Iranian snipers have been deployed in Syria as part of an increasingly brutal crackdown on protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, according to a former member of the regime’s secret police.
The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, crossed the border into Turkey last week after being ordered to shoot to kill, bringing with him sickening details of increasingly desperate measures to end five months of demonstrations. He said he had beaten prisoners and fired on protesters in Damascus. At times during the past two months he was aware of Iranian troops – confirmed by senior officers – alongside his team in the Syrian capital.
“We knew they were from Iran because we were not allowed to speak to them and they were kept well away from us,” he told The Daily Telegraph in Yayladagi, the nearest town to the refugee camp where he now lives. “When we had operated with the Syrian army we would always mix with them and chat.” His account confirms other reports that Syria has turned to its closest ally for help in putting down the protests directed at the Assad family’s 41 years in power.
The ferocity of government operations has shocked international observers.
Tanks and snipers have been deployed to quell protests across the country during the holy month of Ramadan, even as the US and Arab states have called on Mr Assad to end the violence.
So far more than 1,700 people have reportedly been killed.
On Monday Syrian forces shelled residential districts in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia for a third straight day. At least 29 civilians, including a two-year-old girl have been killed, according to rights groups.
Spokesmen for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said a Palestinian refugee camp near the town had been shelled from the sea, emptying it of half its 10,000 residents. The organisation called on President Assad to stop the attack.
The bloodshed has forced thousands of people to cross the border from Syria into Turkey.
Among them last week was a 25-year-old officer with the Mukhabarat secret police, who described how officers were increasingly unhappy at being ordered to kill unarmed protesters.
“They were all feeling like me. They were all afraid like me but knew they would be killed if they left or if they refused orders,” he said.
Instead they tried to aim their shots in the air.
He also described bringing protesters – some as young as 13 – into police stations where they were beaten for the entertainment of senior officers.
The worst episode, he said, came in July when the secret police snatched nine women believed to be married to opposition leaders.
“The Mukhabarat stripped them and then made them walk through the streets,” he said. “It was just to make their husbands turn themselves in. Two days later they did.”
Now he faces an uncertain future. No one else in the refugee camp knows that he was once one of the men ordered to fire on protesters but he also knows that he faces death as a deserter if he were to return to Syria.
Iran and its close regional ally, the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, are growing increasingly concerned at President Assad’s isolation and are doing all they can to bolster him as the Arab world starts to withdraw its support.
On Sunday, a senior religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, issued a statement saying: “It is the duty of all Muslims to help stabilise Syria against the destructive plots of America and Israel.”