The commander of Iran’s Basij volunteer paramilitary force said Wednesday that the Syrian militia loyal to President Bashar Assad is very similar to the Islamic Republic’s Basij force.

Muhammad Reza Naghdi said the Syrian force, known as the Shabiha, is a popular armed movement that behaves in a similar way to its Iranian counterpart, the Basij, according to the Persian-language service of the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Naghdi said that the similarity between what he described as “popular forces” was the source of accusations that Iranian forces are present in Syria.

“The behavior of the Syrian popular forces [in the civil war] is very similar to that of the Iranian Basij, therefore it is assumed that Iranian forces are present,” Naghdi said.

Iran’s Basij operates under the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, has several branches including three armed wings and has grown in power since the unrest following the disputed 2009 election.

In the same interview, Naghdi denied that members of the IRGC’s elite extraterritorial unit, the Qods Force, were in Syria to assist Assad in his fight against rebel forces.

“If we are talking about the transfer and sharing of experience [between Iran and Syria] then it is only natural that such a thing should exist, but we are focusing on the fact that there are no Iranian [military] forces present in Syria,” Naghdi added.

Iran, which has repeatedly expressed its support for Assad, admitted earlier this year that its forces are present in Damascus, but later denied a physical military presence and claimed Tehran is only advising Assad.

On May 27, ISNA published an interview with Qods Force deputy commander Esmail Ghani, who said Iran had been militarily involved in Syria to help prevent civilian deaths. Several hours after publishing the interview with Ghani, the news site removed it, although opposition sites managed to save screen grabs of the interview.

In September, IRGC commander in chief Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Ali Jafari acknowledged in a Tehran news conference that members of the Qods Force were in Syria, but in a non-military capacity.

The Qods Force had provided the Assad regime with “intellectual and advisory assistance and transferred experience,” Jafari said, according to a report by the Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC. Like Naghdi, Jafari compared the Shabiha with the Basij.

Syrian opposition activists have accused the Shabiha of helping Assad’s forces and of committing atrocities against civilians.

Naghdi’s comments also come after the US accused Iran in May of “aiding and abetting” the massacre of Syrian women and children in Houla. In a May 29 press briefing, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Shabiha closely resembled the Basij model.

“The Iranians have clearly provided support and training and advice to the Syrian army, but this Shabiha thug force mirrors the same force that the Iranians used. The Basij and the Shabiha are the same type of thing, and clearly reflects the tactics and the techniques that the Iranians used for their own suppression of civil rights,” Nuland said.

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