Iran and Russia vow to oppose attempts to dump Assad

Russia and Iran will jointly oppose “external attempts” at regime change in Syria, a Kremlin official said Monday in Tehran after President Vladimir Putin met supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The comments were a direct rebuff of repeated demands from the United States, France, Britain and Saudi Arabia that President Bashar Al-Assad should step down and play no future role in war-torn Syria.

On his first trip to Iran in eight years, Putin, accompanied by his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, went straight into a meeting with Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s ultimate authority.

Describing the 90-minute encounter as “quite constructive” and longer than planned, a Kremlin spokesman said the two countries had “unity of views” on Syria.

Russia and Iran are against “external attempts to dictate scenarios of political settlement” in the conflict-wracked state, and only Syria’s people could decide to dump Assad in elections following a ceasefire.

Both countries are close allies of Assad, with Iran providing the Syrian leader with financial aid and military advisors against a range of opposing forces in a civil war that has that has killed more than 250,000 and displaced millions.

Near the start of the Syrian civil war, it was reported that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had personally sanctioned the dispatch of officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to fight alongside Assad’s troops.

Iran, however, has rejected that it has any fighters on the ground in Syria. Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian insisted recently that Tehran only has “military advisors” in the war-torn country.

Russia, too, supports Assad, having on September 30 launched its own military campaign in Syria to support the embattled president, who on Sunday said the Russian operation had helped his army advance “on nearly every front”.

During Monday’s meeting with Putin, Khamenei said the United States had a “long-term plan” to dominate Syria and the Middle East that would “disadvantage all countries,  especially Iran and Russia”.

“This threat should be neutralized wisely and with closer interaction,” he was quoted as saying in a statement, meaning cooperation with Russia.

“Syria’s president was elected by people of various political, religious and ethnic views in a general election. The U.S. cannot ignore Syrians’ vote and choice,” he added.

Putin and Khamenei met before the Russian leader spoke at a major summit of gas exporting countries hosted by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in the capital.

What began in 2011 as a conflict between Assad’s army and Western- and Gulf-backed rebels has since spiraled into a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 250,000.

Attention is currently focused on stopping Islamic State (ISIS) group jihadists, who last year seized large parts of Syria before surging into Iraq.

The threat from ISIS has taken on new potency and spread into Europe since the jihadists committed coordinated gun and bomb attacks in Paris on November 13, killing 130 people.

For Russia, defending Assad and confronting ISIS has become more important since the militants blew up a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, killing all 224 on board.