Close Damascus ally Iran said on Saturday that President Bashar al-Assad will take part in Syria’s presidential election next year and that the people will choose whomever they want as their leader.
Meanwhile, dozens of troops and rebels were killed in a ferocious dawn battle on the outskirts of a strategic city near the Turkish border, while the army said it had recaptured an important highway leading to second city Aleppo.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was in Tehran on Saturday for talks aimed at ending the nearly two-year conflict that the United Nations says has killed at least 70,000 people At a press conference with Muallem, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that, “in the next election, President Assad, like others, will take part, and the Syrian people will elect whomever they want.” Meanwhile, he said, the “official position of Iran is that… Assad will remain legitimate president until the next… election” in 2014, said Salehi.
On January 15, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told the BBC that Assad should be allowed to stand in 2014 like any other candidate and it is up to the Syrians themselves to decide their future leadership.
“We are opening the way for democracy, or deeper democracy. In a democracy you don’t tell somebody not to run,” Muqdad said.
“The president now and many other candidates who may run will go to the people, put their programmes and be elected by the people.” Salehi threw Iran’s weight behind Damascus’s call this week for dialogue with the armed opposition, calling the initiative a “positive step,” but reiterated that Assad’s regime has “no choice” but to keep fighting rebels.
“We believe that the crisis has no military solution and only a Syrian political one,” said the Iranian minister.
“Iran firstly wants stop to the bloodshed but the Syrian government has no choice but to fight against the terrorists and we cannot ask the Syrian government not to do so and leave them alone,” he added.
Muallem’s visit comes after a week of intense international diplomacy aimed at ending the bloodshed. The Syrian minister condemned the announcement by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday that Washington would provide $60 million in “non-lethal” assistance to support the Syrian political opposition.
“When the US (says it has) allocated $60 million to the opposition and this opposition is killing people, I don’t understand this initiative… Are there any weapons that do not kill people? Who are you kidding?” Muallem asked.
He repeated calls for pressure to be exerted on Turkey and Qatar, among the main supporters of the rebels alongside Western countries.
Damascus has repeatedly blamed foreign-backed “terrorists” for the violence in Syria, using the term to refer both to rebels and peaceful opponents ever since the outbreak of a popular revolt against Assad in March 2011.
The statements come as Syria’s army said it seized control of a road leading from Hama in the centre of the country to Aleppo international airport, scene since mid-February of fierce battles pitting troops against rebel fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report, adding that the road is significant because it will allow new troop deployments and supplies to reach the area surrounding Aleppo international airport and nearby Nayrab military airport.
Last month, rebels launched last month an all-out assault on several airports in Aleppo province. Earlier on Saturday, fierce clashes in the northern city of Raqa killed dozens of fighters on both sides, the Observatory said.
“Army troops shelled several city neighbourhoods, as well as the outskirts, while the clashes left dozens of troops and rebels dead,” the Britain-based group said without giving exact numbers.
Both the Observatory and activists in Raqa said the army was using helicopters to strafe rebels in some parts of the city, in a rare escalation of violence in the provincial capital.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said Raqa has become home to 800,000 people who were forced to flee other parts of Syria.