- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — A recent visit by the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force to Damascus is the strongest sign yet that Iran is supplying weapons to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on his people, a senior Obama administration official said Tuesday.

While the United States long has believed Iran is helping drive the deadly crackdown on dissent in Syria, the official said the visit by Quds Force Commander Ghassem Soleimani provides a concrete example of direct high-level cooperation between Iran and Syria.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak publicly.

The administration’s assertion comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. Under the threat of increased U.S. sanctions, Iran has said it could block the strategic Strait of Hormuz; the Obama administration says it has warned Iran against taking such actions.

Iran has been Syria’s closest ally for decades, and the Islamic Republic has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Assad since the uprising against his regime began in March.

The revolt in Syria has turned increasingly militarized in recent months, with a growing risk of civil war. The United Nations says about 400 people have been killed in the past three weeks, on top of an earlier estimate of more than 5,000 dead over the past 10 months.

White House national security council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Iran’s aid to Syria is a sign of Mr. Assad’s “desperation.”

Assad is running out of money to continue financing his crackdown and has turned to Syria’s only ally left,” Mr. Vietor said. “No citizen in the world deserves to be repressed by its own government, and certainly not by Assad’s lone friend.”

The administration has called for Mr. Assad to step down and has said his regime’s end is inevitable. Officials point to recent defections by senior Syrian military and government officials — including the decision by a member of parliament to leave Syria over the weekend — as a sign that Mr. Assad’s government is crumbling.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.