Iran is playing an increasingly active role in helping the Syrian regime crack down on pro--democracy protesters, according to Western diplomatic sources in Damascus.
The claim came as Syrian security forces backed by tanks intensified operations to suppress anti-regime unrest in three new flashpoint towns on Sunday and it was confirmed that four women had been shot dead in the first use of force against an all-female demonstration.
A senior Western diplomat in Damascus expanded on assertions, first made by White House officials last month, that Iran is advising Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government on how to crush dissent.
The diplomat pointed to a “significant” increase in the number of Iranian personnel in the country since protests began in mid-March.
Mass arrests carried out in door-to-door raids, similar to those that helped to crush Iran’s “green revolution” in 2009, have been ramped up in the past week.
Human rights groups suggest more than 7,000 people have been detained since the uprising began. More than 800 people are said to have died, up to 50 during last Friday’s “day of defiance.”
“Tehran has upped the level of technical support and personnel support from the Iranian Republican Guard to strengthen Syria’s ability to deal with protesters,” the diplomat said, adding that the few hundred personnel were not involved in any physical operations.
“Since the start of the uprising, the Iranian regime has been worried about losing its most important ally in the Arab world and important conduit for weapons to Hezbollah [in Lebanon],” the diplomat said.
Last month, White House officials made similar allegations about Iranian assistance for the regime, particularly in terms of intercepting or blocking Internet, mobile phone and social media communications between the protesters and the outside world. However, the officials did not provide hard evidence to support their claims.
Activists and diplomats claim Iran’s assistance includes help monitoring Internet communications such as Skype, widely used by a network of activists, methods of crowd control and the provision of equipment such as batons and riot police helmets.
Syria has denied seeking or receiving assistance from Iran to put down the unrest.
In a statement issued on Friday, Iran’s foreign ministry stressed Syria’s “prime role” in opposing Israel and the US and urged opposing forces in the country to compromise on political reform. US policy towards Syria was based on “opportunism in support of the Zionist regime’s avarice,” it said.
The Assad family, from the Shiite minority Alawite sect, is likely to be nervous about appearing to be helped by its Shiite-dominated ally to crush protesters drawn from the 75 percent Sunni population.
Along with arbitrary detentions, shootings have continued.
Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer in the capital who is monitoring the protests, said four women were shot dead in the village of Merqeb, close to Banias, and six men were shot dead in Banias on Saturday.