DAMASCUS // Iran dispatched its speaker of parliament Ali Larijani to Syria on Friday in a show of support for Bashar Al Assad as his regime continued to come under attack in the southern suburbs of Damascus.
Iran, together with Russia, has been a major supporter of Mr Al Assad as he battles to retain power in the face of a 20-month uprising seeking to topple his regime.
Underscoring Tehran's continued backing for its Syrian ally, Mr Larijani praised the role of Damascus during the current flare-up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.
"Syria has played an important role in supporting the resistance (against Israel and the United States), but some in the region want to carry out actions with negative consequences, to cause problems in Syria," he said upon arrival at Damascus airport.
Mr Larijani also said that democratic reforms in Syria were "a necessary matter", according to Sana, Syria's state-run news agency.
Iran has previously voiced both its support for reform in Syria and for Mr Al Assad, who it says is implementing political change. Opposition factions, backed by the US, Turkey, Europe and the Gulf states, say the Syrian president must be removed if genuine reform is to take place.
Rights groups estimate that 40,000 people have been killed since the first protesters took to the streets to peacefully demand political reforms in March last year, only to be met by security forces firing live ammunition into the crowds.
Violence has since intensified, spiralling into a civil war with anti-regime groups increasingly taking up weapons. The rebel Free Syrian Army is now fighting government forces across much of the country, with tens of thousands of civilians displaced as a result.
The United Nations said yesterday that the number of Syrians registered as refugees in neighbouring states had doubled since September to more than 440,000.
Mr Larijani, who will travel to Lebanon and Turkey as part of a regional tour, also met with members of Palestinian factions in Syria, according to Sana, including Ahmed Jabril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
Iran and Syria, together with Lebanon's Hizbollah and the PFLP-GC, consider themselves part of a resistance front, standing against Israeli occupation of Arab lands.
That club once included Hamas, but its alliance with Syria collapsed after the uprising over its refusal to back Mr Al Assad. Hamas has since shut its Damascus headquarters.
The strain placed on internal Palestinian politics by the Syria crisis was underlined on Thursday night, when a bomb exploded in Yarmouk Camp, a Damascus suburb with a large Palestinian refugee community. The blast killed four people and seriously wounded a PFLP-GC member, according to the faction.
Syrian opposition groups in Yarmouk say the PFLP-GC has been fielding gunmen in the streets in support of Mr Al Assad's security forces, as they stifle demonstrations and fight armed rebels in the neighbourhood.
Mr Larijani's visit to Damascus coincided with heavy fighting in its southern suburbs. Throughout yesterday regime forces fired regular mortar fire, often two or more bombs a minute, into Daraya, a densely populated opposition stronghold.
Thick smoke and flames were clearly visible on the skyline from various points in the suburb, and heavy machine-gun fire could be heard.
Daraya has been surrounded by regime troops since an assault on the area in August, which local activists say killed more than 670 people. Government officials say the operation killed "terrorists", with state media this week saying military operations had continued there in response to "terrorists' crimes".
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots opposition activists, said at least 30 people across the country had been killed by yesterday afternoon, most of them in Damascus and its suburbs.
Also yesterday, Moscow and Damascus condemned a request by Turkey for Nato to deploy Patriot missiles along its frontier with Syria, saying the move would further inflame tensions.
Ankara, a Nato member, said Russia had nothing to fear because the Patriot system is defensive, designed to intercept incoming missiles.
Syrian artillery and mortar shells have repeatedly been fired into Turkish territory, as regime forces fight rebels in the border area. Turkish forces have fired back in response.