Syria’s Assad admits he’s down but not out

'We are not collapsing. We are steadfast and will achieve victory,' insisted Bashar Al Assad in his first public speech in a year.

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad delivering a speech during a meeting in Damascus, Syria on July 26, 2015. EPA/Sana handout
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BEIRUT // A defiant Syrian president Bashar Al Assad admitted on Sunday that his army was depleted and had lost territory, but insisted his forces could still beat rebels fighting to depose him.

The country has been ravaged by more than four years of civil war and more than half of its territory is now controlled by rebel groups or ISIL militants.

The Assad regime army has lost about half of its 300,000 strength through deaths, defections and draft dodging. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain, says at least 49,100 troops and 32,500 other pro-regime fighters have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.

“There is a lack of human resources,” Mr Assad conceded, “but that doesn’t mean we can talk about collapse. We are not collapsing. We are steadfast and will achieve victory.”

The president also appeared to rule out peace talks to end the war. “Dialogue that is not based on the fight against terrorism would be meaningless,” he said.

Mr Al Assad acknowledged that his generals have had to move forces from one front to another to protect areas that were militarily, politically or economically important. He said the loss of some areas to rebels had led to “frustration” among regime supporters.

Assad forces have suffered several setbacks since March, including the loss of the northwestern city of Idlib. ISIL extremists have also captured the historic central city of Palmyra and parts of the north-eastern city of Hassakeh.

Regime forces, including fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah and Iranian advisers, control less than half of Syria’s 185,000 square kilometres. “It was necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to,” Mr Al Assad said. “Concern for our soldiers forces us to let go of some areas. Every inch of Syria is precious.”

Mr Al Assad was speaking on Sunday to representatives of economic organisations in Damascus in a speech broadcast live on Syrian state television. It was his first public address since he was sworn in for a third, seven-year term last July.

The rare public acknowledgement of weakness comes amid growing concern in Damascus about the state of the country’s armed forces.

In early July, a campaign was launched to encourage citizens to join the army, with billboards going up around the capital.

The regime has also regularly urged Syrians to perform their military service and on Saturday Mr Al Assad decreed a conditional amnesty for army deserters and draft dodgers.

There are thousands of deserters in and outside Syria, many of whom have gone on to fight with rebels. Many young men have fled the country to avoid compulsory military conscription.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse