US officials: Iran helping Syria's Assad put down protests

The US has long been concerned about Iranian influence in Syria, which serves as the main conduit through which Iran sends weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas. Now, that influence could grow.

Women hold an anti-government demonstration in Banias, Syria, April 13. Thousands of Syrian women and children holding white flags and olive branches blocked a main coastal highway Wednesday, demanding authorities release people detained during a crackdown on opponents of the regime, witnesses said.

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Iran is providing Syria with gear to disperse the country's pro-democracy protests and is helping Syrian security forces block and track Internet and cellphone use among protesters, according to unnamed US officials quoted by The Wall Street Journal.

Iran's involvement, which could expand to other countries such as Bahrain, could challenge US and Saudi influence in the region, destabilize US allies, and heighten sectarian tensions, the Journal reported.

The Syrian protests that began weeks ago in the southern city of Deraa have now expanded to Aleppo, according to Reuters. They have steadily escalated, with tens of thousands turning out in the streets.

Women and children turned out in large numbers for the first time today, gathering on a coastal highway to demand the release of hundreds of Syrians from the country's northeast who have been detained during the protests, the Washington Post reported. About 100 of the detainees were released in an apparent attempt to appease the women.

Syrian Army and security forces have brutally quashed most of the demonstrations, which call for an end to the country's state of emergency and for other political reforms. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promised reforms and launched a committee to study lifting the country's decades-long state of emergency, little change has materialized so far.

The US has long been concerned about Iranian influence in Syria, which serves as the main conduit through which Iran sends weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Obama administration has unsuccessfully attempted to woo Damascus away from Tehran.

US officials' decision to disclose that they have been tracking Iran's efforts in Syria was made partially to reassure its Arab allies and Israel, who worry that the US is supporting the popular uprisings without thinking about the political consequences. The power vacuums created by the fall of strongmen could give Iran a tremendous opportunity to expand its influence, the Journal reported.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that if Assad's regime falls, Iran will work to install a leader even more hostile to Israel and the West, Saudi Arabia will try to sever all ties between Iran and Syria and bring Syria back into the mainstream Arab community, and the US and Israel will try to prevent the country's leadership from falling into the hands of an Islamist group or anyone hostile to Israel.

The US is also concerned that overt Iranian assistance to Assad could escalate the Shiite-Sunni tensions in the region.

US ally Saudi Arabia is led by a Sunni monarchy that the US sees as a stabilizing force in the region, suppressing Islamist and terrorist groups. Shiite Iran is looking for ways to project its influence further and undermine Sunni dominance in the region.

Already, Iran has taken a much greater role in Lebanon since Syria withdrew its military presence in 2005, helping Hezbollah become the dominant political force in Lebanon – a development of great concern to neighboring Israel.

The US is also keeping an eye on Iranian involvement in Bahrain, where the majority Shiite population has long been suppressed by the Sunni ruling elite. Saudi Arabia has already sent 1,000 troops to bolster Bahrain's Sunni monarchy. Intercepted communications show that Tehran is looking for ways to assist Shiites in Bahrain, the Journal reported.

But despite concerns about a Saudi-Iran proxy war playing out in Bahrain, such a battle is unlikely since Bahraini protesters' demands focus on human rights and democratic reforms – not sectarian issues, the Monitor reported.

“The problems are discrimination, denial of human and political rights, arbitrary authority which does not derive from the consent of the governed, and diversion of resources to a tiny minority on a gigantic scale,” Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, told the Monitor. “The same problems exist in nearly all the Arab countries, with local variations of course. Of course Iran is happy to fish in troubled waters, but that has nothing to do with why they are troubled.”

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