Iran has withdrawn 275 members of its elite Qods Force from Syria in the face of its domestic economic crisis, The Sunday Times reported on Sunday.
The members belong to a brigade known as Unit 400, which fought alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad against Sunni rebels, the report quoted a western intelligence officer as saying. According to The Times, the unit flew out of Syria last week. The report added that the information was confirmed by a relative of a Unit 400 officer.
The withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria was seen by some as an indicator of waning confidence among Iran’s Shi’ite leaders in Assad’s ability to survive the uprising.
According to The Times,
there have been loud complaints about an estimated $5 billion of Iranian money spent to prop up the Assad regime in Damascus.
There are signs that Iran’s oil wealth, which pays for its
nuclear program and support for Assad, is eroding. Iran faces new
sanctions for failing to cooperate with Western concerns about its
nuclear program, and the sanctions are taking its toll, evident in the
fall in the value of the rial and soaring food prices.
Last week, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz predicted that Iran's economy
is edging towards collapse due to international sanctions over its
controversial nuclear program.
"The sanctions on Iran in the past
year jumped a level," Steinitz said. "The Iranians are in great
economic difficulties as a result of the sanctions," he added.
Foreign Ministry document leaked last week also said sanctions had caused
more damage to Iran's economy than at first thought and ordinary
Iranians were suffering under soaring inflation.
On Saturday, US Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta warned Iran that the international
community is ready to impose more sanctions if the country does not
begin to address concerns about its nuclear program.
The first official acknowledgement from a senior military commander that Iran has a military presence on the ground in Syria came last month. Commander-in-chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Mohammad Ali Jafari admitted: "A number of members of the Qods Force are present in Syria."
However, he denied the existence of on the ground assistance, stating, "the IRGC is giving intellectual help and even financial assistance but there is no military presence."
"We all have a responsibility to support Syria and not allow the
line of resistance to be broken," Fars news agency, which claims to be
independent but which is widely known to have close ties to Iran's
Revolutionary Guards, quoted Hossein Taeb, the intelligence unit head,
Following the admission, Western members of the UN Security Council blasted Iran for providing Assad with weapons to help him crush an 18-month-long uprising by rebels determined to topple his government.
"Iran's arms exports to the murderous Assad regime in Syria are of particular concern," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told the 15-nation council during a meeting on the world body's Iran sanctions regime.
A UN Security Council panel of independent experts that monitors sanctions against Iran has uncovered several examples of Iran transferring arms to Syria's government. Damascus has accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of arming rebels determined to topple Assad's government.