x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Assad: I need time to win civil war

In rare TV interview, president says Syria is involved in a regional and global conflict.

BEIRUT // An embattled president Bashar Al Assad told Syrians yesterday it would take time to win the civil war that is ravaging their country.

In a rare television interview he said his forces were involved in a "regional and global" conflict.

Despite a death toll that has passed 20,000 as regime forces fight rebels on multiple fronts, Mr Al Assad insisted the situation was improving. The regime continues to describe its opponents as foreign-backed terrorists.

"We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it," Mr Al Assad said.

"I can sum up all this explanation in one sentence: we are moving forward. The situation is practically better, but it has not been decided yet. That takes time."

Since the bombing of a high-level security meeting last month, in which four senior officials including Mr Al Assad's brother-in-law were killed, questions have been raised about the president's whereabouts.

The interview, Mr Al Assad's first since the July 18 attack - came as more heavy fighting was reported on the edges of Damascus. Opposition groups also reported violence elsewhere.

Despite the growing numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict, Mr Al Assad rejected talk of establishing a humanitarian buffer zone inside the country.

"I believe that talk about a buffer zone is not practical, even for those countries which are playing a hostile role," he said in the interview with the Addounia TV station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Mr Al Assad and one of Syria's wealthiest 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," he said. "If there is a Syrian citizen who knows of someone who wishes to flee but is hesitant to do so he should encourage him," Mr Al Assad said with a smile.

Turkey urged the United Nations yesterday to protect civilians fleeing the violence and again raised the idea of a safe zone inside Syria for displaced civilians.

With an estimated 80,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey is struggling to cope with the influx. Up to 200,000 Syrians have so far escaped into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and the UN has warned that the number is expected to increase.

"We expect the United Nations to engage on the topic of protecting refugees inside Syria and if possible sheltering them in camps there," Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister said, before heading to New York for a UN Security Council meeting that is expected to discuss the safe zone proposal.

"When we talk about figures in the hundreds of thousands, this problem no longer remains a problem of an internal conflict in any one country, but becomes an international dangerous problem."

However, so far, there seems to be little international consensus on how to go about setting up a safe zone, which would probably require a no-fly zone.

Rebels said yesterday they attacked the military airport in Taftanaz, between Idlib and Aleppo, and destroyed five helicopters.

"The army fired back at us with artillery inside the airport, but it wasn't enough to protect them from the assault," local rebel commander Abu Moaz Al Shami said. "We hit several helicopters and one of the buildings."

Syria's state news agency Sana said government forces had fought off the attack.

At least 89 people were killed in violence across the country yesterday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees. Many of the deaths reported were from fighting in and around Damascus, and others were killed in fighting in Idlib, Homs and Aleppo, where fierce clashes between rebels and government forces continue.

Basma Kodmani, a prominent figure in the Syrian National Council who resigned on Tuesday, said the umbrella opposition group had become too focused on personal agendas and needed to be replaced by a new political authority.

The SNC was formed in Istanbul last year as an umbrella organisation to guide a democratic transition if Mr Al Assad fell, but has been accused of being dominated by Islamists.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse