(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN - Iran's foreign minister warned on Tuesday of unforseeable consequences if Syrian President Bashar Assad was toppled and said only a political settlement to Syria's civil war would avoid a regional conflagration.
Shi'ite Muslim Iran is Assad's closest ally and has provided money, weapons, intelligence and training for his forces against a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising in which more than 70,000 people have been killed in two years, by a UN estimate.
"God forbid, if there is any vacuum in Syria, these negative consequences will affect all countries ... No one knows what will happen," Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters during a rare visit to Jordan.
Flanked by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh, Salehi said it was no secret Iran supported Damascus but accused Syria's neighbors of allowing arms to flow to Sunni Muslim rebels led by militant groups aligned with al-Qaida.
Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, said last month that thousands of opposition fighters had crossed from Jordan to join the conflict in southern Syria, where rebels have gained ground since February.
Joudeh did not address that point but said Jordanian security forces had detained many who had tried to cross the other way with the intention of destabilizing the kingdom.
"The army and the security forces have arrested many of those who tried to infiltrate inside Jordan with harmful intentions. We are protecting our security and do not train terrorists," he said.
Syrian rebels say US army and intelligence officers have been training some of their fighters inside Jordan, and allowing limited flows of small arms into Syria.
The US-allied Jordanian monarchy is under increasing pressure from its Gulf Arab financial supporters to step up arm shipments to moderate rebel groups fighting Assad.
Washington said in April it would send an army headquarters unit - which could theoretically command combat troops - to Jordan. Amman has also beefed up its military capabilities on the border and requested US Patriot batteries to protect it from any retaliatory missile attack from Assad's forces.
But Joudeh denied there was any major international military build-up in his country. "There are no foreign troops across Jordanian territory. There are training programs with friendly countries and this is continuing," he said.
Salehi said only Syrians, and not foreign intervention, could decide their future and called on the opposition to "sit down with the government and set up a transitional government".
Israel staged two waves of air strikes in Syria over the weekend, targeting what it said were Iranian missiles intended for Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah militants, who back Assad against the rebels and fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
Hezbollah said on Tuesday Israel's bombings aimed to raise the spirits of Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria and described the attacks as part of an international plot to overthrow Assad.