DUBAI - Members of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are in Syria providing non-military assistance and Iran may get involved militarily if Syria comes under attack, its commander said on Sunday.
The statement is the first official acknowledgement from a senior military commander that Iran has a military presence on the ground in Syria where an uprising has left tens of thousands dead since it began 18 months ago.
Western countries and Syrian opposition groups have accused Iran of providing weapons and expertise to Syrian armed forces and have suspected an Iranian military presence inside the country. Iran has denied this.
The Islamic Republic has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad since the crisis began and regards his rule as a key part of its axis of resistance against Israel and Sunni Arab states.
"A number of members of the Qods Force are present in Syria but this does not constitute a military presence," commander-in-chief of the IRGC Mohammad Ali Jafari said at a news conference on Sunday, Iranian news agency ISNA reported.
Qods is an IRGC unit set up to export Iran's ideology. It has been accused of plotting attacks inside Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Jafari did not indicate how many members were in Syria but said they were providing "intellectual and advisory help."
"The IRGC is giving intellectual help and even financial assistance but there is no military presence," he said.
He also said that Iran would change its policy and offer military backing to Assad if Syria came under attack.
"I say specifically that if Syria came under military attack, Iran would also give military support but it ... totally depends on the circumstances," he said.
Iranian officials have said Tehran has supplied medical and humanitarian relief to Damascus but have denied all allegations of military involvement.