Iran expresses support for Assad
Syria's president Bashar al-Assad won a pledge of support today from regional ally Iran as his forces tried to choke off rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.
Seeking to restore his authority after suffering the gravest setbacks so far in the 17-month-old uprising, culminating in the defection of his prime minister yesterday, Dr Assad was shown on television meeting a senior Iranian official.
It was the first footage broadcast of the 46-year-old leader for two weeks, and came a day after Syria's new caretaker prime minister was televised chairing a hastily called cabinet session, possibly to rebut reports that other ministers had deserted along with premier Riyad Hijab.
Saeed Jalili, head of Iran's supreme national security council, said Iran would not let its close partnership with the Syrian leadership to be shaken by the uprising or external foes.
"Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way," Syrian television quoted Mr Jalili as saying.
The "axis of resistance" refers to Shia Iran's anti-Israel alliance with Syria's rulers - from the Alawite faith which is an offshoot of Shia Islam - and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, with Iranian and Syrian support.
Damascus and Tehran have held Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states and Turkey, all allies of the United States and European powers, responsible for the bloodshed in Syria by supporting the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.
Western powers sympathetic to the rebels are concerned that anti-Western Sunni Islamists could benefit from a victory for the anti-Assad forces.
Iran's Fars news agency reported that Mr Jalili told Dr Assad that Iran was prepared to provide humanitarian aid to Syria.
On a visit to Turkey, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he wanted to work with Ankara to resolve the crisis. Iran has also expressed worry about the fate of more than 40 Iranians it says are religious pilgrims kidnapped by rebels from a bus in Damascus while visiting Shia shrines.
Rebels say they suspect the captives were troops sent to help Dr Assad. A rebel spokesman in the Damascus area said yesterday three of the Iranians had been killed by government shelling. He initially said the rest would be executed if the shelling did not stop but later said they were being questioned.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, without naming Iran or Sunni powers, warned against a descent into "sectarian warfare" and said Washington would not tolerate "sending in proxies or terrorist fighters" to "exploit" Syria's conflict.
In Aleppo, rebels trying to fight off an army offensive said they were running low on ammunition as Dr Assad's forces tried to encircle their stronghold in the southern approaches to the country's biggest city.
Dr Assad has reinforced his troops in preparation for an assault to recapture rebel-held districts of Aleppo after repelling fighters from most of Damascus.