Belief that Shiite-dominated Iran is aiding the Syrian crackdown has helped sharpen sectarian sentiments among those in the mostly Sunni country seeking to topple the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
U.S. officials declined to address allegations about specific acts. But one of the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said intelligence agencies have documented reports of a wide range of assistance.
“They’ve supplied equipment, weapons and technical assistance — even monitoring tools — to help suppress unrest,” the official said. “Iranian security officials also traveled to Damascus to help deliver this assistance.”
A second senior U.S. official said members of Iran’s main intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, are assisting Syrian counterparts in charge of the crackdown. Last month, the Obama administration imposed sanctions against the intelligence service, citing “financial, material and technological support” for the Syrian crackdown. The Obama administration had previously imposed sanctions against Iran’s elite Quds Force for providing training and equipment to Syrian security units.
Iran’s intelligence service played a key role in Tehran’s crackdown on the country’s Green Movement in 2009 and is associated with allegations of sexual abuse, torture and mock executions of protesters.
It now is believed be “exporting its vicious practices to support the Syrian regime’s abhorrent crackdown on its own population,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence
The head of the Quds Force, Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, also has paid at least one visit to Damascus in recent weeks, U.S. officials said.
Syrian Vice President Najah al-Attar, hosting a group of visiting journalists Saturday in Damascus, hailed the “importance of the historical relations between Syria and Iran.”
“Syria’s ties with Iran will remain strong, being built on a principled basis as they serve the two countries’ peoples and contribute to boosting stability in the Middle East,” she said, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
Report of a mass execution
In the latest offensive, Syrian troops swept into the rebel enclave of Bab Amr late last week, routing opposition fighters. The move ended a 27-day siege on the Bab Amr neighborhood, which had been in the hands of opposition forces for weeks. Activists and human rights groups have since accused Syrian forces of waging a campaign of revenge on the neighborhood, executing captives, looting homes and systematically shelling hundreds of buildings.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said at least 700 people have been killed in weeks of fighting in the area.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the situation in Homs as “absolutely horrific.”
Violence continued to rage across Syria on Saturday, with the opposition Local Coordination Committees reporting the deaths of 80 people nationwide. They included 47 soldiers said to have been shot in a mass execution after they tried to defect in the restive northern province of Idlib.
There were also reports of renewed shelling in several other neighborhoods of Homs where the Free Syrian Army holds sway.
The Syrian Arab News Agency reported that three people died in a suicide bombing in the southern province of Daraa. It also said 21 members of the security forces killed in the violence the previous day were given funerals.
The Syrian authorities continued to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Bab Amr, two days after it was overrun by Syrian government forces in the wake of a retreat by the Free Syrian Army. An ICRC spokesman in Geneva told the Associated Press that the government was citing security concerns for its refusal to allow the aid group to enter.