A group of 48 Iranian being held hostage by Syrian rebels, traveled to Damascus with the help of a travel agency owned by the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to media reports on Wednesday.
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ the 48 men have strong ties to the Guards contrary to Tehran’s claims that they are simply pilgrims.
They boarded six buses and traveled from Tehran to their destination, the Al-Faradis Hotel in downtown Damascus, when the last bus in the convoy was stopped at a checkpoint set up by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a person involved in the planning of the trip said to WSJ.
“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.
The tour operating company Samen Al Aemmeh, is not open to the public and solely caters to members and families of Guards or the Basij militia.
The company is also a subsidiary of Samen Al Aemmeh Industries, one of Guards’ largest umbrella groups, which is under sanctions by the United Nations Security Council and by the U.S. Treasury for its alleged role in missile building and Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
The reason for the 48 men’s journey, at the height of some of the most violent clashes in Syria, is not yet clear. But sources told WSJ that the men were all active members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (ICRG), on a mission to train Syrian forces in counterinsurgency methods, as Syrian forces fight a decisive battle in Aleppo.
If the hostages do belong to the ICRG, it would be the biggest indication to date that Iran is strongly involved in Syria’s 17-month long uprising and could ensure Iran is further isolated in the region, fueled by anger from Arab neighbors that have been staunch supporters of the Syrian opposition.
A member of the Guards said Tehran has stepped up its technical and training assistance to Syria in recent weeks. He said ICRG members are traveling to Syria to train government forces in guerilla warfare tactics similar to those used by Tehran against Kurdish rebels or 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 has vehemently denied the men were anything other than religious pilgrims but Iran’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that some of them are retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards.
“Some of these beloved ones were on IRGC and military pensions … and others were from other different departments,” Ali Akbar Salehi said while denying they now had any military connection.
Iran has steadfastly supported its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his attempts to crush opposition to his rule.
Salehi said retired government employees from a number of agencies had signed up to make pilgrimages to Damascus after recent fighting in the Syrian capital had subsided.
Iran has official banned tours and pilgrimages to Syria. And regular tour companies have long stopped their offers for trips to Damascus.
“After some time in which pilgrims from Iran were not being dispatched to Syria…we took steps to send retired forces from various organizations,” Iran’s state news agency IRNA quoted Salehi as saying.
Al Arabiya TV aired a video by the Free Syrian Army showing the men huddled on the floor as one them got up and presented ID cards that the rebels said were proof of his ICRG affiliation and a permit to carry a weapon. A rebel spokesman in the Damascus area said on Monday three of the Iranians had been killed by government shelling. He initially said the rest would be executed if the shelling did not stop but later said they were being questioned.
The hostages have presented Iran with a foreign policy crisis and forced it to reach out to countries which have backed the opposition and have been at odds with Tehran’s support for Assad.
Salehi’s comments came after he visited Tuesday to Turkey to ask Ankara to use its links with Syria rebels to secure the Iranians’ release. The Iranians have also appealed to Qatar for help.
Iran has in fact 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 Assad. Mr. Jalili said Iran would not let its close partnership with the Syrian leadership be shaken by the uprising or external foes
Damascus and Tehran have heldGulf Arab states and Turkey, all allies of the United States and European powers, responsible for the violence in Syria by supporting the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels. Western powers sympathetic to the rebels are concerned that anti-Western Sunni Islamists could benefit from a victory for the anti-Assad forces.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, without naming Iran, warned on Wednesday against a descent into “sectarian warfare” and said Washington would not tolerate “sending in proxies or terrorist fighters” to “exploit” Syria’s conflict.