Many of the Iranians claiming to be religious pilgrims when they were detained by Syrian rebels earlier month are in fact “active-duty Iranian Revolutionary Guard members,” unnamed U.S. officials have told Fox News.
The U.S. officials, who spoke to Fox on the condition of anonymity, claimed to have confirmed that the 48 Iranian men recently captured by the Free Syrian Army were supporting the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a video exclusively broadcast Aug. 5 on Al Arabiya, rebels asserted the captured men where soldiers from Iran. Iran has denied accusations the prisoners were on a reconnaissance mission in Syria, and stated they were in the country on a religious pilgrimage.
In the video, a man in an FSA officer’s uniform showed identification documents confiscated from one of the men, and said: “During the investigation, we found that some of them were officers of the Revolutionary Guards.”
Iran has steadfastly supported Assad in his 17-month effort to crush the rebellion in his country and on Tuesday urged Muslim states to show greater unity ahead of a summit of Muslim leaders this week expected to focus on Syria.
“It's obvious to both General Dempsey [the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff] and I that Iran is playing a larger role in Syria in many ways, not only in terms of the IRGC, but in terms of assistance, training,” American Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at a press conference Tuesday, referring to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps."
Describing Iran's growing influence as a “deep concern” for the United States, Panetta further added saying that there was evidence not only that Iranians are providing training and assistance to the Syrian Army, but that they were trying to “develop a militia to be able to fight on behalf of the regime.”
Opposition sources say 23,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of a revolt in March last year, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Tuesday.