Iran’s foreign minister who negotiated his country’s nuclear deal with world powers discussed ways of ending Syria’s civil war with President Bashar Assad in Damascus Wednesday, as attacks surged around the Syrian capital, killing at least 36 people and wounding dozens.
Stepped-up rebel shelling and government airstrikes came just a few hours before Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Damascus, where he discussed a four-point proposal Iran wants to offer to the UN as a way out of Syria’s grinding conflict.
That plan, according to a Lebanese politician familiar with the proposal, includes a cease-fire and a power-sharing government that would keep Assad in the picture, at least for now, pending internationally supervised elections. The politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details of the plan, said it shows the Iranians were “not ready” to withdraw their support for Assad.
Syrian state-run TV quoted Zarif as saying after talks with Assad that their discussion focused on ways of ending the Syrian crisis.
“It is time for the other players and our neighbors to take note of reality, listen to the demands of the Syrian people and work for combatting extremism and terrorism,” Zarif said, referring to Gulf Arab countries that back Syrian rebels.
According to Syria’s state news agency, SANA, he stressed that any solution for the crisis should be “far from any foreign intervention and in a way that preserves the country’s territorial unity” and independence. He also underlined Iran’s determination to continue supporting Syria.
But the day’s surge in violence underscored the improbability of efforts to bring about a truce anytime soon in a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced half the country’s population since March 2011 and allowed ISIS to flourish. Assad has lost control over more than half the country by some estimates – much of it now ruled by warlords and militias.
Still, Tehran’s landmark deal with world powers is widely seen as providing an opportunity for achieving some kind of breakthrough on Syria.
The deal has opened diplomatic channels between Saudi Arabia and Assad’s government, although the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, denied Tuesday his country was wavering in its position that Assad should have no future role in Syria.
The rebel shelling, which apparently meant to send a message that Zarif was not welcome in Syria, began around the morning rush hour in Damascus. More than 50 shells struck the city, including in the upper-class neighborhoods of Abu Rummaneh, Baramkeh and Qassaa.
Five people were killed and dozens were wounded, according to Syrian state TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“We hid for two hours in the bathroom,” said a resident over the telephone from Qassaa, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “My children woke up terrified. Our windows were shattered and so was my car’s windshield.”Shortly afterward, government warplanes unleashed a wave of airstrikes on several rebel-held suburbs of the capital. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said the air raids on Hammourieh, Saqba, Kfar Batna, Douma and Arbeen killed 35 people and wounded dozens.
Videos uploaded on the Internet by activists showed massive destruction in Saqba and a number of casualties apparently being led away from a blood-stained street strewn with debris. Another video from Douma shows civil defense workers carrying victims on stretchers.
Meanwhile, heavy clashes continued around Kuweiris military airport, in the northern province of Aleppo, between Syrian government forces and ISIS militants, according to the Observatory.
The Observatory said the death toll of regime forces rose to 39 since Sunday, including at least 31 officers, among them three brigadiers and a colonel.
The group added that 33 ISIS militants were also killed in the clashes.
Assad’s enormous territorial losses in the past months may be pushing him to explore diplomatic options to resolve the crisis. But he is unlikely to fully step aside, and if anything, he may be more inclined to cling to power in the hope that an Iran freed of economic sanctions would support him all the more with funds for his battered army.
Also, regional and international players, including Russia and the US, may be more inclined to compromise on ways to end the conflict, having become more convinced that fighting ISIS overtakes the ouster of Assad as a priority.
Analysts say there is an intense debate among different power centers in Iran on what to do about Syria.
“While Iranian officials have always stated they are not wedded to individuals in Syria, and that their interest lies in preventing regime implosion, they still don’t see a way of preserving the regime institutional infrastructure without Assad,” said Randa Slim, a director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
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