7 August 2012
Last updated at 08:11 ET
Syrian TV has broadcast footage apparently showing President Bashar al-Assad meeting Iran’s security chief, the first time he has been seen on state television for several weeks.
His appearance came a day after Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to the opposition.
Arriving in Damascus, Iran’s security chief Saeed Jalili said only a “Syrian solution” would end the crisis. Iran is President Assad’s staunchest regional ally. Tehran says it is planning an international meeting on Syria on Thursday.
It is also trying to secure the release of a group of Iranians abducted by rebels from a bus in Damascus on Saturday. As well as Mr Jalili’s visit to Damascus, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi is travelling to Turkey for talks in Ankara.
Experts on Iran’s military back Tehran’s assertion that none of the 48 Iranians abducted by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a member of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).
If the IRGC had been operating in Syria covertly, they argue they would not have carried military ID cards, pictures of which were purportedly shown in an FSA video.
All Iranians who have completed military service carry such ID cards, they say. “Those cards shown on the video clip have IRGC insignia and the commander’s signature simply because they completed their military service at IRGC, like many Iranians,” one expert told the BBC.
The FSA video also showed several old men among the captured Iranians. Analysts consider it unlikely that the IRGC’s elite overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, would send elderly personnel on such a sensitive mission.
Iran’s defence minister has insisted that it does not have any military personnel inside Syria, although the US has accused the Quds Force of complicity in the repression of the Syrian people.
‘US held responsible’
An unconfirmed report from the rebels has suggested that three of the 48 hostages they are holding have been killed by army shelling.
Mr Jalili, who heads Iran’s supreme national security council and is considered a senior aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had travelled to Damascus from Lebanon.
He told reporters that “kidnapping innocent people is not acceptable anywhere”, Iran’s official news agency Irna reported.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has said it holds the US responsible for the hostages’ safety. He said the US was supporting “terrorist groups” and despatching weapons to Syria, and was therefore responsible for the lives of those abducted.
The rebels have claimed that the group are members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Tehran says they are pilgrims who had been heading for a Shia religious site.
‘Business as usual’
Syria’s caretaker Prime Minister Omar Ghalawanji headed an emergency cabinet meeting on Monday, stressing that all the ministers were there. He was due to chair a further session on Tuesday.
Riad Farid Hijab
- Born in 1966 in Deir al-Zour, eastern Syria
- Married with four children
- Holds a PhD in agriculture
- Joined the local branch of the Baath Party command in 1998
- Named governor of the southern province of Qunaytira in 2008
- Transferred to head the Latakia governorate around the time protests were first reported – credited in state media with negotiating an end to a sit-in
- Appointed minister of agriculture on 14 April 2011
The BBC’s Jim Muir, in neighbouring Lebanon, said state media were giving the impression of it being business as usual in Damascus.
Opposition activists said that apart from the prime minister, two other ministers had also defected and a third – Finance Minister Mohammad Jalilati – was arrested as he tried to escape.
But footage of the cabinet on state TV showed two of the ministers who had supposedly defected and Syria’s information minister played down the significance of Mr Hijab’s departure.
“We haven’t heard anything from the former prime minister and he didn’t appear on TV,” Omran al-Zoubi was quoted as saying by Syrian state news agency Sana.
Syria was a state of institutions, the information minister said, and the flight of some of its individuals would not affect the state, however prominent they were.
But reports of defections have continued, with Turkey’s foreign ministry announcing on its Twitter feed that a general was among more than 1,300 refugees who fled across the border overnight.
The number of Syrians who have crossed into Turkey has risen to 47,500, Ankara says.
Riad Hijab, appointed as prime minister less than two months ago, is the most prominent Syrian figure to defect so far.
Although his whereabouts are unclear, his spokesman appeared on al-Jazeera TV in neighbouring Jordan saying that the prime minister had fled Syria with his family and was in “a safe location”.
France said the Assad government was “doomed” and White House spokesman Jay Carney said such high-level defections signalled that President Assad’s grip on power was “loosening”.
On the ground in Syria, clashes have been reported in Aleppo and the army is said to have stepped up its bombardment of the northern city. Government forces are trying to dislodge rebel fighters who have taken control of up to half of Aleppo.
Opposition activists report intense attacks on rebel-held areas on the north-east and south-west sides of the city. State media said troops had clashed with “terrorists” in several places inflicting heavy losses.
Further deaths were reported in Damascus on Tuesday. Syrian state news agency Sana said a “terrorist hideout” had been stormed by security forces.
British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 270 people were killed across Syria on Monday. It said 61 civilians died in Aleppo province alone.
Activists estimate more than 20,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad began in March last year. Reports of casualties often cannot be independently verified as the movement of foreign journalists is severely restricted in Syria.
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