HOMS PROVINCE, Syria - The Syrian government is sending
members of its irregular militias for guerrilla combat training at a secret base
in Iran, in a move to bolster its armed forces drained by two years of fighting
and defections, fighters and activists said.
The discreet program has
been described as an open secret in some areas loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is trying to crush a revolt against his family's four-decade hold
Reuters interviewed four fighters who said they were taken on
the combat course in Iran, as well as opposition sources who said they had also
been documenting such cases.
Israel's intelligence chief and a Western
diplomat have said Iran, Assad's main backer, is helping to train at least
50,000 militiamen and aims to increase the force to 100,000 - though they did
not say where the training occurred.
No one at Iran's foreign ministry
was available for comment, but Iranian officials have repeatedly denied military
involvement in the Syrian conflict, saying they have only provided humanitarian
aid and political support for Assad.
A Syrian government security source,
who declined to be named, denied that Syria was sending fighters to Iran. "We
train our own special forces for this type of combat," he said. "Since 2006 we
have had units trained in guerrilla warfare, why would we need to send people to
Iran?" But if the reports by Syrian fighters are true, the move to train
combatants in Iran suggests that their country's increasingly regionalized
conflict has grown well beyond - and could even outlast - a battle for power
between Assad's circle and the opposition.
The fighters also appear to
come largely from minority groups that have supported Assad against the mostly
Sunni Muslim-led uprising. Such a move could exacerbate the dangerous sectarian
dimensions of a conflict that has turned into a civil war that has cost the
lives of more than 70,000 people.Regional influence
Iran, a Shi'ite
rival to Sunni countries in the Gulf that support the rebels, sees Syria as the
lynchpin of its regional influence. Syria has been its conduit to the Lebanese
guerrilla movement Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006.
was an urban warfare course that lasted 15 days. The trainers said it's the same
course Hezbollah operatives normally do," said Samer, a Christian member of a
pro-Assad militia fighting in rural parts of Homs province in central
"The course teaches you the important elements of guerrilla
warfare, like several different ways to carry a rifle and shoot, and the best
methods to prepare against surprise attacks." According to fighters interviewed
in Homs, most men sent to undergo the training are from the Alawite sect, the
heterodox strain of Shi'ite Islam of which Assad himself is a member.
smaller number were Druze and Christians, whose communities are divided but
largely support Assad due to their fears of rising Islamist rhetoric among the
"The Iranians kept telling us that this war is not against
Sunnis but for the sake of Syria. But the Alawites on the course kept saying
they want to kill the Sunnis and rape their women in revenge," said
Samer."Die an ugly death"
Syrian residents living in areas controlled by
the army or militias say irregular forces have been increasingly "regularised"
in recent months. These groups now brand themselves as the "National Defence
Army" and seem to operate as a parallel force to the official armed forces -
more lightly armed but without any of the oversight or
Since 2011, security forces organised groups called
"popular committees" for neighborhood watches. These later became militias
nicknamed "shabbiha", from the Arabic word for ghost.
have been accused of some of the worst massacres of Sunni civilians, including
one incident in the central town of al-Houla, in Homs province, in which more
than 100 people were killed, half of them children. Authorities blamed rebels
for the killings.
It is unclear how many former shabbiha fighters have
been sent on courses in Iran, but some interviewees said they had assembled in
groups of around 400 before being flown to Iran in smaller numbers. They
believed the offer of training was open to many pro-Assad militias operating
Syrian shabbiha fighters say Iran is also training Syrians
and supporting their forces inside Syria, so it is not clear why courses have
been run in Iran.
The fighters interviewed said they believed the
training implied a growing crisis of confidence between Iranian forces and the
Syrian army, which has been plagued with corruption as well as defections to the
Nabeel, a muscular Christian fighter from Homs nicknamed "The
Shameless One", said Iranian trainers repeatedly lectured on looting, a crime
widely committed by fighters on both sides.
"On our first day of
training, the Iranian officer overseeing our course said, 'I know exactly what
is going on in Syria and want to tell you one thing: If you joined the National
Defense Army for looting and not to defend your country, you will die an ugly
death and go to hell'." Secretive training
The trainees interviewed said they
were divided into groups. Some trained as ground forces with automatic rifles
and mounted anti-aircraft guns, others as snipers.
The groups were all
flown from Latakia air base to Tehran International Airport and then directly
bussed to an undisclosed location, they said.
"As soon as we arrived we
were put on buses with windows covered by curtains and they told us not to open
the curtains," said the fighter Samer.
"We drove about an hour and a half
before reaching the camp. It was straight from the airport to the camp, from the
camp to the airport. We didn't see anything other than that camp." All four
combatants, who come from different towns and different militias, separately
described the same experience. They said they were usually grouped into units of
about 60 for training. The fighters said they were trained by Iranian officers
who spoke Arabic but also relied on translators.
The units also had
contact with Lebanese fighters, said the participants, who suspected those men
of being Hezbollah militants helping to conduct training or participate in
"There were some groups from Hezbollah training at the same base
but there was no communication between our groups. They did their thing, and we
did ours," said Sameer, another militiaman from Homs. "I think their training
was tougher than ours."Gulf seeks to "bleed" Iran
Iran has supported and helped
train Syria's army under long-standing military cooperation agreements, but a
push into training its paramilitary forces could aggravate regional rivals such
as Israel, which is particularly wary of Syrian groups increasing coordination
with Hezbollah, or Saudi Arabia.
"If the Saudis felt that the Iranians
are really moving this game up, they will be sure to check that escalation by
increasing assistance to rebel fighters," said Michael Stephens, a Doha-based
analyst for the security think tank RUSI.
"Saudi Arabia is totally
focused on this as a way to make the Iranians bleed ... keep the Iranians bogged
down in this proxy war, bleed them dry." The fighters described the training as
far superior to skills they had been taught in courses inside
"Before I could only hit targets 50 percent of the time, now I can
hit a target around 90 percent of the time," said Samer.
"In Syria, they
made the priority defending the place we are in, no matter the price. In Iran,
they told us to save our lives. If you lose the position but survive, you can
recoup and regain the site another day. If you die, your position will
eventually be lost."
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