Iran is Syria's strongest ally as Damascus faces growing isolation from the world for its violent crackdown [Reuters]

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has called on Bashar al-Assad, his Syrian counterpart, to back away from the regime's violent crackdown on dissent and open dialogue with the opposition.

"There should be talks" between the Syrian government and its opponents, Ahmadinejad told Portuguese broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa late on Wednesday.

"A military solution is never the right solution," he said.

"We believe that freedom and justice and respect for others are the rights of all nations. All governments have to recognise these rights. Problems have to be dealt with through dialogue.'

"Other countries in the region can help the Syrian government and people to talk to each other with a view to resolving their differences and introducing the reforms that are needed."

The comments came on the same day that Syrian security forces unleashed fresh military assaults on the central city of Homs, killing at least 21 people, according to activists.

Chief ally

Syria's relationship with Iran, Damascus' chief ally, is key to Assad's regime, which is facing its most severe international isolation in more than 40 years of rule by his family.

Most of the previous Iranian comments on the unrest in Syria had focused on a "foreign conspiracy'' driving the instability but there has been a subtle shift in Tehran's tone.

Late last month, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, encouraged the Assad regime to answer to some of his people's "legitimate demands" while reiterating Iran's support Syria.

Ahmadinejad's comments seem to build on the slight shift and appear to reflect growing impatience with Assad in Iran.

In August, the European Union imposed sanctions against the elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force, a special unit within the Guard, is providing equipment and other support to help the crackdown in Syria.

The US and other nations have accused Iran of aiding Assad's crackdown.

There also has been speculation that Tehran is providing funds to cushion Assad's government as it burns through the $17bn in foreign reserves that the goverment had at the start of the uprising.

Source: Agencies