BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- The reported assassination of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander who was traveling between Beirut and Syria has heightened suspicions Tehran and its powerful proxy, Hezbollah of Lebanon, are boosting military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The officer was identified by the Revolutionary Guards command as Gen. Hassan Shateri, who it said headed the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon. But indications are that he was a senior officer in the Guards' elite and largely covert Al-Quds Force, which has been reported fighting for Assad.
Iranian support is crucial as Assad's minority regime seems to be in serious trouble as Syria disintegrates and the civil war moves toward its third year.
Various, and sometimes conflicting, reports indicated Shateri was killed Wednesday on the Damascus-Beirut highway by "Zionist regime mercenaries." That's how Tehran refers to Syrian rebels.
That would indicate Shateri was killed in Syria. Other reports said he died Tuesday in Lebanon. It's not clear how he was killed although Syrian rebel sources said he was shot in an ambush in Syria.
Iran's Fars News Agency said Shateri's funeral was Thursday in Tehran and was attended by the Guards commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Jaafari, and Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the powerful commander of the Al-Quds Force.
Suleimani's presence indicated Shateri belonged to the Al-Quds group.
That group is responsible for covert operations outside Iran and played a key role in organizing Shiite militants in Iraq who fought the Americans until their withdrawal in December 2011.
The presence of a commander of Shateri's rank and caliber in Syria would point to an extensive Iranian military operation to keep Assad, Iran's most important Arab ally, in power.
Al-Quds, whose commanders often conceal their identities, works closely with Hezbollah and is known to have units in Syria operating with Assad's military forces.
U.S. officials claim Al-Quds Force and Hezbollah are training Alawite militias, up to 50,000-strong, who would protect Iran's interests if Assad is toppled and the country fragments into sectarian enclaves.
In that scenario, Assad would resort to Plan B and retreat into a pre-arranged bastion in mountainous northeastern Syria, the minority Alawites' ancestral lands.
The Iranians are determined to keep Assad in power if they can because his regime is their conduit to Hezbollah in Syria's neighbor, Lebanon, which is a springboard for attacking Israel.
This tripartite axis is the bedrock of Iran's power in the Levant and access to the Mediterranean.
The Iranians see the uprising against the Assad dynasty, in power since 1970, as a U.S.-Israeli plot, just as the mullahs viewed the massive 2009-10 anti-regime protests in Iran as a Western attempt at regime change.
The Iranians, analysts claim, are working on the premise that even if they can't prevent Assad's regime from collapsing, they can help him establish a stronghold in northeastern Syria, traditional bastion of the Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite sect that rules in Tehran.
That way Iran can control a contiguous strip running from the Turkish border south along the Mediterranean coast to Hezbollah's heartland in northeastern Lebanon and on to south Lebanon and the border with Israel.
This prospect alarms the West, Israel and the gulf monarchies who're backing the Syrian rebels.
"The rebellion has strengthened the Alawite-Shiite alliance," observed Brig. Gen. Hanan Gefen, a former commander in Israel's military intelligence.
"If the Alawites supported Hezbollah and aided in its formulation in the past, now the Shiites are coming toward the Alawites, with Iranian support."
Gefen, former head of the Israeli army's highly secretive Unit 8200 that specializes in electronic intercepts, noted: "This alliance is preparing itself for the day after the rebellion ...
"The Shiite-Alawite alliance will rely on territorial continuity from south Lebanon ... to the border with Turkey. Military assets ... will be transferred to this region."
This scenario goes some way to explaining the recent movement of Syrian advanced weapons systems such as air-defense, anti-tank and ballistic missiles -- and the Israelis fear, chemical weapons -- within Syria and to Hezbollah.
"It must not be thought that Assad will share his assets with Hezbollah like a philanthropist, during his period of distress," Gefen observed.
"Assad also does not view himself as committing suicide ... Such transfer of weapons must therefore be understood as an interim process for preserving strategic capabilities for future use by the Alawite-Shiite axis."