DAMASCUS, Syria – Iran and Syria condemned a U.S. plan to assist rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad on Saturday and signaled the Syrian leader intends to stay in power at least until the 2014 presidential elections.
The remarks came against the backdrop of a strategic victory for the regime as the military regained control over a string of villages along a key highway to open a potential supply route in Syria’s heavily contested north.
The army command boasted of the achievement in a statement, saying it had eradicated the remnants of “terrorist agents and mercenaries” in the area that links the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo’s international airport.
The reversal of gains, confirmed by Syrian activists, has the potential to change the outcome of the battle in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city where government troops and rebels have been locked in a stalemate for months.
Syrian rebels have long complained that they are hampered by the world’s failure to provide heavier arms to help them battle Assad’s better-equipped military. The international community is reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels.
But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Thursday that the Obama administration was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria’s political opposition and would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to the rebels.
Assad told the Sunday Times, in an interview timed to coincide with Kerry’s first foreign trip as the top U.S. diplomat, that “the intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal.”
In their first official statements on the U.S. decision, the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers accused Washington of having double standards and warned it will only delay an end to the civil war.
Iran is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime and has stood by the embattled Assad throughout the conflict.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, also set clear parameters for any future talks with the opposition, saying that whether Assad stays or goes will be decided in presidential elections scheduled for next year. Salehi went further to say Assad may run for another term.
“Assad is Syria’s legal president until the next elections. Individuals have the freedom to run as candidates. Until that time, Assad is Syria’s president,” Salehi said at a joint news conference in Tehran. Al-Moallem said the Syrian people have the right to choose their leaders through the ballot box.
The remarks are likely to complicate already faltering diplomatic efforts to start a dialogue between the government and the opposition, which has offered to join talks with regime elements but insists that Assad must step down.
Assad was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that he had no intention of going into exile. He said during the interview in Damascus last week that “no patriotic person will think about living outside his country.”
He accused Kerry of wasting time by trying to ease him out of power, according to the newspaper, saying it was an internal issue “so I’m not going to discuss it with anyone from abroad.”
The U.N. estimates that 70,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Syria’s opposition chief has offered to sit down for talks with regime elements, but insists that Assad must step down.
Al-Moallem said it was inconceivable that Washington would allocate $60 million in assistance to Syrian opposition groups while it continues to “kill the Syrian people” through economic sanctions imposed against the country.
“If they truly wanted a political settlement, they wouldn’t punish the Syrian people and finance (opposition) groups with so-called non-lethal aid,” he said. “Who are they kidding?”
The Damascus official called Syria’s sovereignty a “red line.”
He directly accused Turkey and Qatar and other countries he did not name of supporting and funding “armed terrorist groups” operating in Syria, using the regime’s terminology for the rebels. Both countries are strong rebel backers and have offered logistical and other assistance to Syrian opposition groups.
His Iranian host, Salehi, said “double standards were being applied by certain countries that serve to prolong and deepen the Syrian crisis” and lead to more bloodshed.
Syrian rebels control large swaths of land in the country’s northeast, including several neighborhoods of Aleppo.
For weeks they have been trying to storm the Aleppo airport, a major prize in the battle for Syria’s commercial capital. The rebels ousted troops from several bases protecting the facility and cut off a major highway the army used to supply its troops inside the airport complex.
Syrian army officials said troops had secured the facility and regained control of several villages along the highway leading to the airport after days of fighting.
An opposition spokesman, Rami Abdul-Rahman, director the Britain-based anti-regime activist group the Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the army’s victory Saturday, calling it a “significant achievement.”
“Securing these villages, assuming the regime can hang on to them, has the potential to turn around the direction of the conflict in Aleppo,” Abdul-Rahman said.
In other violence Saturday, clashes broke out in the northeastern Raqqa province, and activists said dozens of people on both sides were reported dead or wounded.
Ahrar al-Sham Movement, a militant Islamic brigade fighting with the rebels, announced in an online video posted Saturday that it was starting a wide scale operation against military and infrastructure targets in the area along with other extremists including Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida-affiliated group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group.
Sporadic clashes also continued near Syria’s Rabiya border crossing with Iraq. Syrian fighter jets fired at least two missiles and rebels on the ground fired at the jets, according to a witness on the Iraqi side of the border.
The fighting comes a day after Iraqi officials said a Russian-made rocket fired from Syria slammed into Iraqi territory, intensifying concerns that violence from Syria’s civil war could spill across the border. No one was injured in the strike.
A police officer at the Iraqi Rabiya border crossing said five Syrian soldiers and one officer fled the clashes into Iraqi territory. Three of the soldiers were wounded and evacuated to a hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, he said. A doctor confirmed the figure.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information to the media. They didn’t say what happened to the other three who fled.
The chief of Syrian rebel forces, Salim Idris, accused Iraqi soldiers of firing at rebel positions inside Syrian territory and claimed Iraq’s government was backing Assad’s regime.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry denied that Iraqi forces were backing the Syrian army during clashes with rebels. A statement said Iraqi forces are deployed in the border regions only for routine duties and one Iraqi soldier was wounded during the exchange of fire.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Beirut, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.