BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Syrian troops pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun on Thursday, activists said, as President Bashar al-Assad said he would have been toppled like the shah of Iran if his people had not been behind him.
Activists said Syrian forces pursuing their latest offensive had killed at least 11 people as they entered Khan Sheikhoun in an armored assault from the south at dawn after a fierce bombardment.
“They are burning houses and farms,” local activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said, adding that 80 percent of residents had fled.
Assad blamed the revolt on Islamist militants from hostile Arab countries and an alleged Western plot to break up Syria or plunge it into civil war.
“The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected,” he told Turkey’s Cumhuriyet daily. “The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this.”
He noted that Western backing and a strong army had not prevented Iran’s shah being toppled in a revolution in 1979.
“Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated,” he said.
“If I didn’t have the people behind me … I would have been overthrown. How come I’m still standing?”
FUNDING FOR REBELS
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promised to fund Syrian rebels and have long advocated arming them, despite Western misgivings about the wisdom of further militarizing the conflict.
Russia, which condemns outside backing for Syrian insurgents whom it regards as dangerous Islamist militants, dismissed suggestions that it might grant Assad political asylum.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described such rumors as “an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia’s position”.
Moscow has backed a vaguely-worded proposal for a political transition in Syria, but denies this implies removing Assad.
Along with China, it has blocked any U.N. Security Council action on Syria, anxious to give no pretext for a Libya-style military intervention – which the West denies contemplating.
The world backed a peace plan brokered in April by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but it never took effect.
The head of a U.N. mission sent to monitor Annan’s ceasefire said the observers must stay in Syria even though there was no truce and violence was reaching an “unprecedented level”.
General Robert Mood said the 300-strong mission should be restructured to help support the political dialogue that foreign powers say is the only way out of the crisis.
Assad’s forces have killed over 15,000 people in 16 months of violence, Syrian dissidents and Western leaders say. Damascus says rebels have killed many soldiers and security men.
Syrian forces also shelled the shattered city of Homs and Harasta, a town near Damascus, activists said.
Human rights monitor Rami Abdelrahman said 97 Syrians had been killed on Wednesday, a now common scale of death in a conflict disastrous for Syria and worrying for its neighbors.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said al Qaeda militants were crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out “terrorist attacks” in support of anti-Assad rebels.
“Most of the suicide bombers, foreign fighters, elements of al Qaeda used to slip into Iraq from Syria. So they know the routes and the connections,” Zebari said. “This is our main concern – about the spillover, about extremist groups taking root in neighboring countries, to have a base.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri has urged Sunni Muslim militants to join the fight against Assad, whose Shi’ite-rooted minority Alawite sect dominates the army and security forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he believes al Qaeda was responsible for two suicide car bombs in Damascus in May that killed at least 55 people.
PILOTS’ BODIES RETRIEVED
Tensions on Syria’s northern border with Turkey have also soared since Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance F4 plane over the Mediterranean on June 22 in disputed circumstances.
Turkey said it had retrieved the two pilots’ bodies from the jet’s wreckage on the seabed and had flown them back to their base in Malatya for burial on Friday.
Turkey will join Western and Arab states in Paris on Friday for a third meeting of the anti-Assad “Friends of Syria” forum.
Russia has criticized the grouping as one-sided. China confirmed on Thursday it would not attend the Paris talks, which also involve members of Syria’s fractious opposition.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she regretted the absence of Russia and China. “If we have two important powers within the United Nations not attending such a conference, that is not a positive sign,” she told a news conference.
The Paris gathering could help by tightening sanctions on Syria and further isolating it to ramp up pressure on Assad, a senior Western diplomat in Washington said earlier this week.
The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said any clear Russian move away from Assad would weaken his position.
“Whether or not the Russians have told Assad that he is not their best friend, Assad certainly believes the Russians are his best friend and that sustains (him) to a degree.”
Lavrov said the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council would be in Moscow for talks next week, but signaled no change in Russia’s stance.
Assad has made clear he has no intention of stepping down and can count on staunch support from Iran.
“The Americans think only of their own interests, but it is the right of the nations in the region, including the great nation of Syria, to freely determine their own destiny, and other nations should not impose their own demands,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday.