By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY
BEIRUT -- Syria's closest ally, Iran, warned Saturday that a power vacuum in Damascus could spark an unprecedented regional crisis while urging President Bashar Assad to listen to some of his people's "legitimate demands." Thousands of protesters, meanwhile, insisted they will defy tanks and bullets until Assad goes.
The 5-month-old uprising in Syria has left Assad with few international allies -- with the vital exception of Iran, which the U.S. and other nations say is helping drive the deadly crackdown on dissent.
Saturday's comments by Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi were a subtle shift in tone toward compromise by Tehran, which encouraged the Assad regime to answer to its people while reiterating its support for its key ally. Most previous comments focused on a "foreign conspiracy" driving the unrest.
"Either in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands and governments should answer them as soon as possible," Salehi said Saturday, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.
But Iran's support for Assad was clear.
"If a vacuum is created in the Syrian ruling system, it will have unprecedented repercussions," he said, adding that Syria has "sensitive neighbors" and that change in the country could lead to regional crisis.
Syria borders five other nations and controls water supplies to Iraq, Jordan and parts of Israel.
Iran's ties with Syria go far beyond the countries' long-standing friendship in a region dominated by Arab suspicions of Tehran's aims. Syria also is Iran's conduit for aid to powerful anti-Israel proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Should Assad's regime fall, it could rob Iran of a loyal Arab partner in a region profoundly realigned by uprisings demanding more freedom and democracy.
More than five months into the uprising against Assad, the conflict has descended into a bloody stalemate.
Human rights groups say Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in March, touched off by the wave of revolts sweeping the Arab world. The European Union imposed sanctions Wednesday against an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force is providing equipment and other support to help crush the revolt.
Iran's Guard forces were also used to put down a protest movement calling for political and social reform after Iran's disputed presidential election in 2009.
Assad has shrugged off international condemnation and calls for him to step down. Economic and other sanctions could slowly chip away at the regime in the long-term, however. Iran has offered unwavering support for Damascus, and there has been speculation that Tehran is providing funds to cushion Assad's government as it burns through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government had at the start of the uprising.