Iran launched a double-pronged diplomatic offensive yesterday to secure the release of nearly 50 of its nationals held by Syrian rebels, a hostage crisis that has the potential to suck Tehran into a more active role in the conflict.
A stalwart supporter of the Syrian regime throughout the 17 months of violence, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, travelled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, yesterday where he called for the two nations to end the conflict. This, despite Tehran’s fierce criticism of Turkish support for the rebels in the past, shows the country’s desperation to secure the release of the hostages, who rebels have threatened to execute.
In what appeared to be an effort to reassure its old-time ally over its actions, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, flew to Damascus for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, after which he vowed that Iran would continue to support the regime. During the meeting Mr Assad pledged to crush terrorist groups destabilising the country. “The Syrian people and their government are determined to purge the country of terrorists,” he said. The meeting appeared to be filmed in a room in the Al Shaab presidential palace, and will further scotch rumours that Mr Assad had fled the capital.
Tehran maintains that the 48 hostages, seized from a bus over the weekend, were Shia pilgrims. However, rebels claim they are members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sent to fight for the regime.
A Free Syrian Army spokesman said on Monday that three captives had been killed in a regime air strike, and the remaining 45 would be put to death unless the assault was called off.