Iran has sent soldiers to Syria to fight alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
An unknown number of Iranians are fighting in Syria, the official said, citing accounts from members of the opposition Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the United States. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview a strategy session that Secretary of State John F. Kerry is to hold Wednesday with key supporters of the Syrian opposition.
The rationale for granting anonymity–a privilege that outlets are supposed to extend only rarely–is curious; it’s not clear why the government would need to say things anonymously in order “to preview a strategy session” about Syria.
Even more curious, though, is whether or not the source in question actually said this. At EA Worldview (5/22/13), Scott Lucas took a look at the briefing that produced the story, and what the State Department official actually said was this:
It is the most visible effort we have seen of Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force. We understand there are also Iranians up there. That is what the Free Syrian Army commanders are telling us. I think this is an important thing to note, the direct implication of foreigners fighting on Syrian soil now for the regime.
Suggesting that the Free Syrian Army believes Iranians are in Syria–which is probably true–is not the same thing as saying “Iran has sent soldiers to Syria” to fight on Assad’s behalf. And in answering followup questions, the anonymous State Department official admits that “to be very frank, I don’t have any estimates of numbers and I don’t know that they are directly involved in the fighting.” The source also says the Iranians “could be doing a little of both advising and fighting” and that “the reports that we’re getting…are not consistent.”
But Gearan’s question at the briefing would strongly suggest that she was pushing a stronger line about Iranian involvement than the anonymous source:
Are we now, based on your earlier comments about Iranian fighters being involved, looking at a proxy war? I mean, you’re talking about arming the rebels on one side, and the Iranians are clearly arming the others and fighting on behalf of the others on the other side. Are we now basically in a war with Iran?
The source doesn’t go as far out on this issue as Gearan’s question was pushing. But it didn’t really matter. As you can see in the pages of the Washington Post, an official Iranian role in the fighting was treated almost like a fact–which might be the point of having anonymous briefings like this.