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Mar 14, 2013 No Comments ›› Jake Hammer

Excerpted from REUTERS:

– Iran has significantly stepped up military support to Syrian President Bashar al-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 told Reuters 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 Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah. That group is increasingly active on the ground in Syria in support of Assad’s forces, envoys say.

The Syrian conflict started out two years ago as a pro-democracy movement. Some 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.”

He added that the Syrian civil war was becoming “more and more sectarian,” with Sunnis – an increasing number of whom come from Iraq – battling Shi’ites and members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Ali al-Moussawi, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s media adviser, strongly denied the allegations, saying on Wednesday: “No, such a thing never happened. Weapons did not and will not be transferred from Iran to Syria through Iraq, whether by land or by air.”

Russia, diplomats said, also remained a key arms supplier for Assad. Unlike Iran, neither Syria nor Russia is subject to a U.N. ban on arms trade and are therefore not in violation of any U.N. rules when conducting weapons commerce. But accepting Iranian arms would be a violation of the U.N. Iran sanctions.

Assad’s ally Russia criticizes U.S., European and Gulf Arab governments for their aid to Syrian rebels seeking to topple Assad.

Russia has said repeatedly that its military support for Syria includes anti-missile air defense systems but no attack weapons such as helicopters.

Moscow says it is not wedded to Assad but that the rebels and government should talk and Assad’s departure should not be a condition for a deal as the opposition and its supporters insist. Along with China, it has used its Security Council veto to block punitive U.N. measures against Syria’s government.

ARMS SUPPLIES VIA TURKEY AND LEBANON?

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.”

“Unfortunately the situation in Syria and the whole Middle East region is becoming more and more delicate and risky because of foreign interference and funneling of arms to the extremist groups,” he said, repeating that Tehran wanted to end the conflict through dialogue between the government and opposition.

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