As Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reemphasized his hard-line stance against the US-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic republic's ambassador to Syria has also spoken out against "meddling" by international forces, and of the importance of Shi'a militias in combating Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
Mohammad Reza Rauf Sheibani told Iran's ABNA news agency that "IS terrorists" have been repeatedly defeated in Syria by local, Syrian "popular militias" that were akin to Iran's Basij Resistance Force, the volunteer paramilitary organization.
While stressing the importance of local militias, Sheibani called for "regional cooperation" against IS. Iranian President Hassan Rohani also spoke of "regional cooperation" as the way forward against IS in his September speech to the UN.
However, Sheibani's notion of "regional cooperation" seems to be rooted in the concept of mobilizing Shi'a militias. The ambassador noted that the Secretary General of the Lebanese Shi'a militia, Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah, had himself called for "regional cooperation" to combat IS.
While Sheibani insisted that Iran had not sent any forces to fight in Syria, he said that Iranians had provided "moral support" in defending Shi'a shrines in the country. Iran's official line on its military support for Syria is that the only Iranian forces present are small numbers of volunteers who have mobilized to defend "holy shrines".
There is evidence, however, that Iran's involvement in Syria goes beyond merely guarding shrines in southern Damascus.
In May, Iran's Fars News agency, which is affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), removed comments from an IRGC commander who was quoted as saying that Tehran provided "training that included the separation of armed forces from the people and reduced the number of casualties" and that Iran had created a "second Hizballah" in Syria (a reference to the Lebanese Shi'a militia).
That Iran was likely helping its ally, Bashar al-Assad, create a locally-based popular militia force modeled on Iran's Basij was hinted at as early as November 2012, when Basij leader Mohammad Reza Naghdi said Syria's "shabiha" popular forces behaved in a similar way to the Basij, which had led to accusations that Iranian military forces were present in Syria.
Naghdi was referring to Syria's National Defense Force (NDF), a part-time volunteer force of the Syrian army formed after summer 2012. Footage seized by Syrian rebels in October 2013 showed IRGC commanders embedded with Syrian NDF militias in Aleppo province.
In his interview with ABNA, Sheibani said these "Basij-like" militias were not only able to defend shrines but could "greatly deflect the threats posed by terror groups like IS".
Sheibani also praised Hezbollah's involvement, saying that the Shi'a militia had been "successful and effective" at "defending shrines".
-- Joanna Paraszczuk