By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Iran’s top security official reaffirmed Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday as the United States warned of a potential proxy war in Syria and an influx of terrorists into the strife-torn nation.
Iran’s security chief, Saeed Jalili, met in Damascus with Assad, who appeared on state television for the first time in two weeks. His absence had spurred rumors that Assad may have left the Syrian capital amid soaring violence and a bombing last month that killed four of his top aides.
Assad told the Iranian official that “foreign powers” were supplying “terrorists” with weapons — a clear reference to U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which have provided aid to rebels seeking to overthrow Assad’s government.
On a visit to South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was also warning about terrorist infiltration into Syria and interference by outsiders.
“Those who are attempting to exploit the misery of the Syrian people, whether by sending in proxies or sending in terrorist fighters, must recognize that that will not be tolerated,” the top U.S. diplomat said.
Clinton did not clarify what nations or groups were fomenting strife in Syria. Later, a State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, also did not offer specifics when asked about Clinton’s comments.
“We’re talking about the type of extremists and terrorists that would throw further fuel on the fire and kill more innocent Syrians,” Ventrell told reporters in Washington.
Western officials have expressed concern about an influx of foreign jihadists arriving in Syria to fight alongside Western-backed rebels seeking to oust Assad.
Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, both staunch allies of Assad, have consistently denied providing any military assistance to the Syrian government.
However, anti-Assad rebels inside Syria have long accused Iran and Hezbollah of providing aid to Syria.
The United States has publicly assailed what it calls Tehran’s “destructive behavior” in Syria.
This past weekend, a rebel brigade claimed that 48 Iranian citizens captured by insurgents near Damascus on Saturday were Iranian militiamen on a “reconnaissance mission.” The rebels threatened to execute the captives.
Iran says the captives are religious pilgrims and has demanded their release.
On Tuesday, Iran called on the United States and other nations backing the Syrian opposition to use their influence to win the freedom of the Iranians.
“Kidnapping innocent people is not acceptable anywhere in the world,” said Jalili, who is also Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, after he arrived in Damascus. His visit to Syria appeared to be part of a diplomatic offensive by Tehran aimed at freeing the captives.
U.S. officials don’t know who the captured Iranians are, State Department spokesman Ventrell said Tuesday.
It is unclear if the Syrian rebel group has made any specific demands in exchange for the release of the Iranians. A posting on a rebel social media site indicated that three of the hostages were killed this week in government shelling, but that report remained unconfirmed.
In another effort to help secure the release of the captives, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Ankara on Tuesday for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. Iran is seeking help from Turkey and Qatar — major backers of the Syrian opposition — in securing the release of the captives.