Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Syrian rebels say hostages are Iranian guards

A group of Syrian rebels took responsibility on Sunday for the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in Damascus a day earlier, but the rebels insisted that their captives were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, not religious pilgrims as Iran’s official news agency had reported.

 “They are Iranian thugs who were in Damascus for a field reconnaissance mission,” said a rebel leader, in a video that purportedly showed the captives, sitting calmly behind armed Syrian fighters.

The rebels said in the video that at least one Iranian was caught with an identification card for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and certificates for carrying weapons — at which point the man identified by the rebels stood up to show some paperwork.

The identities and motives of the captives could not be independently verified. Iran has insisted that they were innocent pilgrims returning from a Shiite shrine on the southern edge of Damascus, and some rebel groups have not embraced the kidnapping or the theory laid out by the fighters in the video.

Col. Malik al-Kurdi, a deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army — one of several competing umbrella groups involved in the fighting — said the brigade involved in the kidnapping appeared to have been acting on its own and did not tell the Free Syrian Army about the operation.

For the rebels, the hostages offered an opportunity to broadcast their belief that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was on its way out and to argue that Iran and other foreign supporters of the Syrian government should reconsider their allegiances.

In the video, first shown on the Al Arabiya television network, which is owned by Saudi Arabia, a supporter of the rebel cause, the rebels insisted that the Assad government was “inevitably short-lived.”

The rebels also warned that Iranians who helped the Assad government would face the same fate: they will end up “dead or as hostages.”

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis also continued on Sunday. In Malawi, a State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would go to Istanbul next weekend to discuss the Syrian crisis with the Turkish government.

“Secretary Clinton goes to Istanbul for bilateral consultations with the Turkish government on Syria as well as to cover other timely issues,” Ms. Nuland said, according to Reuters.

The developments came on a day when fighting was reported throughout the Syria. Activists in Damascus said that the neighborhood of Tadamon, near Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, remained under attack.

The bodies of rebel fighters along with some women and children, they said, were scattered throughout the area but they could not be retrieved because the Syrian Army had set up snipers who fired at anyone trying to reach the dead.

Rebels and activists also reported raids in Homs and overnight fighting in Aleppo, suggesting — along with the kidnapping — that Syria’s civil conflict is expanding and intensifying as new tactics, players and areas are drawn into the battle for control.

Over the last week, attacks and counterattacks have been reported in at least half a dozen Syrian cities and towns, including the country’s largest Palestinian camp, in Damascus, the capital. For the first time, rebels have also used tanks they have seized, while the Syrian military has begun firing from jets in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial center. Analysts have said the government’s helicopters are showing signs of wear.

It has been two weeks since the fighting for Aleppo started. Rebel leaders have said repeatedly that they hope to make the city a safe haven and a headquarters for their efforts throughout the country.

One opposition leader in London said last week that he was already setting up a transitional government that would make “liberated” Aleppo its capital.

But in a conflict in which momentum swings wildly and progress is difficult to ascertain, the rebels have yet to land a knockout blow. “It’s a guerrilla war,” Colonel Kurdi said in an interview.

So far, especially in Aleppo, that means the rebels advance and retreat, gain territory, give it up, hide among the population, and then return again for another fight. This has already occurred several times in Aleppo, and the battle over the television station offers yet another example of the current way of war in Syria.

Rebels and activists inside the city said the fighting for the complex began late Friday with a rebel assault. “My house overlooks the buildings, and I could see the clashes from my rooftop,” said Tammam Hazem, an activist. “Three bullets hit our house.”

Rebels have made government buildings a priority in Aleppo. They have seized several police stations in contested neighborhoods, knocking out a base for government troops and supporters. And their initial raid on the television station, a strategic target because it is on a high hill but also symbolic and functional for any effort to set up a local rebel government, appeared to be successful.

“Our fighters got into the TV station buildings,” said Abu Hamza, one of the rebels in Aleppo, using a nickname that means “father of Hamza.”

“I was there blocking the way, trying to keep out the thugs and state security guys who would try to get in.” But he and others said the government response was swift and typical: helicopters began firing from the air.

“We couldn’t handle the chopper attacks,” Abu Hamza said. “We lost about seven fighters.” He added, “We ran out of ammunition.”

So the rebels retreated to a nearby neighborhood, and on Saturday afternoon, Abu Hamza said they were looking for another opportunity. “Our fighters are still there, around the buildings,” he said. “We didn’t pull out. I went to get supplies, but I’m going back.”

Similar scenes have been described throughout Damascus, where fighting has surged again in what some people on Twitter are describing as the “Damascus volcano Part 2.”

Rebels and activists said the focus for both sides had become Tadamon, a rebel-controlled area adjacent to the country’s largest Palestinian neighborhood. Tadamon recently became the target of an all-out assault by government troops.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that mortars, helicopters and armored vehicles were being used against the rebels, and that the rebels had destroyed at least four armored vehicles in the neighborhood so far.

Abu Omar, a local battalion chief for the rebels, said his fighters had pulled back Saturday afternoon because they were waiting for allies to send mortars. He said many of his fighters had sneaked into Yarmouk, the Palestinian neighborhood next door, where shelling killed 20 people Thursday night. As a result of that attack, he said, more Palestinians are trying to help.

“They’re working undercover,” he said. “They’re helping the brigades find safe locations.”

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