President’s speech and online army video point to Iran’s dueling interests in Syria

TEHRAN — Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, told Revolutionary Guards commanders on Monday that Iran would support whomever Syrians want as their leader even if it is not the country’s staunch ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The statement appeared part of Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic push to present himself as more conciliatory than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose strident tone helped further isolate Iran. “Whoever Syrian citizens vote for to rule their country, we’ll agree with it,” Mr. Rouhani said, adding that the next election was scheduled for 2014.

But Mr. Rouhani’s statement came as a video surfaced online appearing to show Iranian commanders and Revolutionary Guards soldiers training and fighting alongside pro-government militias battling rebels trying to oust Mr. Assad.

Taken together, the speech and the video, if it is verified, point to the dual tracks employed by Iran as it tries to navigate the Syrian civil war and its widespread impact in the region. While calling for peace and diplomacy, Iran has also aided the government’s war effort. Although Mr. Rouhani stressed Iran’s wish for a diplomatic solution in Syria, the United States has long said Iran was supporting Mr. Assad against the rebels.

The West, Turkey and several Persian Gulf countries openly support the rebels, providing arms, humanitarian aid and cash to at least keep the rebels strong enough to continue fighting, if not actually bolster the drive to oust Mr. Assad.

The video surfaced Friday on a Dutch current affairs program. The show’s producer said it had been provided by rebels who said they had recovered it after the cameraman died in battle.

Restrictions on reporting in Syria prevent independent verification of the video’s provenance. There has been no official Iranian reaction to the footage.

In the video, men who appear to be Iranian commanders and soldiers are shown on patrol with Syrians, as well as engaged in firefights against rebels. The men speak in Persian with distinct regional accents.

One commander, who says he is speaking from a base near the northern city of Aleppo, boasts about his men’s accomplishments in Syria and is shown at the base giving orders to some Syrian soldiers.

Iran usually tries to remain in the background in conflicts, preferring to support local groups rather than sending its own soldiers into battle, but the United States has often accused Iran of sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. After two and a half years of fighting, Mr. Assad’s military has begun to wear down, losing momentum and territory — prompting its allies in Iran, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, to provide more robust support.

With Iran’s help, Syria began to build up militias that took some of the pressure off the conventional forces.

During his speech to Guards commanders in Tehran on Monday, Mr. Rouhani praised the role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps in securing Iran’s interests in the region, though he did not address their having any active role in Syria. The West, Mr. Rouhani said, is executing a plan in the Middle East “to consolidate the power of Israel and weaken the resistance,” referring to its military and ideological alliance with Hezbollah and with Syria.

Syria is of great significance for Iran, he told the commanders. “We will not remain indifferent towards this critical issue.”

Mr. Rouhani said the West should realize that the Revolutionary Guards do not seek military dominance in the region. “Our discourse is the discourse of democracy, brotherhood and unity,” he said. “Our discourse is fighting with terrorism in the region.” (Mr. Assad has long called the rebels fighting him terrorists.)

In the footage released to the Dutch public broadcasting program by the Syrian rebel group, the Dawood brigade, one Iranian commander, who calls himself “Haj Esmail,” sits down for long, in-depth interviews with an unnamed videographer. He speaks of training Syrian militia members loyal to Mr. Assad in Tehran and criticizes the Syrian Army for being too rigid with its fighters. “They want to come to our fronts because we show them respect,” he said.

By The New York Times


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