Iran is to host an international conference on the conflict in Syria on Thursday, but it is still unclear who exactly is going to attend. Syria has meanwhile appointed a new prime minister.
Iran's deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab affairs, Amir Abdollahian, told state television channel IRIB that "representatives of more than 20 countries" were to attend the conference in Tehran.
However, he did not identify those countries or say at what rank they would be represented, and there are signs that Tehran's stated goal of gathering at least a dozen foreign minsters would not be reached.
Some countries, including Kuwait and Lebanon, have said they would not be attending and others, among them Russia and Algeria, said they would send lower-ranking diplomats. Russia shares Iran's stance in protecting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Iranian media has reported that China, also an Assad supporter, would be present along with at least 15 other countries including Iraq, Algeria, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Pakistan, India and several members of the Arab League.
An official at the foreign ministry in Damascus said Syria itself would not be represented at the meeting.
Announcing the conference on Monday, Abdollahian said it would involve "countries having a principled and realistic position on Syria," indicating that no nation that backs the opposition and calls for an ouster of Assad would be present.
Western diplomats have dismissed the conference as an attempt to divert attention away from the violence in Syria and to keep Assad in power.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his country had three goals on Syria: implementing a ceasefire, sending humanitarian aid and laying groundwork for national dialog.
He also warned of chaos in Syria should Assad be removed from power.
"Syrian society is a beautiful mosaic of ethnicities, faiths and cultures, and it will be smashed to pieces should President Bashar al-Assad abruptly fall," he wrote.
"Iran seeks a solution that is in the interest of everyone," he added, calling for an "inclusive and comprehensive" political agenda.
Assad, meanwhile, has appointed a new prime minister after the defection earlier this week of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.
Health Minister Wael al-Halki is to replace caretaker premier Omar Ghalawanji, who was appointed hours after Hijab's defection.
Like Hijab, Halki is from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, the driving force behind Syria's 17-month uprising. Political and military power in Syria is otherwise held by Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam
A commander from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), Hossam Abu Mohammed, told the AFP news agency by telephone that the FSA had pulled out completely from the district of Salaheddin.
"The rebels are withdrawing to (nearby) Sukari district, where they are preparing a counter attack against the army," he said, saying there had been heavy shelling by army forces, along with the use of thermobaric bombs that incinerate targets in enclosed spaces.
Forces loyal to President Assad launched a major offensive on Wednesday with the aim of driving rebels from Aleppo, Syria's second city. The city is seen as being of utmost strategic importance.
tj/msh (AFP, Reuters)