Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian rebels said a group of people captured near Damascus included members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as fighting raged outside the capital and in Aleppo, according to a video broadcast by Al Arabiya.
The claim conflicted with Iranian descriptions of the abducted people as pilgrims. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Turkey and Qatar, two countries that have backed the Syrian opposition, to help release the group, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. The agency said that 48 pilgrims were abducted.
The video broadcast by Al Arabiya television showed the Iranians sitting under a flag of the rebel Free Syria Army and surrounded by men carrying weapons. One rebel officer, who wasn’t identified, said several of the Iranians belonged to the Revolutionary Guard. The authenticity of the video couldn’t be confirmed.
Shiite Muslim-led Iran has been one of the few regional allies of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is dominated by officials from the Alawite sect, affiliated with Shiite Islam. Turkey and Qatar, two largely Sunni Muslim states, have backed the opposition. The rebels are largely drawn from the Sunni majority.
“This is embarrassing for” Assad’s regime, Andrew Tabler, author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria,” said in a phone interview. “It shows the degree to which things have gotten out of hand.”
Syrian government troops are fighting rebels outside the capital and in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. The pro- government Al Watan newspaper said that the Syrian army is bracing itself for a “decisive battle” to clear Aleppo of rebels.
At least 19,000 people have been killed in the past 17 months, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as a peaceful revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule has turned into a civil war.
One hundred thirteen people were killed yesterday across the country, Al Jazeera reported, citing the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Soldiers clashed with rebels in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo, attacking them with heavy weapons as they tried to retake the neighborhood, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. In Damascus province, the government conducted raids in the al-Qaboun neighborhood and clashed with rebels in the town of Kafarbatna, the group said on its Facebook page.
As the fight escalates, U.S. and European military and intelligence officials are growing increasingly concerned that a fight to the death between Assad’s loyalists and the opposition could strengthen Islamic extremists in Syria and neighboring states.
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi dismissed reports that his country had sent military forces to Syria to help Assad’s government, the Tehran Times said. Iran hasn’t dispatched any soldiers and the Syrian government hasn’t asked Iran to do so, Vahidi said at a press conference in Tehran, according to the newspaper.
“Assad needs Iran as something of a protector and adviser,” said Paul Sullivan, an expert specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington DC. “Iran is also a source of income for Syria in the form of arms shipments.”
The abducted Iranians were on a bus from Damascus airport to a Shiite shrine outside the capital when they were kidnapped, according to Iran’s state-run Press TV. The Syrian Arab News Agency said “armed terrorist groups” seized a bus carrying Iranian visitors in the Damascus countryside. “The authorities are working to handle the situation,” the official news service said.
The captured Iranians were on a mission and at least one had a military identity card, the rebel officer shown in the video aired by Al-Arabiya said. All Iranians operating on Syrian soil will meet a similar fate to the detained men, he said.
Syrian rebels earlier this year kidnapped four Iranian engineers, releasing two in May and the remaining two in June, Press TV reported. Three Iranian truck drivers were kidnapped in May, Press TV said.
Hit Pocket Hard
“Today’s events are likely to reduce the number of Iranians who visit Syria on pilgrimage,” said Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. “This is bound to hit Assad’s pocket hard as they are probably the only tourists visiting his country these days. What should particularly concern the Iranian government is that this kidnapping could cause panic among thousands of Iranians living in Syria.”
Syria’s first man in space, Mohammad Ahmad Faris, fled to Turkey and joined the forces fighting Assad, the Associated Press reported, citing Turkey’s state-run news agency. The Syrian Army said that it had apprehended a Turkish general who commanded rebels in Aleppo, the Iranian news service Fars said, citing an unidentified person.
The U.S. State and Defense Departments have begun planning for Assad’s fall, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified Obama administration officials. The U.S. is preparing for humanitarian relief for the country and is pressing opposition forces in Syria not to retaliate against army, police and municipal arms of Assad’s government, the newspaper reported.
--With assistance from Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations, Alex Wayne and Greg Stohr in Washington, Nayla Razzouk in Dubai and Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem. Editors: Ann Hughey, Carlos Torres