Diplomats: Iran steps up military support to Assad

Western diplomats say Iranian weapons continue to pour into Syria from Iraq and from new arms supply routes via Turkey, Lebanon.

March 14, 2013 06:27
Flags of Hezbollah, Assad's Syria

Flags of Hezbollah, Assad's Syria 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)

UNITED NATIONS - Iran has significantly stepped up military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in recent months, solidifying its position alongside Russia as the government's lifeline in an increasingly sectarian civil war, Western diplomats said.

Iranian weapons continue to pour into Syria from Iraq but also increasingly along other routes, including via Turkey and Lebanon, in violation of a UN arms embargo on Iran, Western officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Iraqi and Turkish officials denied the allegations.

Iran's acceleration of support for Assad suggests the Syrian war is entering a new phase in which Iran may be trying to end the battlefield stalemate by redoubling its commitment to Assad and offering Syria's increasingly isolated government a crucial lifeline, the envoys said.

It also highlights the growing sectarian nature of the conflict, diplomats say, with Iranian arms

Arms supplies via Turkey and Lebanon?

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran's UN mission, responded to a request for a comment by saying, "We believe Syria does not need any military help from Iran." "Unfortunately the situation in Syria and the whole Middle East region is becoming more and more delicate and risky because of foreign interference and funneling of arms to the extremist groups," he said, repeating that Tehran wanted to end the conflict through dialogue between the government and opposition.

Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The diplomats cited by Reuters made clear that the principal delivery route for arms to Syria still went through Iraq, despite the existence of alternative supply channels such as Turkish airspace. They also said that Iran Air and Mahan Air were well-known violators of the Iranian arms embargo.

Iran Air and Mahan Air were both mentioned in the intelligence report on Iranian arms shipments to Syria seen by Reuters in September. The U.S. Treasury Department has blacklisted Iran Air, Mahan Air and Yas Air for supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

One Western diplomat cited intelligence reports from his country that a new avenue for sending arms to Syria went on occasion through Turkish airspace to Beirut and from there to Syria by truck. There was no suggestion, he said, that Turkish officials were aware of the illicit arms shipments.

Once in Syria, he said, the arms were distributed to government forces and allied militia, including Hezbollah.

"The equipment being transferred by both companies (Iran and Mahan Air) ... ranges from communications equipment to light arms and advanced strategic weapons, some of which are being used devastatingly by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime against the Syrian people," said the Western intelligence report.

"The more sophisticated gear includes parts for various hardware such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), shore-to-sea missiles and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles (SSMs)," the report said. "Other weapons are being used by Syrian security forces, pro-Assad shabbiha militiamen, and Lebanese Hezbollah." There are about 5 tons of arms per flight, which are occurring on a near weekly basis, hidden in the bottom of the planes' fuselages, the report said, adding that arms cargo was removed separately after civilian cargo was unloaded.

Other Western officials confirmed the findings in the report.

A Turkish diplomatic source denied the allegation. "This is a very sensitive matter for Turkey, and we are very certain that this is baseless," the source told Reuters.

Turkey has intercepted Iranian arms shipments in the past and reported them to the UN Security Council's sanctions committee. Ankara's aggressive campaign to stamp out Iranian arms smuggling via its airspace, Western diplomats say, was what led Iran to begin using Iraqi airspace instead.

Lebanon's UN ambassador, Nawaf Salam, said he was not in a position to comment. An official at Beirut's airport who requested anonymity rejected the allegations of clandestine Iranian shipments going to Syria via Beirut airport.

Lebanon has had a complicated relationship with neighboring Syria. Its population is deeply divided over the conflict. UN chief Ban Ki-moon last week urged Lebanon, which is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, to remain neutral.

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