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Envoys: Iran steps up weapons lifeline to Syria's Assad

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By Reuters
Thursday, March 14, 2013, 9:42 p.m.
 

UNITED NATIONS — Iran has significantly stepped up military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in recent months, solidifying its position alongside Russia as the government's lifeline in an increasingly sectarian civil war, Western diplomats said.

Iranian weapons continue to pour into Syria from Iraq but also increasingly along other routes, including via Turkey and Lebanon, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo on Iran, Western officials said on condition of anonymity. Iraqi and Turkish officials denied the allegations.

Iran's acceleration of support for Assad suggests the Syrian war is entering a new phase in which Iran may be trying to end the battlefield stalemate by redoubling its commitment to Assad and offering Syria's increasingly isolated government a crucial lifeline, the envoys said.

It also highlights the growing sectarian nature of the conflict, diplomats say, with Iranian arms flowing to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

That group is increasingly active in Syria in support of Assad's forces, envoys say.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran's U.N. mission, responded to a request for a comment by saying, “We believe Syria does not need any military help from Iran.”

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, had no specific comments on the matter.

The Syrian conflict started out two years ago as a pro-democracy movement. About 70,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million refugees have fled the violence.

A Western intelligence report seen by Reuters in September said Iran was using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to aid Assad.

Iraq denied that report but later made a point of inspecting an Iran-bound flight that it said had no arms on board.

Much of the weaponry going to Syria now, diplomats say, continues to be shipped to Iran through Iraqi airspace and overland through Iraq, despite Baghdad's repeated promises to put a stop to Iranian arms supplies to Assad in violation of a U.N. arms embargo on Tehran over its nuclear program.

“The Iranians really are supporting massively the regime,” a senior Western diplomat said this week. “They have been increasing their support for the last three, four months through Iraq's airspace and now trucks. And the Iraqis really are looking the other way.”

“They (Iran) are playing now a crucial role,” the senior diplomat said, adding that Hezbollah was “hardly hiding the support it's giving to the (Syrian) regime.”

Israel's chief of military intelligence Major-General Aviv Kochavi said on Thursday that Assad was “making preparations to use chemical weapons although he has not yet given orders to do so, and increasing operations with Hezbollah and Iran.”

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