Syria’s close ally Iran said on Saturday 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 on Saturday 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 on Saturday 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 $60 million in “non-lethal” assistance to support the Syrian political opposition.
“When the US (says it has) allocated $60 million 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.
He repeated calls for pressure to be exerted on Turkey and Qatar, among the main supporters of the rebels alongside Western countries.
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.
The army said on Saturday it seized control of a key road linking the central province of Hama to Aleppo international airport, the scene of fierce battles since mid-February.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report, calling the road significant because it will allow new troop deployments and supplies to reach the area surrounding Aleppo international airport and nearby Nayrab military airport.
Last month, rebels launched an all-out assault on several airports in Aleppo province.
Since dawn on Saturday, fierce clashes also raged in the northern city of Raqa between rebels and troops, killing at least 26 fighters — 16 rebels and 10 soldiers, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The Britain-based Observatory and activists said military helicopters strafed rebels in some parts of Raqa, which Abdel Rahman said was home to about 800,000 people displaced by violence elsewhere in Syria.
The official SANA news agency said the battle began after rebels attacked several army checkpoints.
At least 49 people were killed nationwide on Saturday, the Observatory said.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, the defence ministry said that four Syrian soldiers wounded in clashes with rebels just across the border were admitted to a north Iraq hospital for treatment.