The deputy commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force militia admitted for the first time late Sunday that the Revolutionary Guard’s special unit has participated in military operations in Syria in support of president Bashar Assad’s regime.
Esmail Ghani said the Quds (‘Jerusalem’) Force had played a “physical and nonphysical” role in Syria.
Ghani made his comments in a short interview with Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency, which removed the text from its website shortly after posting it.
The Quds Force, which reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is an elite branch of the Revolutionary Guard, established in the 1990s to work outside Iran’s borders, including supporting terrorist organizations, particularly Hezbollah.
Ghani’s admission that the Quds Force is involved in Syria also came after forces loyal to Assad killed at least 108 people and injured 300 more in Houla in Homs province on Friday.
While the Syrian authorities denied any involvement in the massacre, blaming it on “terrorists,” Ghani told ISNA Iran’s “physical and nonphysical” presence in Syria had prevented even more bloodshed.
“If the Islamic Republic were not present in Syria, the killing of citizens would be greater,” Ghani said.
The Revolutionary Guard deputy commander added that “despite all the drawbacks of the Syrian government,” Syria’s “geography of resistance” and pressure from Israel and America meant that the Assad regime should not fall.
After ISNA removed the interview with Ghani, none of Iran’s other official news outlets reported his comments on Monday.
Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, cited Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparsat as alleging the bomb blasts in Syria had been “engineered” by “certain countries” opposed to stability.
Mehmanparsat blamed Israel as being at “the root of the problems,” adding that “the Zionist regime’s weakening position in the region” had led to “provocation.”
Meanwhile, the Tabnak news site, which is closely associated with Mohsen Rezaee, former Revolutionary Guard chief and current secretary-general of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, moved to slam Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech implicating the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah in the Houla massacre.
Though Tabnak’s main Persianlanguage site was silent on the matter, its Arabic page said while Netanyahu blamed Iran, “evidence suggests the influence of the Zionist regime in Syria.”
Though Tabnak did not elaborate further, the news site said that while Netanyahu had “claimed Iran and Hezbollah had been a party to what the Syrian regime had done” in Houla, “many experts and analysts” believed the massacre had been “prepared in accordance with Western cooperation” to increase the pressure on Damascus.
Significantly, Ghani’s remarks are the first time that an Iranian official has publicly admitted the Islamic Republic’s presence in Syria.
Both Syrian and Iranian officials have consistently denied Iran has aided the Assad regime, though Syria has long been Iran’s closest Arab ally and the US, EU and Syrian opposition leaders have frequently accused the Islamic Republic of aiding Syria.
In late 2009, Iran’s state-owned al-Alam news agency reported that the two countries signed a defense cooperation pact, and in January, an unnamed Revolutionary Guard official told the al-Arabiya news channel that Iran would provide aid to Syrian forces should Syria come under attack from external forces.
In February, members of Syria’s opposition National Council said Revolutionary Guard chief Qassem Suleimani had visited Damascus to advise and train the Assad regime.
Ghani’s admission of the Quds Force’s aid to Assad’s regime also comes after the US accused him in March of helping ship weapons to Syria.
The US Department of the Treasury designated Ghani, alongside two other Revolutionary Guard officials and Iran’s cargo airline Yas Air, as terrorist entities for shipping weapons to Syria to help bolster Assad’s regime.
The US Treasury alleged that Ghani, who has been slated as a possible successor to current Revolutionary Guard Chief, Maj.- Gen. Qassem Suleimani, used Yas Air to smuggle munitions to Syria.
More reports of Iranian assistance in Syria surfaced last month, when Kuwaiti daily al- Seyassah reported that a defected Syrian air force intelligence officer disclosed the existence of documents recording the arrival of large quantities of Iranian weapons to Syria.
Also according to al-Seyassah, dissident Syrian sources in Istanbul said Iranian agents living in one of the Gulf states had sold Syrian security services a database of accurate codes to decrypt satellite communications used by Syrian dissidents and defectors. As a result, Syrian intelligence has been able to disrupt communications between Syrian dissidents and external media, the paper said.