Iran is preparing to preserve its influence in Syria in the event that its ally President Bashar Assad should be removed from power by building a network of militias in the country along with Hezbollah, The Washington Post reported on Sunday, citing US and Middle East officials.

According to the officials, the militias are currently fighting alongside Assad's forces to keep the embattled leader in power. They believe, however, that the militias are actually in place to serve Tehran's long-term goal of maintaining operatives in the country to act in Iran's interest in Syria if the opposition forces should succeed in unseating Assad.

The Post quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying that Iran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on,” the official stated.

The Post quoted a senior Arab official as saying that Iran was putting the militiamen in place in order to "support Assad to the hilt," and "to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses.”

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Syria's uprising, which started as peaceful protests against four decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his late father, has turned into a violent sectarian conflict.

The war is pitting Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated Syria since 1960s, against the Sunni majority that had led the protest movement.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, said clashes broke out on Sunday in the al-Afif neighbourhood of Damascus, which is adjacent to a presidential complex.

The organization said 77 people were killed in Syria on Sunday, including 16 people who it said had been executed by Assad's forces in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor. Such reports are impossible to verify as Syria severely restricts access for independent media.

Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib said on Sunday he was willing to hold talks with Assad's representatives in rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

The talks' objective would be to find a way for Assad to leave power with the "minimum of bloodshed and destruction", Alkhatib said in a statement published on his Facebook page.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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