x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syria's fate in your hands, Assad tells his troops

Defiant president repeats last year's claim that international conspiracy has been defeated, amid speculation about his whereabouts.

Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters capture a policeman who they allege is a pro-regime militiaman in Aleppo. A watchdog said that rebels killed 40 officers and seized three police stations during the battle for the commercial capital.
Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters capture a policeman who they allege is a pro-regime militiaman in Aleppo. A watchdog said that rebels killed 40 officers and seized three police stations during the battle for the commercial capital.

DAMASCUS // The Syrian president Bashar Al Assad yesterday hailed his soldiers as heroes and said the country's destiny lay in the outcome of their fight to put down an anti-regime uprising.

With United Nations observers confirming government forces had used fighter aircraft to strafe rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Mr Al Assad told troops they were defending their country against "criminal terrorist gangs".

"The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle … on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests," he said, and the military was "the backbone of the motherland".

"The enemy is among us today, using agents to destabilise the country, the security of its citizens … and continues to exhaust our economic and scientific resources."

Government officials routinely refer to rebel factions seeking to overthrow Mr Al Assad and his regime as "terrorists".

His remarks were made in a written statement addressed to the armed forces to coincide with the military's 67th anniversary. With the army engaged in heavy fighting in and around Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, and other parts of the country, the remarks prompted new speculation about Mr Al Assad's whereabouts.

The president has not appeared in public or given a spoken address to the nation since a bombing last month inside a heavily defended national security headquarters building killed four leading security officials, including his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, and the minister of defence, Daoud Raja.

But he has issued a written speech before, rather than delivering it in person or on television. Last year he made a similar address to the army to mark its anniversary.

For the 2011 speech, published by Sana, the official state news agency, Mr Al Assad said Syria had successfully overcome a foreign-backed conspiracy, a claim he repeated yesterday. The previous address made mention of a political settlement and political concessions, something missing from this year's speech.

A series of promised reforms, including a new constitution that entrenched the president's exclusive hold on power, have failed to prevent the uprising from spreading.

With Mr Al Assad's opponents facing a crackdown by security forces that has killed about 20,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the rebellion has become increasingly militarised.

Peaceful demonstrations calling for political change have been superseded by an armed revolt, with opposition groups saying they have been left with no alternative but to fight against a regime unwilling and incapable of sharing power after more than four decades of domination over the country. Bolstered by support from the West and countries in the Arabian Gulf, and with weapons smuggled in from neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon, rebel groups have been growing in strength.

The rebellion has shaken the army, with thousands of soldiers and dozens of senior officers defecting.

But a powerful group of troops, heavily armed with modern weapons and fanatically loyal to Mr Al Assad, continue to fight on.

Security forces remain deployed in strength around Damascus, after last month's brief rebel assault pushed the war into the capital.

Yesterday soldiers backed by tanks manned checkpoints on the outskirts of Damascus, searching cars and checking identity cards, looking to capture army conscripts who have not reported for duty. Thousands have refused to report for compulsory military service.

Echoing Mr Al Assad's statements, General Fahd Al Freij, appointed minister of defence after his predecessor was killed in the national security headquarters bombing, said yesterday troops would eliminate all "terrorists" and predicted victory was close.

"They are deluded who ever think that by having money and arms flowed from Gulf, regional and international governments upon hirelings could ever deviate Syria, its leadership, people and army, from its approach of resistance, adherence to rights and rejection of all forms of subordination and surrender," he said.

Under a UN peace plan agreed in April, government forces and armed rebel groups were supposed to have halted violence. Instead the conflict has intensified.

Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman of the UN supervision mission in Syria, said yesterday observers in the north had reported that the regime was using fighter jets to attack Aleppo.

"Yesterday they saw firing from a fighter aircraft" on the city, Ms Ghosheh said. "They are jets." UN observers have also documented the use of helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery.

The UN mission in Syria also said yesterday that opposition forces in the city of Aleppo have "tanks" and "heavy weapons" - a new development.

"The observers now have confirmed information that the opposition is in possession of heavy weapons including tanks in Aleppo," the UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in New York.

Activists said at least 90 people were killed in Syria yesterday.

The UN General Assembly is due to meet today to discuss Syria. It is expected to pass a resolution condemning the UN Security Council for failing to take firmer action against Mr Al Assad's regime over its military offensives.

Russia and China, allies of Mr Al Assad who accuse the West of seeking military intervention in Syria, last month use their vetoes for a third time to prevent the security council passing a resolution that would have permitted sanctions and a weapons embargo if Damascus failed to immediately implement the UN peace plan.

psands@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse