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Syrian president admits military setbacks, in first public speech for a year


Bashar al-Assad gives no overt indication of being ready to cut a deal to end four-year civil war that has left his regime in control of just a third of Syria

Bashar al-Assad delivers a speech in Damascus, Syria – his first public address in a year.
 Bashar al-Assad delivers a speech in Damascus, Syria – his first public address in a year. Photograph: AP

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has admitted to a shortage of soldiers and military setbacks, in his first public speech for a year.

Assad also hailed “positive” changes in western attitudes to the conflict in the country – suggesting the US and its allies now understood they share an interest with his regime in defeating Isis-style jihadi terrorism. But he gave no overt indication that he was ready to cut a deal to end the four-year civil war that has left his regime in control of just a third or less of the country.

“We are not collapsing,” he said in a televised address. “We are steadfast and will achieve victory. Defeat does not exist in the dictionary of the Syrian Arab army.”

The priority US and Britain are giving to defeating Islamic State extremists, who hold large areas of north-east Syria and northern and western Iraq, has prompted suggestions Barack Obama’s administration may drop its insistence that Assad stand down as part of any deal.

Turkey has become the latest regional country to join the fight against Isis, launching air strikes and artillery attacks on some of the group’s positions inside Syria. Ankara also agreed to allow US aircraft to use Turkish bases. Turkey previously maintained that toppling Assad and containing Kurdish separatism was more important than fighting Isis. Following a weekend statement by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, that Turkey will create an “Isis-free” safe zone inside northern Syria, Assad dismissed the idea his country was heading towards partition. But he admitted the army had been forced to surrender some areas for strategic and manpower reasons. “Everything is available [for the army], but there is a shortfall in human capacity,” Assad said. “Despite that, I am not presenting a dark picture.”

Assad’s regime lost control of the north-western province of Idlib in March and has suffered losses in the south near the border with Jordan. The regime’s control is now limited to the big population centres of western Syria, including Damascus, Homs, Hama and the Mediterranean coastal region that forms the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Assad’s ally, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, has been more successful in pushing back Isis and al-Nusra Front fighters from the Syrian-Lebanese border. He publicly acknowledged Hezbollah’s “important” and “effective” assistance for the first time.

Assad described the regime’s surrender of territory as a question of priorities, given its limited resources. “It was necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to. Concern for our soldiers forces us to let go of some areas … Every inch of Syria is precious. The problem facing the military is not related to planning but to fatigue. It is normal that an army gets tired, but there’s a difference between fatigue and defeat.”

He insisted that any political settlement must be based on eliminating terrorism – referring to both the western-backed rebel forces and jihadis such as Isis. Despite their more positive approach, he complained western countries still regarded regime opponents as revolutionaries rather than terrorists. “As long as terrorism is part of the external opposition that participates in the dialogue … talk of a political solution will be nothing but empty words,” Assad said.

President Assad full speech 20.08.2017








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