Middle East

Assad acknowledges recent setbacks in war as fighting intensifies

President Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters at a school in an undisclosed location during an event to commemorate Syria's Martyrs' Day May 6, 2015 in this handout provided by SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad has acknowledged what he said were recent “setbacks” in the war against insurgents trying to topple him, promising a comeback by his troops who are still entangled in heavy fighting.

Regime forces Thursday were engaged in fierce clashes on a number of fronts, including the military airports in Deir al-Zor and Aleppo provinces, Idlib province in the northwest, and Swaida in the south.

Assad’s rare admission of defeat followed opposition advances in northern and southern Syria that have punctured the notion that the regime is on its way to defeating the 4-year-old rebellion. They also undermined Assad’s claim of being a bulwark against ISIS, which had eclipsed rebels over the past year.

Wars have “ebb and flow, gains and losses, and ups and downs,” Assad said, speaking at a Damascus school to mark Martyrs Day Wednesday. “Everything fluctuates except one thing, which is faith in the soldier and his belief in ultimate victory,” he said. “So when setbacks occur, it is our duty as a society to boost the morale of the soldier and not wait for him to raise ours.”

Government troops withdrew from the northern city of Idlib after it fell to opposition fighters in late March, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur and the Qarmid military base last week.

Assad’s troops are now under fire at a few remaining outposts, including the national hospital in Jisr al-Shughur. “God willing, the army will soon reach those heroes besieged in Jisr al-Shughur hospital to continue the battle to eradicate terrorism,” he said.

For its part, the International Committee for the Red Cross warned that the humanitarian situation has deteriorated sharply amid intensified fighting in several parts of the country between government forces and rebel groups, as well as among rival opposition factions.

Regime aircraft Thursday pounded Idlib province with at least 20 airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. It said both the rebels and the regime, backed by Shiite paramilitaries from four countries, suffered casualties in fighting in several areas of Idlib.

Regime forces were also defending the Kweiris air base in rural Aleppo, and the military airport in Deir al-Zor to the east, against renewed attacks by ISIS jihadis.

Both sides suffered casualties in the Kweiris fighting, the Observatory said. Supporters of the jihadis said ISIS fighters had distributed leaflets in the area calling on regime troops to surrender or face summary execution.

ISIS already controls most of Deir al-Zor province and roughly half of its provincial capital, according to local media activist Mohammad al-Khleif. Khleif said violent clashes have erupted in several neighborhoods in the city in recent days, calling them strategic areas because of their proximity to the military airport and the regime’s “security quarter” in the city’s west, besieged by ISIS for more than four months.

If ISIS succeeds, Deir al-Zor would be the second provincial capital to fall to the group, after it named the northern city of Raqqa the capital of its “caliphate.”

The Observatory said at least four ISIS fighters and 10 regime troops were killed Thursday in Deir al-Zor, while pro-opposition outlets said an army general was among them.

In the eastern city of Hassakeh, meanwhile, the Kurdish police authority announced a curfew one day after ISIS attacks killed at least 16 security personnel.

Fighting has also flared up on the edge of the Druze-majority province of Swaida, where the Observatory said regime troops killed at least 13 rebel fighters in an ambush in the northeast part of the province.

In the city of Aleppo, rebel militias were blamed for mortar bomb strikes on regime-held neighborhoods that killed at least six people.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 08, 2015, on page 11.

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