The Assad regime has long had at its disposal the Shabiha, a militia believed to be responsible for many of the massacres that have taken place in Sunni villages.
Mr. Panetta’s comments followed claims by a number of sources, including Iranian exile groups, that the Iranian “pilgrims” that Tehran said were kidnapped by Syrian rebels and held hostage were actually members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who were in Syria to support Assad.
According to the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exile group opposed to Iran’s clerical regime, the 48 detained Iranians were part of a larger contingent of 150 members of the elite IRGC dispatched to Damascus to assist Assad.
The MEK says the IRGC deployment is just one sign of Iran’s determination to keep ally Assad in power – a policy the Iranian regime has not been shy about publicizing. During a recent trip to Damascus, the national security representative of supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Saeed Jalili, went on Syrian state television to declare Syria’s war “a conflict between the axis of the resistance and its enemies in the region and the world.”
Those stark terms prompted some regional analysts to characterize Tehran as more invested in Assad – and willing to go farther on his behalf – than Russia.
Moscow has protected Assad from international intervention in Syria through the United Nations, but insists it is opposed to any outside interference in what it says is an internal Syrian conflict. Many experts believe Russia would drop its support for Assad if it deemed his hold on power to be unsalvageable, and if it felt assured that its interests would not suffer in a post-Assad Syria.