Syria’s Assad admits setbacks, insists he won’t lose civil war
Syrian President Bashar Assad delivered a sober assessment of the state of his forces on Sunday, acknowledging a manpower shortage and conceding troop withdrawals from some areas, but asserting that the military was not facing collapse.
The president defended a controversial triage strategy that has seen forces pull back from some zones while reinforcing units in other parts of the country.
“Are we giving up areas?” Assad asked as he posed a series of questions about the government’s strategy. “Why do we lose other areas? ... And where is the army in some of the areas?”
The Syrian president endeavored to provide answers. But it was an open question whether his responses would reassure loyalists worried that the government could be losing its hold on the embattled country.
“Important areas must be specified for the armed forces to hold onto, so as to prevent the collapse of the other areas,” Assad said in a speech before a group of economic officials in Damascus.
The president also thanked his allies — notably Iran — while taking the West to task for supporting “terrorists,” the Syrian government’s standard term for the armed opposition fighting to wrest control of the country.
The core areas under government control include the capital, Damascus, and the strategic corridor north to the cities of Homs and Hama and west to the Mediterranean coast, a pro-government stronghold.
Despite threatened supply lines, government forces also have maintained control over roughly half of the northern city of Aleppo, divided for more than three years between loyalist and opposition forces. Various rebel offensives to take full control of the city have made little headway.
Syrian authorities have been actively seeking to increase military recruitment in recent months, a sign of the shortage of fighters across a sprawling battlefield that stretches from the country’s northern fringes to its southern tip, and from its western borders to its eastern frontier.
In Damascus and other cities, prominent recruiting billboards depict stern-looking young men and women in full military gear exhorting others to enlist.
“Our army means all of us,” declares one billboard.
Other signs posted prominently depict soldiers providing vital security for children and families.
Another billboard takes a more confrontational approach, asking a man who is watching a computer screen: “Sitting there and looking? What are you waiting for?”
The presidential speech comes as the thinly stretched Syrian army has suffered a string of setbacks in the last few months, squeezing government forces into defensive positions in Syria’s northwest and in the south.
Assad blamed the retreats on a lack of manpower, asserting that steps would need to be taken “to raise the [capacity] of the armed forces... primarily through calling the reserves in addition to recruits and volunteers.”
One such step, Assad said, was the granting of an amnesty on Saturday to soldiers who had defected, so long as they had not joined armed opposition groups. The amnesty was also extended to draft dodgers, many of whom have left Syria to escape military service.
Despite conceding setbacks, Assad maintained a confident tone, insisting that Army recruitment numbers had increased in the last few months and that “there is no collapse... and we will be steadfast and will achieve the missions.”
“Defeat ... does not exist in the dictionaries of the Syrian Arab army,” he insisted.
While the government does not disclose casualty figures, outsiders have estimated that the military has suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the punishing, more-than-four-year conflict.
Defections and desertions have also cut deeply into the Army’s fighting strength. Conscripts provide the backbone of the Army, which numbers perhaps 200,000 (there are no official numbers). Men have had their initial two-year draft obligations extended indefinitely.
In his speech, Assad acknowledged the role of irregular troops in the fighting, including the National Defense Force, which has organized locals into paramilitary groups that fight alongside the army. Other loyalist militias also bolster government strength, along with foreign volunteers.
Assad thanked battlefield allies Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, singling out the latter as “our loyal brothers.”
Earlier this month, Hezbollah’s fighters spearheaded a large-scale campaign to dislodge rebels in Zabadani, less than seven miles from the Lebanese border.
In his discourse, Assad also addressed the devastating economic impact of the civil war, which has ravaged the country’s infrastructure and hollowed out industrial powerhouses such as Aleppo.
The fighting has cut off almost all avenues for international commerce and even trade between cities under government control. The Syrian pound has been losing value rapidly.
Basic services such as water and electricity have been heavily reduced: a fact, Assad noted, that meant “a large number of citizens will not be able to watch the speech today.”
But Assad nevertheless retained an optimistic tone, mentioning reconstruction projects in former rebel strongholds pummeled in the fighting, including Damascus suburbs such as Daraya as well as Bab Amro, near Homs. Iran has provided key financial aid to help keep the Syrian government afloat.
The president spoke at a time when the battlefield scenario in Syria appears to be in flux.
Last March, Islamist rebels, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, pushed out government forces in the northeastern province of Idlib. In the south, rebel factions seized one of the country’s largest bases in a bid to consolidate control of Dara province. But recent reports indicate that rebel thrusts in the northwest and south had been checked.
Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot, now controls a vast chunk of Syria’s territory, though much of it is thinly populated desert. The government says it is mounting a counter-attack in the area of Palmyra , the desert city overrun by Islamic State earlier this year. Palmyra is famed for its ruins, more than 2,000 years old.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Beirut and staff writer McDonnell from Lyon, France.
Follow @mdcneville for news from Iraq and Syria
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