The Obama administration said Thursday that Iran appears to be helping Syria crack down on protesters, calling it a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region and an indication that Syria's authoritarian president, Bashar Assad, isn't interested in real reform.
The accusation came as Assad ordered the release of hundreds of people detained during a month of demonstrations in an attempt to quell public anger toward his regime. Tens of thousands are seeking greater political freedom from his government, one of Middle East's most repressive, and pro-democracy activists say more than 200 people have been killed in a resulting crackdown.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was troubled by reports that Iran was assisting its closest Arab ally to put down the protests.
"There is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria ... in quelling the protesters," Toner told reporters. "If Syria's turning to Iran for help, it can't be very serious about real reform."
Toner declined to outline the forms of assistance the U.S. believes Iran is providing Syria. But The Wall Street Journal, citing unidentified Obama administration officials, reported that Tehran was providing equipment to suppress crowds and supporting Syria's efforts to block and monitor protesters' access to the Internet, cellphones and text-messaging.
Syria's government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.
Syria has government-controlled media and a one-party political order that is even stricter than the ones overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia. Assad has punished dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse, while his father, the late President Hafez Assad, massacred thousands after a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982.
Threats to Assad's iron-fisted control over Syria jeopardize a key component to Iran's sphere of influence in the Middle East. The two countries work together to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, groups considered terrorists by Israel and the United States.
And there are some fears in the region _ particularly from Sunni counterweight Saudi Arabia _ that Iran is quietly backing Shiite-led protest movements across the region, in places such as Bahrain and Yemen.
Toner said Iran's public praise for demonstrators abroad was "hypocritical" given the country's own deficiencies in respecting human rights. Yet he rejected the notion that those on the streets clamoring for a greater say in governance and more economic opportunities were in some way Iranian proxies fighting established Sunni orders.
"We have not seen any indications that they are in any way playing an active role in leading those protests," Toner said, yet he lamented that Iran continues to "play a meddling role in the region."
Large demonstrations are expected Friday in Syria and Sen. John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Assad to refrain from violence.
"The world will be watching very closely," said Kerry, D-Mass., who has met Assad on a number of occasions.
The Syrian leader should begin a real dialogue with his people and make good on his talk of modernizing his country, Kerry said in a statement. "None of that will ever be possible unless President Assad's government immediately ceases using violence against its own people and instead acts to address their concerns."