Iranian support of Bashar al-Assad has furthered his efforts to suppress the pro-reform, anti-government protests. Iran has been providing the Assad regime with high-tech surveillance equipment, weapons, ammunition, technical support and economic assistance. The UN estimates that upward 8,000 civilians have died in President Assad’s increasingly violent campaign to suppress dissenters.
Iran and Syria have a close relationship, and both are committed to maintain the alliance that has stood since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Syria was one of the only Arab nations to support Iran during the eight year conflict, and their alliance, supported by economic accords and a mutual animosity towards Saddam Hussein, Israel and the United States, has lasted since. The nature of the relationship between the two nations, as well as Iran’s decision to back Assad actions, has increasingly been called criticised by observers.
Since the start of protests at the beginning of last year Iran has taken a keen interest in the situation. Speaking in May 2011, a senior Western Diplomat stated that "since the start of the uprising, the Iranian regime has been worried about losing its most important ally in the Arab world and important conduit for weapons to Hezbollah [in Lebanon]."
Last week more evidence came to light as to the extent of the support Iran was providing to Damascus. The US and European Union security officials announced that Tehran had been providing the Assad regime with a range of technical assistance, electronic surveillance equipment – including Iranian recognisance drones – as well technology designed to disrupt access to social media sites and mobile phone networks. In addition they have been providing more conventional means of riot control equipment as well as guns and ammunition.
An unnamed US official stated;
“Over the past year, Iran has provided security assistance to Damascus to help shore up Assad. Tehran during the last couple of months has been aiding the Syrian regime with lethal assistance - including rifles, ammunition, and other military equipment - to help it put down the opposition...Iran has provided Damascus [with] monitoring tools to help the regime suppress the opposition. It has also shared techniques on Internet surveillance and disruption.”
There are reports that Iranian security officials have also travelled to Damascus to advise Assad's entourage how to counter dissent, with some Iranian officials having stayed on in Syria to advise Assad's forces.
Beyond the support to counter the protests, Reuters are reporting today that Iran is also enabling Syria to defy Western sanctions. Tehran has been providing Syria with transport vessels to transport oil to China. Syria had brokered a deal with Chinese petrochemical giant Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, but did not have a means of transporting the oil. Having failed to charter vessels from Venezuela, Terhan stepped into the breach, providing a vessel to transport the crude oil. It is thought that the sale of the oil will provide the Syrian economy with an $80 million boost.