Assad ‘sending Syrian guerrilas to train in Iran’
The discreet programme has been described as an open secret in some areas loyal to president Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush a revolt against his family’s four-decade hold on power.
The fighters appear to come largely from minority groups that have supported Mr Assad against the mostly Sunni Muslim-led uprising. Such a move could exacerbate the dangerous sectarian dimensions of a conflict that has turned into a civil war that has cost the lives of more than 70,000 people.
Iran, a Shi’ite rival to Sunni countries in the Gulf that support the rebels, sees Syria as the lynchpin of its regional influence. Syria has been its conduit to the Lebanese guerrilla movement Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006.
“It was an urban warfare course that lasted 15 days. The trainers said it’s the same course Hezbollah operatives normally do,” said Samer, a Christian member of a pro-Assad militia fighting in rural parts of Homs province.
“The course teaches you the important elements of guerrilla warfare, like several different ways to carry a rifle and shoot, and the best methods to prepare against surprise attacks.”
According to fighters interviewed in Homs, most men sent to undergo the training are from the Alawite sect, the heterodox strain of Shi’ite Islam of which Mr Assad is a member.
A smaller number were Druze and Christians, whose communities are divided but largely support Mr Assad due to their fears of rising Islamist rhetoric among the opposition.
“The Iranians kept telling us that this war is not against Sunnis but for the sake of Syria. But the Alawites on the course kept saying they want to kill the Sunnis and rape their women in revenge,” said Samer.
Syrian residents living in areas controlled by the army or militias say irregular forces have been increasingly “regularised” in recent months. These groups now brand themselves as the “national defence army” and seem to operate as a parallel force to the official armed forces – more lightly armed but without the oversight or responsibilities.
Since 2011, security forces organised groups called “popular committees” for neighbourhood watches. These later became militias nicknamed “shabbiha”, from the Arabic word for ghost.
It is unclear how many former shabbiha fighters have been sent on courses in Iran, but some interviewees said they had assembled in groups of around 400 before being flown to Iran in smaller numbers. They believed the offer of training was open to many pro-Assad militias.
Nabeel, a muscular Christian fighter from Homs nicknamed “the Shameless One”, said Iranian trainers repeatedly lectured on looting, a crime widely committed by fighters on both sides.
“On our first day of training, the Iranian officer overseeing our course said: ‘I know exactly what is going on in Syria and want to tell you one thing: If you joined the national defence army for looting and not to defend your country, you will die an ugly death and go to hell’.”
The trainees said some trained as ground forces with automatic rifles and mounted anti-aircraft guns, others as snipers.
The groups were all flown from Latakia air base to Tehran International Airport.
“As soon as we arrived we were put on buses with windows covered by curtains and they told us not to open the curtains,” said the fighter Samer.
“We drove about an hour and a half before reaching the camp. We didn’t see anything other than that camp.”
The fighters described the training as far superior to skills they had been taught in courses inside Syria.
“Before I could only hit targets 50 per cent of the time, now I can hit a target around 90 per cent of the time,” said Samer.