The quiet shipment of hundreds of members of Iran's 125,000-man Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or the Revolutionary Guards, to Syria is in addition to Tehran's stepped-up efforts to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad's military with cash and arms, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
It is also part of an initiative in which Iran replaces low-ranking Syrian soldiers who defected with Iranian troops, furnishes Syria with a paramilitary volunteer militia that could support Syria's Alawite paramilitary semi-criminal militia gangs known as shabiha, and provides an unconventional-warfare special-operations Quds Force to spearhead military cooperation with Assad forces, the Journal said.
The Quds Force, which reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is generally tasked with training proxy militants and exporting Iran's Islamic ideology.
Washington blames the force -- whose size was estimated by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2007 at 15,000 troops and operatives -- for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Revolutionary Guards corps, whose official constitutional duties are to protect Iran's Islamic system, are actually fearsome preventers and eliminators of internal dissident and military uprisings, the International Institute for Strategic Studies says.
"Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well," Gen. Salar Abnoush, a guards unit commander, told volunteer trainees in a speech Monday.
His remarks were reported by Iran's Daneshjoo news agency, run by regime-aligned students, and could not be independently verified.
Top Iranian officials previously said the country wasn't involved in the conflict.
But Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, said Thursday if Syria asked for military assistance to put down the anti-Assad uprising, Iran would provide it based on "our mutual defense-security pact."
That promise was followed Monday by Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar telling several Iranian officials at the summit of Non-Aligned Movement nations in Tehran how grateful Syria was for Iran's support.
"The people of Syria will never forget the support of Iran during these difficult times," Iranian media cited by the Journal quoted Haidar as saying.
On the other side of Syria's conflict, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reported to have funded and armed opposition rebels, while Turkey has allowed rebel forces to keep an unofficial base near Syria's border.
Foreign Arab fighters, including extremist jihadist, also fight alongside rebels, the Journal said.
In Damascus Monday a Syrian military helicopter crashed in flames amid sounds of rebel fire.
Syrian state-run media reported the crash but gave no details.
Opposition activists said the Free Syrian Army shot down the helicopter, whose spinning flame-engulfed nosedive was videotaped. Several video clips uploaded to opposition activist channels on YouTube were monitored by United Press International.
Rounds from apparent anti-aircraft guns could be heard on the videos and cheers of "God is great" erupted on some of them as the helicopter plummeted to the ground trailed by thick black smoke.
The crash came on a day when Syrian forces intensified their air campaign against presumed opposition targets, with attacks by jet fighters killing at least 60 people in Damascus's eastern suburbs, opposition groups said.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported at least 148 people were killed in Damascus and its suburbs Monday -- some summarily executed -- and at least 231 were killed people nationwide.