The United States accused Iran of helping Syria in its efforts to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to contain an unprecedented wave of protests face a key test on Friday, after he unveiled a new cabinet in a bid to ease tensions.
“We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria... in quelling the protesters,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner, calling the development a “real concern.”
“If Syria is turning to Iran for help, it can’t be really serious about real reforms,” the Agence-France Press quoted him as saying.
The Wall Street Journal, citing US officials, earlier reported that Tehran was providing Syria with equipment to put down protests and monitor opposition groups, with more shipments expected.
Iranian authorities are also providing Damascus technical assistance to monitor online communication from opposition groups to organize protests, US defense officials told The Journal.
But Iran’s Finance Minister Shamseddin Hosseini, speaking on the sidelines of IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, denied the accusations.
The Syrian foreign ministry also rejected the American claim as “without foundation.”
“If the State Department has proofs, let it present them,” a ministry official told AFP in Damascus.
Syria has a population of 23.6 million, according to the latest surveys.
President Assad, meanwhile, attempted to ease tension on Thursday through unveiling a new cabinet and ordering the release of some detainees.
Mr. Assad’s measures were unlikely to satisfy many protesters demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption. The cabinet has little power and the release of detainees excluded those who committed crimes “against the nation and citizens,” according to Reuters.
Syria has thousands of political prisoners, whose numbers swelled after protests against President Assad’s authoritarian rule broke out in the southern city of Deraa four weeks ago after the main Friday prayers.
The official news agency said the releases cover detainees arrested in the recent wave of protests, but human rights defenders said there had been more arrests in the city of Deraa on Thursday.
A Syrian rights group said this week that more than 200 people had been killed during the protests. They have posed the biggest challenge to Mr. Assad since he assumed power in 2000 upon the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country for 30 years, Reuters said.
His father used similar language when he crushed a leftist and Islamist challenge to his iron rule in the 1980s.
Mr. Assad, 46, has tried to face down the protests, which have spread from Deraa to the Mediterranean coast, the Kurdish east and the central city of Homs. He has used a mixture of force, promises of reform and concessions to minority Kurds and conservative Muslims.
But his decision last Thursday to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of stateless Kurds, as well as announcements about lifting a ban on veiled teachers and closing Syria's sole casino, failed to prevent protests erupting the next day.
Demonstrators have been seeking reforms including an end to emergency law, which bans gatherings of more than five people and has been in force since the Baath Party took power nearly 50 years ago. Thousands also echoed the refrain of the wider Arab uprisings, demanding “the overthrow of the regime.”
Syrian authorities blame “armed groups” and “infiltrators” for the bloodshed, saying police and security forces have been killed.
(Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)