DAMASCUS/ANKARA: President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to crush the 17-month rebellion against his regime and to cleanse Syria of “terrorists,” as his troops engaged rebels in key battleground city of Aleppo.
“The Syrian people and their government are determined to purge the country of terrorists and to fight the terrorists without respite,” he was quoted by state news agency SANA as telling visiting senior Iranian envoy Saeed Jalili.
Assad had earlier appeared on television for the first time in more than two weeks in a meeting with Jalili, a top aide to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Jalili offered Assad his country’s backing, saying Tehran would “never allow the resistance axis – of which Syria is an essential pillar – to break.
“What is happening in Syria is not an internal issue but a conflict between the axis of resistance on the one hand, and the regional and global enemies of this axis on the other,” he added.
Iran has accused Turkey and Gulf Arab countries of arming the Syrian opposition in collusion with the United States and Israel, to overthrow the Assad regime.
Jalili was previously quoted as saying “the crisis in Syria must be solved internally, through national dialogue, and not through the intervention of external forces.”
He added: “The Syrian people are hostile to any plan supported by the Zionists and the U.S.”
Later, Jalili called for an end to “all foreign intervention” in Syria, adding that Tehran rejects “any party imposing its will through military intervention.”
Assad said his country was “able to defeat foreign plans targeting the resistance axis and Syria’s role in it.”
Tehran also sent its foreign minister to Ankara and a letter to Washington, holding it responsible for the fate of 48 kidnapped Iranians.
Tehran says they are Shiite pilgrims, while their rebel captors insist they are members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi headed to Turkey to demand Ankara’s assistance in securing the release of the Iranian hostages amid growing concern for their fate.
Salehi later said “Turkey has links with the opposition in Syria, so we think Turkey can play major role in freeing our pilgrims.”
Iran had earlier accused the Free Syrian Army, which has claimed the abduction, of receiving Turkish support and said Salehi would “warn and remind the Ankara government of its responsibilities in this matter.”
The once close ties between two of the Middle East’s non-Arab powers have been ravaged by events in Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called comments by Iran’s top general Hassan Firouzabadi this week blaming Turkey for the bloodshed in Syria “regrettable” and denied his country has meddled in Syrian affairs.
“The statement by Iran’s chief of general staff on a website belonging to the Revolutionary Guards that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are responsible for the bloody developments in Syria is worrying and regrettable,” Erdogan told members of his party in comments broadcast live by NTV television.
Tehran delivered a message about the hostages to Washington in a letter transmitted through the U.S. interests section of the Swiss Embassy.
“Because of the United States’ manifest support of terrorist groups and the dispatch of weapons to Syria, the United States is responsible for the lives of the 48 Iranian pilgrims abducted in Damascus,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian quoted the letter as saying.
Washington said Tuesday it had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the kidnapped Iranians.
“At this point, we’re still following the reports closely and monitoring the situation. We cannot confirm the identity of those reportedly kidnapped,” State Department acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
“We don’t have ... information about who these people are [or] where they are,” he told journalists, amid reports from Syria that three of the hostages had been killed in fierce shelling by the Syrian army in Damascus.
Iran’s foreign minister also asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his help in efforts to free dozens of Iranian pilgrims and aid workers captured recently in Syria and Libya.
“I would like to seek the cooperation and the good offices of Your Excellency for securing the release of these hostages,” Salehi wrote to Ban in a letter that Iran’s U.N. mission provided to Reuters.
“The kind cooperation of the relevant United Nations offices in responding to this request of [Iran’s] government and the families of the hostages will be highly appreciated,” Salehi said.
A U.N. spokesman confirmed receipt of the letter but did not have an immediate response.
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran calls for the immediate release of its abducted nationals and is of the view that using the hostages as human shields violates international law and the human rights of these innocent civilians,” Salehi said.
In other developments, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned against “proxies or terrorist fighters” being sent in to join the conflict.
“We have to set very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare,” Clinton said during a news conference in Pretoria, South Africa.
“Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people,” she added. She did not elaborate on “proxies or terrorist fighters.”
Clinton said the opposition gains, combined with the fracturing of some of Assad’s support, made it imperative for the world to step up work on planning for a post-Assad Syria.
“We can begin talking about and planning for what happens next – the day after the regime does fall. I’m not going to put a timeline on it, I can’t possibly predict it, but I know it’s going to happen,” Clinton said. “We have to make very sure that state institutions stay intact.” Clinton said she intended to discuss the challenges facing Syria when she flies to Turkey for talks Saturday.
In Aleppo, clashes rocked several central areas of the city while the army also shelled rebel-held areas in the east, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The fighting in and around Aleppo killed at least 20 people, the watchdog said, adding that the nationwide toll was 122.
Aleppo has been bracing for a major ground offensive after a senior security official said the army had completed a buildup of some 20,000 troops. Near Homs in central Syria, opposition gunmen attacked an electricity company housing compound, killing 16 people, including Alawites, Christians and Sunnis, the Observatory said. Rebels attacked an oil field in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, triggering clashes in which four rebels and six soldiers were killed, it added.
Pro-opposition websites claimed that rebel fighters were engaged in fierce clashes with regime troops in several areas of eastern Syria, as well as in the governorate of Deraa in the south.
Al-Arabiya television said rebels claimed they had assassinated a Russian general who was advising the Syrian military, along with his translator.