AMMAN (Reuters) - A top Iranian official on Wednesday hailed a regional alliance of Tehran's allies stretching from Tehran to Beirut, underscoring his country's influence over a vast sweep of the Middle East extending through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.
Visiting the Syrian city of Aleppo, Ali Akbar Velayati, top advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader, was quoted by a military news outlet run by the Lebanese group Hezbollah as saying Tehran's involvement in Syria's civil war had averted wider violence.
"The resistance line starts from Tehran and passes through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut to reach Palestine," he was quoted as telling a group of Shi'ite Muslim militia volunteers.
Iran’s role, first by providing military advisers and then by training and arming Shi'ite militia in support of President Bashar al-Assad, has not only helped shape the Syrian conflict, it has strengthened its own hand across the region.
For the first time, Iran's revolutionary theocracy is exerting decisive authority in an arc of influence that Sunni Arab powers, particularly Tehran's arch foe Saudi Arabia, have been warning about for years.
The Hezbollah news outlet said the fighters Velayati was addressing had come to defend the Sayeda Zeinab shrine in Damascus, a magnet for thousands of Iraqi and Afghan Shi‘ite militia recruits who go there before being assigned to front lines to fight Sunni rebel groups opposed to Assad.
Almost every Shi'ite militia fighter bears insignia on his combat fatigues with the words "For your sake, Sayeda Zeinab".
Velayati's visit is the second by a top Iranian official to the war torn country in nearly two weeks as Tehran raises its public support to the Syrian government.
Iran’s military chief of staff went to Syria last month in a rare visit where he warned Israel against breaching Syrian airspace and territory a day before he visited a frontline position near Aleppo city.
Saudi Arabia, its Arab allies and regional powerhouse Israel accuse Iran of seeking to expand its influence in the Arab world with the goal of forging a land route through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean.
The Syrian opposition also say Shi'ite Iran's military presence in Syria stokes sectarian conflict and blames its militias for demographic changes that have uprooted Sunnis.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi)