By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Iran appears to be supplying Syria with weapons, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as the 17-month conflict that began as a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slides deeper into civil war.
The U.N. accusation backs charges by Western officials that Iran is providing funds, weapons and intelligence support to Assad in his bid to crush the opposition. Syrian rebels also say Tehran has sent Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah fighters.
"The Secretary-General has repeatedly expressed his concern about the arms flows to the two parties in Syria, which in some cases appear to violate resolution 1747 passed by this council banning arms exports under Chapter 7 authority," U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the U.N. Security Council.
In a prepared copy of his speech, Feltman noted that the ban was on Iranian arms exports. Resolution 1747 bans arms exports by Iran under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which allows the Security Council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
The resolution was passed in response to Iran's defiance of U.N. demands that it halt its nuclear enrichment program. Iran rejects allegations by Western nations and their allies that it is developing nuclear weapons.
Next week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend a summit meeting of leaders of non-aligned developing nations in Iran. He will also meet with senior Iranian officials to discuss "Iran's nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria," his spokesman said.
Feltman also reiterated U.N. concerns at weapons being smuggled between Lebanon and Syria.
"Both the government and the opposition are focusing on military operations and the use of force, with government forces using heavy weapons on population centers," Feltman told the Security Council during a regular briefing on the Middle East.
"The Syrian people are suffering grievously from the appalling further militarization of this conflict," he said.
A U.N. Security Council panel of independent experts that monitors sanctions against Iran has uncovered several examples of Iran transferring arms to Syria's government. Damascus has accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of arming rebels determined to topple Assad's government.
The United Nations has said more than 18,000 people have died and some 170,000 people have fled the country as a result of the fighting in Syria. U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos has said that up to 2.5 million people in Syria needed aid.
"This conflict has taken on a particularly brutal and violent character," Amos told a news conference in New York on Wednesday after visiting Syria and Lebanon last week.
"We face problems with access to people in need, particularly where there is intense and ongoing fighting, but funding is also holding us back. If we had more resources, we could reach more people," she said.