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BEIRUT – As Syrian forces struggled to drive rebels from the country’s largest city Thursday, the regime’s key ally Iran tried to start an alternative political process to address the crisis as it gathered nearly 30 nations at a meeting in Tehran. The one-day forum is unlikely to result in any international consensus, but it shows Iran’s resolve to stand by President Bashar Assad as his forces try to crush the 17-month-old uprising.
Tehran billed the conference as a way to focus on dialogue – an alternative to Western-led initiatives that call for Assad to give up power.
“Iran is against the killing of unarmed people and citizens by any side,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at the gathering.
He also warned that sending weapons to the opposition will only fuel the crisis, and he accused rebels of using civilians as “human shields.”
Syrian rebels last week intercepted a bus carrying 48 Iranians in a Damascus suburb and seized them. Rebels claimed the men are military personnel, including some members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, who were on a “reconnaissance mission” to help Assad’s crackdown.
Iran, however, says the 48 were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus. Salehi said Wednesday that some of the pilgrims are retired members of the army and Revolutionary Guard.
The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels have also seized 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who have been held in northern Syria since May.
Salehi said about 30 countries attended the meeting, including Russia and China, as well as far-off Benin, Cuba and Mauritania. The meeting was called on short notice, and most countries were represented at the ambassador level.
Russia in the past has urged the West to allow Tehran to take part in international discussions on how to settle the Syrian crisis, arguing that the Islamic republic could play an important role. Moscow has been the main protector and ally of Assad’s regime, shielding it from U.N. sanctions over its brutal crackdown on an uprising that has evolved into a full-blown civil war.
The U.S. dismissed the Iranian gathering. “We think the Iranian behavior in Syria is destructive,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. “It’s just hard for us to imagine that after putting so much effort into keeping Assad in power ... how they can be a constructive actor in facilitating a political solution to the crisis.”
Meanwhile, Syrian troops and rebels clashed Thursday in opposition bastions of Aleppo, a city of 3 million people.
The state news agency claimed Wednesday that Assad’s force had regained control of the Salaheddine neighborhood, the main rebel area in Aleppo. But activists said rebels were still putting up a fight there on Thursday.
“The battle is still going on in the streets of Salaheddine and in other neighborhoods in Allepo,” rebel spokesman Abdel Azziz Salameh told the Associated Press. “Our fighters have a shortage of ammunition, but they have not withdrawn.”
The regime has been trying to drive rebels out of Aleppo for two weeks. But the blistering attacks on rebel positions from the ground and the air appear to be only slowly chipping away at the opposition’s grip on its strongholds.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed said troops were using warplanes and tanks to shell the towns of Hreitan and Tel Rifat north of Aleppo, towns from which rebeles converged on the city. “They are trying to cut the main lines from Tel Rifat to Aleppo,” Saeed said.
Aleppo holds great symbolic and strategic importance. About 25 miles from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising. An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.
Also Thursday, Assad appointed Health Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi as the new prime minister to replace the one who defected to neighboring Jordan this week.