x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Assad insists he is winning war as regime warplanes pound Raqqa

The battle of Raqqa could be a turning point because it would mark the first time an entire city fell into opposition hands.

BEIRUT // Syrian warplanes pounded Raqqa yesterday, a day after rebels seized security buildings in the city and captured the provincial governor, activists said.

Yet Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president, said yesterday that his regime was defeating the "conspiracy" against the country, while his forces hit back against rebels in Raqqa, raising questions about whether they would be able to maintain their hold on the city.

If the rebels succeed, it would mark the first time an entire city has fallen into opposition hands, dealing both a strategic and a symbolic blow to Mr Al Assad's regime.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters captured the governor of Raqqa province, Mr Jalali, after clashes overnight near the governor's office in the provincial capital with the same name. The Observatory said the head of Assad's ruling Baath party in the province, Salman Al Salman, also was in rebel custody.

An activist in the city who gave only his first name Amir said the two were detained by Al Nusra Front, a group with links to Al Qaeda, and other fighters who swept into the city on Monday.

"They are being treated well," he said.

Fighting continued near an intelligence building in the city as well as several other places, the Observatory director said yesterday, adding that "some of Raqqa is still under regime control".

The government also remained in control of military air bases outside the city and was using them to deploy warplanes to fight back against the rebel gains.

The Observatory said government warplanes carried out airstrikes on two targets in the city, causing an unspecified number of casualties.

Mr Al Assad, in comments published in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, said his opponents were "playing a game of survival" and that his forces had the upper hand on the battlefield. "Significant successes have been made, whose strategic importance is clear even to those in the region and the rest of the world who are making useless plans against Syria's security," he is quoted as saying. Jordan's King Abdullah II yesterday called on world nations to help Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon shoulder "the tremendous burden" of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria. The United Nations says there are about 925,000 displaced Syrians around the region. Jordan is hosting more than 420,000 Syrian refugees.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse