Syria’s Assad returns to public eye with ally Iran

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad made his first appearance on state TV in nearly three weeks Tuesday in a show of solidarity with a senior Iranian envoy even as the U.S. secretary of state urged stepped up international planning for the regime’s collapse.

The contrasts couldn’t have been more vivid: Assad and Iran’s Saeed Jalili vowing to defeat the rebels and their backers, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton predicted Assad’s regime was quickly unraveling, with high-level defections such as his prime minister’s switch to the rebel side.

It also highlighted Assad’s deepening reliance on a shrinking list of allies, led by Tehran. Assad — seen on state TV for the first time since a July 18 bombing in Damascus killed four of his top security officials — used Jalili’s visit to portray a sense of command and vowed to fight his opponents “relentlessly.”

Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, promised Iran would stand by Syria against its international “enemies” — a clear reference to the rebels’ Western backers and others such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

While there were no public pledges of greater military assistance to Assad, the mission by Jalili appeared to reflect Iran’s efforts to reassure Syria of its backing and ease speculation that Tehran also could be making contingencies for Assad’s possible fall.

On a visit to South Africa, Clinton described Assad’s regime as splintering from Monday’s defection of Syria’s prime minister, Riad Hijab, and other military and political figures breaking away in recent months. She urged international leaders to begin work on a “good transition plan” to try to keep Syria from collapsing into more chaos after Assad.

“I am not going to put a timeline on it. I can’t possibly predict it, but I know it’s going to happen as do most observers around the world,” Clinton told reporters.

A post-Assad Syria presents a host of worrisome scenarios, including a bloody cycle of revenge and power grabs by the country’s patchwork of factions. They include the Sunni-led rebels and Assad’s minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and part of its close bonds with Shiite power Iran.

A growing humanitarian crisis is already taking hold.

More than 1,300 Syrians fled to Turkey on Tuesday as rebels tried to expand their hold inside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, despite two weeks of withering counterattacks by Assad’s troops. Close to 48,000 Syrians have already taken refuge in Turkey, which has served as a staging ground for rebels. Even more refugees have crossed into Jordan and Lebanon.

And at least 22,300 Iraqis who fled to Syria several years ago have streamed home in the past three weeks, said U.N. officials in Baghdad as they prepared for more refugees.

In Geneva, meanwhile, the World Health Organization said the fighting has severely hit Syria’s health services, including closing down 90 percent of pharmaceutical plants in Damascus and other main cities and leaving critical shortages of medicine. WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic cited a Syrian Health Ministry report that 200 ambulances were lost in recent weeks to theft or clashes.

Aleppo-based activists said clashes were going on Tuesday near the historic city center. That suggested the rebels were making some inroads in Aleppo, which lies some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Turkish border.

Intense government bombardment of the Syrian town of Tal Rafaat closer to the border sent scores of people spilling into Turkey for safety, according to the activists.

A Turkish government official said 1,328 Syrian refugees had crossed the border Tuesday — nearly double the number of the previous day. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.

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