid to Assad comes as Arab states are considering arming the regime’s opponents, raising the risk of a wider conflict that U.S. officials fear could spread to neighboring countries.
In addition, the intelligence reports about rising Iranian support for Syria come as U.S. officials are seeking to rally international support for efforts to drive Assad from power without resorting to arming the rebels — a move the Obama administration has opposed. The portrayal offered by the three officials quoted in this article is more detailed than previously reported; such accounts are generally difficult to verify independently.
Iran has made no secret of its support for the Assad regime, though President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made repeated calls for a peaceful solution to the conflict, which began almost a year ago.
‘Big guys wearing black’
The U.S. intelligence assessments are in line with recent reports by Syrian rebels, who say Iran’s involvement in the crackdown has escalated. Opposition leaders, citing high-ranking defectors from the Syrian military, say Iran has dispatched hundreds of advisers, security officials and intelligence operatives to Syria, along with weapons, money and electronic surveillance equipment.
“Iran has been involved in the crackdown by Assad on a much larger scale than previously thought,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based Syrian activist and a member of the Syria Working Group of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
Stories of Syrian troops being accompanied by black-bearded men speaking a foreign language and assumed to be Iranian have circulated widely inside Syria for many months, but activists acknowledge they have little hard evidence that Iranians are actually participating in the offensives.
“We saw some evidence, but we can’t prove it,” said Omar Shakir, who fled to Lebanon from the former opposition stronghold of Bab Amr in Homs a week ago. “We have seen tall guys, big guys wearing black.”
The Free Syrian Army is holding seven Iranians captured in Homs in December. The Iranian government says they are power-plant workers, but the rebels assert that they were working for the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Eleven Iranian pilgrims abducted in January are still missing, Iran’s Press TV reported Saturday.