DAMASCUS: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, increasingly confident after his forces inflicted two major defeats on rebels in as many months, repeated on Thursday that he was “sure of victory.” Assad, speaking to mark Army Day, was also said to have made his first known trip outside of the capital in more than a year, to visit a former rebel bastion nearby now largely in the hands of loyalists.
His upbeat tone, downplayed by a specialist on Syria, came as an AFP team was able to tour Khaldiyeh, in the strategic central city of Homs, that troops seized on Monday from rebels who had held it for almost two years.
“If we in Syria were not sure of victory, we would not have had the will to resist nor been able to persevere in the face of more than two years of aggression,” Assad said.
“I have great faith in you and confidence in your ability to… fulfil the national mission that has been assigned to you,” he told troops in his message.
“You have shown rare courage in the battle against terrorism and you have impressed the whole world with your resistance… in one of the most brutal and ferocious wars of modern history,” he said.
State television reported that Assad visited Daraya, a mostly Sunni town neighbouring rebel districts south of Damascus, to inspect military units on Army Day.
The television did not air any footage but the president’s Facebook page carried a picture of Assad shaking hands with a soldier in what appeared to be a former battlezone.
Assad is known to have traveled outside the capital only four times since the uprising against him erupted in March 2011.
International Crisis Group Syrian specialist Peter Harling downplayed the Thursday trip as part of a media campaign, arguing that neither of the two sides can claim that victory is at hand.
The trip to Daraya “is nothing more than an impromptu hop to the immediate outskirts of Damascus, which shows the extent to which the conflict has circumscribed the regime’s hold.”
”We have two camps that are continuing to consolidate their positions in distinct areas, but neither of them is able to give any meaning to the notion of victory.”
And he added that “neither one or the other is in a position to convert any military victory into a political victory.”
Assad’s upbeat comments came as the army pressed its month-old offensive in Homs, Syria’s third-biggest city, buoyed by its recapture of Khaldiyeh.
But at least 22 people were killed and dozens hurt when an ammunition dump belonging to pro-regime militia exploded in the city, apparently after being hit by rebel rocket fire, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The army shelled parts of the adjacent Old City still under rebel control at dawn, killing two civilians, including a child, the Observatory added.
Khaldiyeh was the second key military triumph for Assad’s forces in less than two months.
The army, backed by fighters from Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, recaptured the Homs province town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon on June 5.
The army has also been on the offensive in the eastern suburbs of the capital and around the main northern city of Aleppo.
The 28-month conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations, while UN efforts to convene a Russian- and US-backed peace conference have stalled.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said in comments published on Thursday that the government was in favour of the proposed Geneva conference but could not sit down with “terrorists”.
“It is not being asked of Syria that it sit down in Geneva with terrorist organisations, classified as such by the UN Security Council, “ Halqi said in comments carried by pro-government daily Al-Watan.
He was alluding to jihadist rebel groups Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which are blacklisted for their Al-Qaeda links.
Halqi charged that the distinction made by Western and Arab supporters of the opposition between mainstream rebels and the jihadists was a myth given their signficance on the battlefield.
“What is known as the Free Syrian Army is just a lie to cover up the actions of these terrorist groups as the majority of its members fight in the ranks of Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda,” he said.
Halqi said the opposition’s refusal to take part in any peace conference without a prior commitment for Assad to step down showed that it had “chosen the path of rejection and armed struggle against Syrian civilians and the army.”