DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised the Syrian leadership’s handling of a year-long uprising in which thousands have died, saying Tehran would do everything it could to support its closest Arab ally, Iranian media reported on Tuesday.
Shi‘ite Muslim Iran backed popular uprisings which have removed leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen but has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
“I am very happy that Syrian officials are managing the situation well ... I hope the situation in Syria improves day after day,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying during talks with Assad’s special envoy, Faisal Meqdad.
The United Nations said on Tuesday that more than 9,000 people have died in the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters and armed rebels opposed to Assad, while Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
Ahmadinejad said there was no limit to expanding ties with Syria, and Iran would do “all in its power to support this country”.
Tehran has tempered its rhetoric since the anti-government demonstrations began in March last year. At first, it wholeheartedly supported Assad’s stance but it has increasingly encouraged him to pursue social and political reforms to take account of popular grievances.
Ahmadinejad accused the West of plotting with Arab countries to overthrow the Syrian leadership and bolster the status of Israel in the region. Assad’s crackdown has angered Arab countries including former ally Qatar, which together with Saudi Arabia has called for the Syrian opposition to be supported.
“By chanting false slogans of defending people’s freedom, the Americans want to take control of Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other countries and we should be aware and stand firm against their plots,” said Ahmadinejad.
He made no mention of the U.N.-sponsored peace plan which calls for national dialogue but not the removal of Assad from office. International envoy Kofi Annan said on Tuesday that Syria had accepted the plan.
The United States and Britain accused Iran last week of shipping weapons to Syria to support the crackdown. Iran and Syria have denied the allegations.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks were reported shortly before Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was due to arrive in Tehran for talks expected to focus on Iran’s controversial nuclear program and developments in Syria.
In contrast to Iran, Turkey has urged Assad to step down in an effort to end the violence.
Turkey provides sanctuary to over 17,000 Syrians fleeing the violence, shelters soldiers from the rebel Free Syrian Army and allows the opposition to meet regularly in Istanbul.
editing by David Stamp