BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Syrian President Bashar Assad said Wednesday his regime needed more time to win the war raging in his country, acknowledging that his forces were struggling to contain the rebel challenge.
The Syrian leader also addressed the growing stream of defections from the military and the government, but tried to play down the flight by saying it was healthy.
“We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it,” Assad said in an interview with the pro-regime private TV station Dunya.
“We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time,” Assad told the station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria’s richest men.
He appeared to make light of the significant number of defections, some of them senior military and political officials – including the prime minister – and diplomats.
“Defections are a mechanism of self-cleansing of the nation,” said Assad. “If there is a Syrian citizen who knows of someone who wishes to flee but is hesitant to do so he should encourage him,” he said with a smile.
He blamed his difficulties in defeating the rebels on the support being provided by outside forces that he said are fueling the rebellion.
Assad responded with a hearty laugh when told by the interviewer that rumors about his whereabouts often made the rounds among Syrians.
“I am here with you in the studio in Damascus,” he said.
Assad has rarely appeared in public since four of his top security officials were assassinated in a July 18 bombing in Damascus.
Appearing confident and relaxed, Assad paid tribute to the Syrian people, saying they stood steadfastly behind him and his armed forces.
But he criticized the leaders of onetime ally Turkey, saying some of them were “ignorant.”
Syrian officials routinely cite neighboring Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as among the rebels’ main supporters, providing them with money and weapons.
“The fate of Syria, I tell the Syrian people, is in your hands,” Assad said. “This broad base of the Syrian people protects the country.”
He also paid tribute to government forces. “If we ask ourselves which segment [of society] did more than all others in enabling this country to stand fast, it is undoubtedly the armed forces.”
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels said they destroyed five helicopters in a raid on a military airport between the cities of Aleppo and Idlib, while state television said the attack was repelled.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the regime used fighter jets and helicopter gunships in clashes with rebels near the base.
Abu Mosaab, a rebel who said he took part in the attack, told AFP via Skype that opposition forces shelled Taftanaz airport, capturing two army tanks and destroying five helicopters.
“We destroyed five helicopters as well as buildings in the airport,” Abu Mosaab said, although the facility remained in army hands after the raid, during which the rebels lost two men before pulling back.
“The regime’s MiGs continue to bomb houses in Taftanaz, which has been emptied of its inhabitants,” the rebel added.
Syrian state television said the military repelled the attack with the airport suffering “no material damage.”
Initial reports indicated government troops suffered 14 casualties in Taftanaz, while two rebels and a civilian were killed elsewhere in Idlib province, according to the Observatory.
The airport has been the target of several attacks in past weeks by insurgents entrenched in Aleppo and Idlib, which have come under daily shelling by government forces.
In Aleppo, where the army and rebels have battled for over a month for control, fierce clashes broke out between the two sides in several districts, according to the Observatory, as rebels posted videos on YouTube purporting to show that they continued to hold territory in Syria’s largest city.
Meanwhile, air and ground bombardment killed at least 27 people in eastern neighborhoods of Damascus, prompting thousands of people to flee the area, opposition activists said. Many more were killed when troops briefly entered several districts after the shelling and airstrikes, carrying out summary executions before withdrawing, the activists said.
The civilian exodus was the largest from the area since the revolt against Assad began, they said.
Obaida Omar, an activist in Ain Tarma, said troops entered the house of his neighbor, a carpenter, and killed him as they conducted house-to-house raids.
“He had managed to send his family away. I entered after the troops left and found him hacked [to death]. I saw the bodies of three other men with bullet holes to their heads in another building the army stormed,” Omar said by phone.
An activist, who gave her name as Reem and who has relatives in the area, said: “Basically, anyone who has a car or got hold of transport fled.”
She said the bombardment had killed eight people in the Jobar district. The rest of the casualties were reported in Zamalka, Irbin, Kfar Batna, and Ain Tarma to the east, a string of working-class Sunni Muslim suburbs that surround the capital.
Activists said most residents of these areas were fleeing toward Damascus or northward to the town of Dumair.
State media said “terrorist mercenaries” had killed four civilians in Zamalka, using its term for rebels. They had “murdered citizens, including women and men, under the eyes of inhabitants ... The terrorists then gathered the bodies of the victims and put them in a mosque in Qadi Askar” district, news agency SANA said.
It said the assailants had planned to blow up the mosque and then blame the attack on government forces.
The Observatory also reported clashes in Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama as well as the suburbs of Damascus.
For its part, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said 122 people were killed in the day’s violence, with 58 of them in Damascus and its surrounding areas.
Violence Tuesday cost 189 lives: 143 civilians, 14 rebels and 32 soldiers, according to the Observatory.