BEIRUT, Lebanon — Issuing Tehran's strongest warning to date, a top Iranian official said Saturday that any attack on Syria would be deemed an attack on Iran, a sign that it will do all it can to protect embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made his comments as Syrian troops conducted air raids against rebels and discovered a trio of tunnels they were using to smuggle weapons in their fight to topple Assad.
The world has been grappling over how to deal with Syria ever since an uprising against Assad's regime erupted nearly two years ago. But so far, there has been no international intervention on the ground where more than 60,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.
Iran is Syria's strongest ally in the Middle East, and has provided Assad's government with military and political backing for years.
"Syria plays a very key role in supporting or, God forbid, destabilizing the resistance front," Velayati was quoted by Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying. "For this same reason, (an) attack on Syria is considered (an) attack on Iran and Iran's allies."
Since the unrest in Syria began in March 2011, opposition forces have taken control of wide swathes of territory, mostly in the north near Syria's border with Turkey.
NATO said Saturday that the first of six Patriot missile batteries being deployed to Turkey to shoot down missiles that might come from the Syrian side of the border was now operational. The battery, meant to protect the Turkish city of Adana, was provided by the Netherlands.
The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are providing two batteries each of the U.S.-made Patriots. The other five batteries are expected to be operational in the coming days in Adana, Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep.
NATO says the Patriots would be used for defensive purposes only.
In fighting on Saturday, Syrian forces clashing with rebels uncovered tunnels they were using to smuggle weapons and move around Daraya, a strategic suburb of the capital, Damascus, the state-run news agency said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, reported shelling and air raids in other Damascus suburbs, including Shebaa and Aqraba near the international airport. In the north, the Observatory reported two air raids: One in Al-Bab. which killed at least four, and one in Manbij, which killed at least 12.