- Associated Press - Sunday, July 8, 2012

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria began large-scale military exercises Sunday to simulate defending the country against outside “aggression,” as its staunch ally Iran warned of a “catastrophe” in the region without a political solution to the 16-month-old Syrian conflict.

Iran has stood by President Bashar Assad’s regime throughout the revolt against his rule, despite a growing chorus of international condemnation. The relentless bloodshed has accelerated diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis and spurred some in the Syrian opposition to urge the West to intervene militarily to stop a conflict that activists say has left more than 14,000 people dead.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, dismissed talk of foreign intervention, saying “nobody can imagine a military attack against Syria.”

U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, who is the architect of an international plan to end the crisis, acknowledged in an interview published Saturday that the international community’s efforts to find a political solution to the escalating violence in Syria have failed. Mr. Annan arrived in the Syrian capital Sunday for talks with Mr. Assad.

The West is reluctant to intervene in Syria in part because unlike the military intervention that helped bring down Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, the Syrian conflict has the potential to quickly escalate. Damascus has a web of allegiances to powerful forces, including Shiite powerhouse Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Any outside intervention would also likely face strong opposition from Syrian ally Russia, as well as China. They have already shielded Damascus from diplomatic efforts to pressure the regime.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, Jordan, Mr. Abdollahian dismissed questions about whether Iran would host Mr. Assad if he were to leave Syria.

“He is following up on the situation in Syria. The Syrian people will decide their fate until another president is elected in 2014,” he said.

Mr. Assad said in comments published Sunday that he will not step down “in the face of national challenges.” He spoke in a television interview with German public broadcaster ARD, which released his comments on Sunday ahead of the full interview’s broadcasting.

Mr. Assad also accused the United States of fueling the revolt against him by partnering with “terrorists … with weapons, money or public and political support at the United Nations.”

The regime frequently uses the term “terrorists” to refer to Syrians seeking to topple Mr. Assad.

The Syrian military maneuvers began Saturday with naval forces in a scenario where they repelled an attack from the sea. The war games will include air and ground forces over the next few days, the state-run SANA news agency said.

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