Vahid Salemi, Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria — Iran and Syria condemned a U.S. plan to assist rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad on Saturday and signaled the Syrian leader intends to stay in power at least until 2014 presidential elections.
The remarks came against the backdrop of a strategic victory for the regime as the military regained control over a string of villages along a key highway to open a potential supply route in Syria's heavily contested north.
The army command boasted of the achievement in a statement, saying it had eradicated the remnants of "terrorist agents and mercenaries" in the area that links the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo's international airport.
The reversal of gains, confirmed by Syrian activists, has the potential to change the outcome of the battle in Aleppo, Syria's largest city where government troops and rebels have been locked in a stalemate for months.
Syrian rebels have long complained that they are hampered by the world's failure to provide heavier arms to help them battle Assad's better-equipped military. The international community is reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels.
But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Thursday that the Obama administration was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria's political opposition and would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to the rebels.
Assad told the Sunday Times, in an interview timed to coincide with Kerry's first foreign trip as the top U.S. diplomat, that "the intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal."
In their first official statements on the U.S. decision, the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers accused Washington of having double standards and warned it will only delay an end to the civil war.
Iran is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime and has stood by the embattled Assad throughout the conflict.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, also set clear parameters for any future talks with the opposition, saying that whether Assad stays or goes will be decided in presidential elections scheduled for next year. Salehi went further to say Assad may run for another term.
"Assad is Syria's legal president until the next elections. Individuals have the freedom to run as candidates. Until that time, Assad is Syria's president," Salehi said at a joint news conference in Tehran. Al-Moallem said the Syrian people have the right to choose their leaders through the ballot box.
The remarks are likely to complicate already faltering diplomatic efforts to start a dialogue between the government and the opposition, which has offered to join talks with regime elements but insists that Assad must step down.
Assad was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that he had no intention of going into exile. He said during the interview in Damascus last week that "no patriotic person will think about living outside his country."
He accused Kerry of wasting time by trying to ease him out of power, according to the newspaper, saying it was an internal issue "so I'm not going to discuss it with anyone from abroad."
The U.N. estimates that 70,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Syria's opposition chief has offered to sit down for talks with regime elements, but insists that Assad must step down.
Al-Moallem said it was inconceivable that Washington would allocate $60 million in assistance to Syrian opposition groups while it continues to "kill the Syrian people" through economic sanctions imposed against the country.
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