Iran’s support is crucial for finding a resolution to the civil war in Syria, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said in his first interview with state television since taking office.
Morsi, who spoke bluntly in support of the Syrian revolution in Tehran three weeks ago, said on Saturday that Iran was “a main player in the region that could have an active and supportive role in solving the Syrian problem”.
Despite Morsi’s remarks at the Non-Aligned Movement summit last month, which were viewed as a stark challenge to Iran’s policy of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egypt then invited Iran to join its Syria “contact group” of nations aiming to negotiate a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia – like Egypt – both support the Syrian rebels, and are the two other members of the quartet.
“I don’t see the presence of Iran in this quartet as a problem, but is a part of solving the problem,” Morsi said, explaining that Iran’s close proximity to Syria and its strong ties with the government make it “vital” in resolving the crisis. “And we do not have a significant problem with Iran. It is normal like with the rest of the world’s states.”
The Syrian revolt erupted in March of last year, one month after the Egyptian uprising ended – over similar demands for
democracy and freedom. But unlike Mubarak, who quit after only 18 days of protest, Assad sent his military to crush the revolt, leading the rebels to take arms against him and prompting violent battles that have been going on for 18 months.
On Sunday, Syrian aircraft carried out strikes on rebel bastions across the country, especially in central Homs province and Deir Ezzor in the east, a watchdog said, as 31 people were killed nationwide.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said apartment blocks in Abu Kamal were targeted as rebels and soldiers battled on the ground in several districts of the town on the Iraqi border.
“The insurgents are trying to wrest control of this strategic town” in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor as well as the nearby Hamdan military airport, said the group’s head, Rami Abdel Rahman.
Later on Sunday, a blast reportedly occurred on Victoria Bridge in between the National Museum and the Four Seasons Hotel in central Damascus, injuring two people.
The United Nations says nearly 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict and more than 235,000 Syrian refugees
have registered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while about 1.2 million people have been displaced within Syria.
Turkey deploys heavy weapons
Rebels and non-government groups of various stripes control much of the Syrian countryside, especially along the porous Turkish border in the north.
Though they have failed to wrest control of Damascus from Assad’s forces and are locked in a tough battle for Aleppo, the country’s largest city, they move freely outside urban areas.
The rebels have grown confident enough in their autonomy that Riad al-Asad, the self-proclaimed commander of the Free Syrian Army – a loose term for various rebel groups – announced on Saturday that he had moved the FSA headquarters into Syria.
|Iran’s foreign minister visited Assad earlier this month, and acknowledged sending military advisers [Reuters]|
Aerial superiority is the only force keeping Assad’s government afloat, a rebel colonel claimed to the AFP news agency.
“With or without outside help, the fall of the regime is a question of months, not years,” said Colonel Ahmed Abdel Wahab, who said that he commanded a brigade of 850 fighters.
“If we had anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, we could quickly gain the advantage,” he said, speaking in the village of Atma near the Syrian border with Turkey.
“But if foreign countries don’t give us these, we will still win. It will take longer, that’s all. We control most of the country. In most regions, the soldiers are prisoners of their barracks. They go out very little and we can move freely everywhere, except Damascus.”
But small-arms battles and government shelling continue in pockets of fighting in the north, and Turkey’s military deployed armoured vehicles and heavy weaponary to the border on Saturday, near a crossing that has seen intense clashes, local media said.
The deployment is reportedly in an area where earlier this week Turkish civilians were wounded when stray bullets and
shelling crossed the border from the Syrian province of al-Raqqa.
CNN Turk television said artillery fire had landed close to the Turkish border overnight, causing panic among local residents.
The Turkish army moved three Howitzers and one anti-aircraft weapon to the border, the channel said.
Nearly 80 per cent of towns and villages along the Turkish border are outside the control of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
‘Securing liberated areas’
Asad announced the FSA’s headquarters move in a video message from Syria, the first since the group founded its command centre in Turkey at the beginning of the conflict.
“To the Syrian people, its freedom fighters and all the armed factions, we are glad to let you know that the leadership of the FSA has moved into Syria following arrangements made with other brigades that included securing liberated areas with the hope of launching the offensive on Damascus,” Asad said.
He said the FSA has felt pressure by the international community to take a leading role in post-war Syria. Asad said the FSA rejected those offers, reiterating that the people of Syria should decide the future of the country.
“Since we left our country, we suffered all sorts of regional and international interference and political pressure. We were isolated. Their goal was to have the FSA replace Assad once he is gone, but we categorically made it clear that we would never betray our people reiterating that only the Syrians should decide their future institutions.”
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border, said the rebels had been cautiously edging forward, taking territory 5km inside Syria.
“The move of the command centre is not necessarily a massive breakthrough because the FSA is still very much dependent on Turkey for its supply lines,” he said.