IRGC traveling to Syria to train the army on guerril IRGC’s battles with Kurdish and Baluchi separatist groups along Iran’s borders.
Evidence Emerges Men Held by Syria Rebels Are Linked to Iran’s Revoltionary Guard, as Tehran Warns U.S. on Their Fate
BEIRUT-A band of 48 Iranians being held hostage by Syria’s rebel army journeyed from Tehran on a trip organized by a travel agency owned by the elite troops who support and protect the Iranian regime, people familiar with the trip said.
That connection-denied by Iran, a staunch supporter of the Assad government-suggests the hostages have strong ties to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, as the rebels claim. Tehran, which says the hostages are religious pilgrims, warned it would hold the U.S. responsible for their fate due to its support of the opposition, and vowed to stand by the Syrian regime amid a growing civil war.
The kidnapped 48 men traveled to Damascus on Saturday as part of a large contingent on a trip organized by a Revolutionary Guard Corps travel agency, according to people familiar with the trip.
They packed into six buses from the airport and traveled on the highway to their destination, Hotel Al-Faradis in downtown Damascus, when the last bus in the convoy was stopped at an opposition rebel checkpoint and abducted, according to a person involved in the planning of the trip.
“Everyone on this trip was either a Guard or a Basij militia. This wasn’t a regular tour group,” said an employee of the tour agency that organized the trip, reached by telephone. Agency officials could not be reached.
The reason for their journey, at the height of one of the most violent periods in Syria, is not clear. But the people familiar with the trip said the men were active members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, on a mission to train Syrian forces in counterinsurgency methods as its armed forces fight a decisive battle in Aleppo.
That would represent the strongest suggestion of Iran’s involvement in Syria’s 17-month uprising and could further dig Iran into isolation in the region, fueled by anger among its Arab neighbors for its support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Samen Al Aemmeh, the tour operating company, is not open to the Iranian public and solely caters to members and families of Guards or the plainclothes Basij militia. The company is also a subsidiary of Samen Al Aemmeh Industries, one of IRGC’s largest umbrella groups, which has been sanctioned under United Nations Security Council resolutions and by the U.S. Treasury for its role in missile building and Iran’s nuclear program.
A member of the IRGC inside Iran said Tehran had stepped up its technical and training assistance to Syria in recent weeks. He said IRGC members were traveling to Syria to train the army on guerrilla warfare modeled after IRGC’s battles with Kurdish and Baluchi separatist groups along Iran’s borders. The battle of Aleppo, for example, is a classic example of IRGC tactics, the source said; the army intentionally lets rebels gain territory of neighborhoods then closes in on them by ground and aerial offensives.
Iran’s government has denied the hostages are affiliated with the Guards and said the men were pilgrims who traveled to Syria independently. Iran and Syria have offered a counter-narrative of the hostages’ whereabouts at the time of the abduction. Iran’s Foreign Ministry initially said the hostages were entering Syria but then official media reported they were leaving the revered shrine of the Shiite saint Seyedeh Zainab for the airport.
Iran has officially banned tours and pilgrimages to Syria, and regular tour companies have long halted their offers to Damascus. Devout Shiites seldom travel during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, because a long trip would mean breaking their fast. There were no women or children traveling with the group.
Like most Revolutionary Guards business entities, Samen’s interests are spread widely from defense technology to banking, hospitals, publishing and travel agency. “Unfortunately my brother is among the hostages in the hands of the Free Syrian Army. He is a hotel manager for Samen Al Aemmeh but they are all pilgrims. Please pray for them,” wrote someone named Mojtaba Bideghi on the commentary section of Iran’s Baztab news website on Tuesday.
The Free Syrian Army brigade that holds the hostages has posted a video of the men, burly and bearded, huddled on the floor, and one of them showed ID cards that the rebel said were proof of his IRGC affiliation and a permit to carry a weapon. On Monday, the rebels said three Iranians and a number of FSA soldiers died in Damascus from the Syrian army’s bombardment. The rebels threatened to kill the rest of the hostages if the attacks didn’t stop.
The hostages have presented Iran with a foreign policy crisis and forced it to reach out to countries like Qatar and Turkey, which have staunchly backed the Syrian opposition and have been at odds with the Islamic Republic’s continued support of Mr. Assad.
Iran has launched a diplomatic blitz by sending top diplomats across the region to lobby their release. Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council and top nuclear negotiator, traveled to Damascus on Tuesday and met with Mr. Assad. Mr. Jalili said Iran would not let its close partnership with the Syrian leadership be shaken by the uprising or external foes. “Iran won’t allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way,” Syrian television quoted Mr. Jalili as saying.
The “axis of resistance” refers to Shiite Iran’s anti-Israel alliance with Syria’s rulers-from the Alawite faith which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam-and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, with Iranian and Syrian support.
The footage of the meeting came a day after the defection of Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab on Monday, and was the first broadcast of Mr. Assad for two weeks. Also on Tuesday, the new prime minister was televised chairing a hastily called cabinet session, possibly to rebut reports that other ministers had deserted along with Mr. Hijab.
Heavily armed government troops have been steadily shelling rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo, and clashes continued Tuesday in the historic city center. That suggests the rebels were making some inroads in Aleppo, which lies just south of the Turkish border.
More than 1,300 Syrians fled to Turkey overnight to escape the civil war as rebels tried to expand their hold inside Syria’s largest city despite two weeks of withering counterattacks by Assad’s troops.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday condemned the presence of proxy groups fueling the battle in Syria and said it could plunge the country into sectarian war.
“Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people,” said Mrs. Clinton in South Africa.
She also said the U.S. and other nations need to quickly come up with a transition plan that ensures that Syrian state institutions remain intact once Mr. Assad loses his grip on power. She also stressed, in a veiled warning to Iran, that outsiders should not attempt to take advantage of any power vacuum that arises.
“I do think we can begin talking about planning for what happens next: the day after the regime does fall,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at a news conference with South Africa’s foreign minister. “I am not going to put a timeline on it, I can’t possibly predict it, but I know it is going to happen as do most observers around the world.”
-The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared August 8, 2012, on page A8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Tensions Rise Over Iranian Hostages.