In Syria, a rebel commander took dozens of Iranians hostage after discovering them traveling, rather conspicuously, through Damascus. Today, Iran has appealed to the rebel-friendly governments of Turkey and Qatar to get its citizens back—trouble is, they may not be mere “citizens.” LA Times reports:
The [rebel] commander labeled the captives Iranian militiamen nabbed while on a “reconnaissance mission” in Damascus, the Syrian capital.Iran says the hostages — their numbers have variously been reported as 47 and 48 — are pilgrims who were visiting a revered Shiite Muslim shrine near Damascus when they were kidnapped en route to their hotels.Iran has repeatedly denied rebel allegations that it has dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to assist Syrian President Bashar Assad in his effort to crush an almost 17-month-old rebellion.
The Iranian regime may have already tipped its hand here: Last month, the second-in-command of the Revolutionary Guard corps, Ismail Gha’ani, stumbled into telling an Iranian student paper that the regime’s blackops have been active in Syria in order to shore up Butcher Assad. The Guardian reported:
Ismail Gha’ani, the deputy head of Iran’s Quds force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with overseas operations, said in an interview with the semi-official Isna news agency: “If the Islamic republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale.”Isna published the interview at the weekend but subsequently removed it from its website.It quoted Gha’ani as saying: “Before our presence in Syria, too many people were killed by the opposition but with the physical and non-physical presence of the Islamic republic, big massacres in Syria were prevented.”
As the LA Times story notes, there seems to be a wave of piety in the region: A group of Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon has also been captured in Syria. Their captors say they are from Hezbollah—but perhaps it’s just another mix-up with a religious tour gone off the beaten path.As for Iran’s appeal to Qatar and Turkey to free the hostages…we’ll see. Neither regime is particularly fond of Iran, and both governments have a lot of questions to be answered before anybody goes free. The big takeaway from this intrigue is that the conflict in Syria increasingly involves other powers in the region, with an Iran-Hezbollah bloc squaring off against a pro-rebel side led by the Gulf sheikhs and Turkey. Syria may not be big enough for the two of them.