Iran urges Syria to halt crackdown

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The Independent Online

Syrian security forces kept up a violent crackdown on dissent today as the embattled regime faced surprising calls to end the violence from its closest ally, Iran.

In a live interview in Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Syrian leader Bashar Assad should back away from his deadly crackdown and talk to the opposition.

"There should be talks" between the Syrian government and its opponents, Mr Ahmadinejad told Portuguese broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa, according to a simultaneous Portuguese translation of his comments.

"A military solution is never the right solution," Mr Ahmadinejad said.

The comments came the same day that Syrian security forces unleashed one of the deadliest military assaults on the rebellious city of Homs, killing at least 20 people, activists said.

Today, activists said there were reports of machine-gun fire and explosions as military vehicles stormed an area near the Turkish border.

The Syrian opposition - which is disparate and largely disorganised - has generally ruled out dialogue while Assad's forces continue the crackdown, which the UN estimates has killed 2,200 people since March.

The crackdown has led to broad international isolation for Damascus, but Assad's allies in Iran have generally followed the Syrian regime's tactic of blaming the unrest on a foreign conspiracy aimed at fracturing the nation.

The government blames "terrorists" for the unrest - not true reform-seekers - and says hundreds of security forces have been killed.

Mr Ahmadinejad's comments are a clear departure from that line and appear to reflect growing impatience with Assad in Iran.

Late last month, Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Assad to listen to some of his people's "legitimate demands".

Mr Salehi's comments were a subtle shift in tone towards comprise by Tehran, which encouraged the Assad regime to answer to its people while reiterating Iran's support for its key ally.

Most of the previous Iranian comments had focused on a "foreign conspiracy" driving the unrest in Syria.

The relationship between Syria and Iran is key to Assad's regime, which is facing the most severe international isolation in more than 40 years of rule by his family.

The US and other nations have accused Iran of aiding Assad's crackdown. Last month, the European Union imposed sanctions against the elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force is providing equipment and other support to help the crackdown in Syria.

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

But Iran cannot prop up the regime indefinitely, and Mr Ahmadinejad's comments on Wednesday are sure to contribute to the growing unease in Damascus.