Syria's Assad returns to public eye with ally Iran

Associated Press Modified: August 7, 2012 at 7:47 pm •  Published: August 7, 2012
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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad made his first appearance on state TV in nearly three weeks Tuesday in a show of solidarity with a senior Iranian envoy, even as the U.S. urged stepped up international planning for the regime's collapse.

The visit to Damascus by the highest-ranking Iranian official since the uprising began coincided with a warning by an increasingly agitated Tehran that it holds the U.S. responsible for the fate of 48 Iranians seized by Syrian rebels.

Appearing together on state TV, Assad and Iran's Saeed Jalili vowed to defeat the rebels and their backers, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton predicted Assad's regime was quickly unraveling, with high-level defections such as his prime minister's switch to the rebel side.

Jalili's visit highlighted Assad's deepening reliance on a shrinking list of allies, led by Tehran. Assad — seen on state TV for the first time since a July 18 bombing in Damascus killed four of his top security officials — used Jalili's visit to portray a sense of command and vowed to fight his opponents "relentlessly."

Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, promised Iran would stand by Syria against its international "enemies" — a clear reference to the rebels' Western backers and others such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

While there were no public pledges of greater military assistance to Assad, the mission appeared to reflect Iran's efforts to reassure Syria of its backing and ease speculation that Tehran also could be making contingencies for Assad's possible fall.

On a visit to South Africa, Clinton described Assad's regime as splintering from Monday's defection of Syria's prime minister, Riad Hijab, and other military and political figures breaking away in recent months. She urged international leaders to begin work on a "good transition plan" to try to keep Syria from collapsing into more chaos after Assad.

"I am not going to put a timeline on it. I can't possibly predict it, but I know it's going to happen as do most observers around the world," Clinton told reporters.

A post-Assad Syria presents a host of worrisome scenarios, including a bloody cycle of revenge and power grabs by the country's patchwork of factions, including the Sunni-led rebels and Assad's minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam allied with Shiite Iran.

Despite a ferocious government crackdown, the Syrian rebels have grown more confident and are using increasingly bolder tactics. They seized the 48 Iranians in a bold daylight attack near Damascus on Saturday, claiming they were members of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards sent on a "reconnaissance mission" to assist in Assad's crackdown.

Iran says the Iranians, who were captured when their bus was commandeered near the airport, were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.

Iran issued a flurry of appeals for their release on Tuesday, with Jalili saying that Iran would spare no effort to secure their freedom.

"We believe that the abduction of innocent people could not be accepted by any rational person. We believe that the parties that support those terrorist groups to commit such disgraceful acts, are their partners," he said.

In a pointed message to the Obama administration, Iran's Foreign Ministry said that it holds the U.S. responsible for the fate of the abducted Iranians.

Iran's state IRNA news agency said the ministry summoned the Swiss envoy in Tehran late Monday to stress that Iran expects Washington to use its influence to secure the Iranians' release. The Swiss look after U.S. interests in Iran since Tehran and Washington have no diplomatic relations.

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