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Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (right) with his Syrian counterpart Walid Al Muallem in Tehran, yesterday.
DAMASCUS: Syria’s close ally Iran said yesterday that President Bashar Al Assad will take part in next year’s presidential election and that it is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leader.
On the ground, at least 16 rebels and 10 soldiers were killed in a ferocious dawn battle on the outskirts of a strategic city near the Turkish border as the army said it had recaptured an important highway leading to second city Aleppo.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was in Tehran yesterday for talks on the nearly two-year conflict which has killed at least 70,000, according to UN estimates.
At a news conference with Muallem, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said “in the next election, President Assad, like others, will take part, and the Syrian people will elect whomever they want.”
The “official position of Iran is that... Assad will remain legitimate president until the next... election” in 2014, Salehi said.
Assad took over as president in 2000 following the death of his father Hafez who ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, and has repeatedly rejected opposition, Western and Arab calls to step down.
A new constitution adopted in February 2012 stipulates that he can run for the presidency twice from 2014, which means he could stay at the helm until 2028 if re-elected.
In January, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told the BBC that Assad should be allowed to stand in 2014 like any other candidate, and that 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.
Salehi yesterday also backed a call by Damascus for talks 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,” he said.
“Iran firstly wants a 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.”
Muallem’s visit comes after a week of intense international diplomacy aimed at ending the bloodshed.
He condemned the announcement by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday that Washington would provide $60m in “non-lethal” assistance to support the Syrian political opposition.
“When the US (says it has) allocated $60m 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.
Damascus has repeatedly blamed foreign-backed “terrorists” for the violence, using the term to refer both to rebels and peaceful opponents ever since the outbreak of a popular revolt against Assad in March 2011.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army said it has seized control of a key road linking the central province of Hama to Aleppo international airport, scene of weeks of fierce battles with rebel fighters.
The capture of the road will allow the army to deploy fresh reinforcements and send supplies to the area near the airport, where fighting has raged since mid-February.
“In collaboration with honourable citizens, troops carried out a special operation and restored security and stability to villages on the airport road,” the military said in a statement published by state news agency SANA.
“This achievement shows the commitment of our forces to continue to fulfil their sacred national duty, repelling killings and aggression targeting our people and our country,” said the statement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report and said the army will now be able to deploy fresh troops and supplies in the area and the nearby Nayrab military airport.
Rebels launched last month an all-out assault on several airports in Aleppo province, including the international airport and Nayrab, which are located southeast of Syria’s second-largest city.
They have since captured Al Jarrah military airport as well as several other air defence complexes and nearby checkpoints.
But Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said that if the army succeeds in keeping control over the road “it will change the course of battles” around Aleppo and Nayrab airports “and even Aleppo”, Syria’s second city.
While rebels have taken over large swathes of territory and a number of key military garrisons in Aleppo province, fighting in the city has been at stalemate for months.
Abdel Rahman said that clashes around the airport road continued despite the army’s capture.
Aleppo international airport has been closed since the start of the year. AFP