Written by L. Barkan
Having long accused Iran of extending assistance, including military assistance, to the Assad regime, the Syrian rebels have begun to act against Iranians in Syria and to regard them and the Iranian regime as legitimate targets. The largest incident occurred on August 4, 2012, when militants from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the largest organ of the armed Syrian opposition, kidnapped 48 Iranians outside Damascus. The FSA also claims to have assassinated an Iranian diplomat, though the Iranians deny this. In addition, the armed and political Syrian opposition has threatened to harm Iranians staying in Syria and to target the Iranian regime itself. So far, incidents and statements of this sort have been few, but they may represent the beginning of a growing trend.
The following are details on the incidents and statements:
On August 4, 2012, FSA militants kidnapped 48 Iranians from a bus outside the Syrian capital. The Iranian regime and the Syrian opposition made conflicting claims regarding the identity of the abductees. The Iranians claimed they were pilgrims, and Iranian National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili said they were "innocent people who came to visit the tombs of saints." However, in an Al-Arabiya TV report on the incident, one of the abductors called the hostages members of the "Iranian shabiha" and said that some of them were officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The report showed IRGC badges allegedly belonging to the hostages. A Syrian opposition website claimed, citing FSA sources, that the hostages were Iranian soldiers and experts who had intended to join the fight against the rebels but had been ambushed by opposition forces. Several days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi admitted that some of the hostages were retired members of the IRGC, the Iranian army, and other institutions.
FSA commander Riyadh Al-As'ad said that his forces had "detained" the Iranians due to their involvement in killing Syrians. He added: "Iran is supporting Assad's regime, and without its [support], this regime wouldn't have lasted this long. [Iran] is assisting it with money, men, and gear; it is a strategic ally of the Syrian regime. We detained [the Iranians] because they were involved in killing Syrian people, and we are now questioning them to find out the details of their involvement... We have not yet decided their fate. After we finish investigating them, we will hold negotiations in this matter." According to press reports, the FSA threatened "to kill the Iranian hostages if Iran did not stop lying."
Iran, for its part, hurried to warn against harming the hostages, and held the U.S., and all other forces supporting the Syrian opposition, responsible for their lives. In an official memorandum submitted to the U.S., Iran called upon it to act towards their quick and unconditional release. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian explained: "The memorandum states that since the U.S. shamefully supports terrorist groups and dispatches weapons to Syria, it is responsible for the lives of the 48 Iranian pilgrims who were kidnapped in Damascus." A statement by the Iranian foreign ministry likewise held the FSA and the U.S. responsible for the Iranians' safety. Visiting Syria a few days after the kidnapping, Iranian National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili said: "No reasonable person can accept the kidnapping or targeting of innocent [pilgrims] on their way to visit the tombs of saints. The forces that are extending financial and propaganda assistance to the terrorist groups who perpetrate these acts are party to this criminal act, in the full sense of the word." Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi was dispatched to Turkey to discuss the matter, and upon returning to his country, said that his ministry was following the affair and would ensure the hostages' release "by every means."
Iranian Majlis member and former oil minister Masoud Mir Kazemi advised the Iranian regime to threaten to kidnap citizens of the countries that had helped kidnap the Iranians, adding that Iran was able to harm the interests of these countries.
It should be noted that this was not the first abduction of Iranian pilgrims. In the past year, several dozen such pilgrims were abducted in Syria, as well as seven Iranian engineers who worked at the Homs electric company. Some of the hostages have been released.
In the days after the abduction, the armed Syrian opposition continued to voice threats towards Iran. Following reports that ten young Syrians had been executed in Homs by regime forces, the FSA's Joint Command in Syria stated: "We warn the criminal Bashar Al-Assad and his gangs, and also the Iranian regime and its gangs in Syria, that the FSA's response inside [Syria] will be very harsh [and will strike] at the heart of the criminal Syrian and Iranian regimes. The Iranian Mullahs must know that the massacre [of Syrians]... will cost them dearly."
Threats were also made by the political Syrian opposition. Haytham Al-Maleh, head of the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees (an organization formed in Cairo in late July 2012), said that Iran was an enemy state, and that, as long as it continued to extend military aid to the Syrian regime, its citizens in Syrian would be a legitimate target. On a later occasion, he added Hizbullah to the list of targets, saying: "Hizbullah and IRGC [members] are legitimate targets for the Syrian rebels, because they are [in Syria] to help Assad's regime [perpetrate] its acts of massacre."
A few days before the abduction of the 48 Iranians, an FSA brigade claimed to have assassinated an Iranian diplomat in Damascus. According to non-government and opposition Syrian websites, an official Syrian TV channel reported that terrorists had assassinated Ali Hossein-Zadeh, a political advisor in Iran's embassy in Damascus. Iran's foreign ministry denied the report. Though the facts remain unclear, the incident certainly reflects a desire on the part of the Syrian opposition to harm Iranian diplomats in the country.
L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI.
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