DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria and Iran said Saturday that Washington's decision to provide aid to rebels will only prolong the fighting aimed at toppling President Bashar Assad whose troops scored a major strategic victory in the country's heavily contested north.
Syrian troops regained control of several villages along a key highway near the embattled northern city of Aleppo, restoring stability to the city's international airport, the Army's General Command said in a statement. The achievement has the potential to change the outcome of the battle in Syria's largest city where government troops have been locked in a stalemate for months.
In Tehran, Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers accused the U.S. of having a double standard on its policy regarding Syria. They said the U.S. decision to provide rebels with aid will only delay an end to the nearly 2-year-old conflict that has killed at 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The remarks by Syria's Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, were the first official statements from the two nations following U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement this week that the U.S. will provide, for the first time, non-lethal aid directly to Syria's rebels, in addition to $60 million in assistance to Syria's political opposition.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Tehran, the Syrian and Iranian diplomats emphasized that whether Assad stays or goes will be decided in presidential elections scheduled for next year.
"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.
Iran is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime and has stood by the embattled Assad throughout the conflict.
Kerry announced the aid at an international conference on Syria in Rome on Thursday. In coming days, several European nations are expected to take similar steps to work with the military wing of the opposition to increase pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition.
Al-Moallem said it was 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.
"If they truly wanted a political settlement, they wouldn't punish the Syrian people and finance (opposition) groups with so-called non-lethal aid," he said. "Who are they kidding?"
The Damascus official stressed that Syria's sovereignty is a "red line."
"No one is allowed to infringe on Syrian national sovereignty," he said, adding that that the Syrian people will decide their own leaders through the ballot box. "We refuse to be a chess piece in the hands of the international community."
He directly accused Turkey and Qatar and other countries he did not name of supporting and funding "armed terrorist groups" operating in Syria, using the terminology employed by the Damascus regime to refer to the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
His Iranian host, Salehi, said "double standards were being applied by certain countries that serve to prolong and deepen the Syrian crisis" and lead to more bloodshed.
Syrian rebels control large swathes of land in the country's northeast, including several neighborhoods of Aleppo.
For weeks they have been trying to storm the Aleppo airport, a major prize in the battle for Syria's commercial capital. The rebels ousted troops from several military bases protecting the facility and cut off a major highway the army used to supply its troops inside the airport complex.
Syrian army officials said troops regained control of several villages along a different strategic highway that links the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo's International airport, declaring that the facility was safe.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director the Britain-based anti-regime activist group the Observatory for Human Rights said the army's victory Saturday was a "significant achievement" because the highway provides a lifeline to the regime.
"Securing these villages, assuming the regime can hang on to them, has the potential to turn around the direction of the conflict in Aleppo," Abdul-Rahman said.
The opposition fighters have repeatedly complained that they are outgunned by the regime. Rebel commanders say they need more sophisticated weapons to topple the Assad regime, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Also on Saturday, sporadic clashes involving light- and mid-sized arms continued near the Rabiya border crossing with Iraq. Syrian fighter jets fired at least two missiles and rebels on the ground fired at the jets, according to an AP journalist on the Iraqi side of the border.
The fighting comes a day after Iraqi officials said a Russian-made rocket fired from Syria slammed into Iraqi territory, intensifying concerns that violence from Syria's civil war could spill across the border. No one was injured in the strike.
According a police officer at the Iraqi Rabiya border crossing, five Syrian soldiers and one officer fled the clashes into Iraqi territory. Three of the soldiers were wounded and were evacuated to a hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, he said. A doctor confirmed the figure.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information to the media.
The chief of Syrian rebel forces, Salim Idris, accused Iraqi soldiers of firing at rebel positions inside Syrian territory and claimed Iraq's government was backing the Syrian regime.
But in a statement, the Iraqi Defense Ministry denied reports of Iraqi forces backing the Syrian army in its clashes with the rebels. The statement said Iraqi forces are deployed in the border regions only for routine duties and that one Iraqi soldier was wounded during the exchange of fire inside the Syrian territories.
Dareini reported from Tehran. Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.