DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told his troops on Thursday that he was “sure of victory” after they inflicted two defeats in as many months on rebels fighting to overthrow him.
Assad’s message, marking Army Day, came as an AFP team were able to tour the Khaldiyeh neighborhood of the strategic central city of Homs that troops seized on Monday from rebels fighters who had held it for almost two years.
It also came as the United Nations announced that a team of inspectors would head to Syria as early as next week to probe alleged chemical attacks after Damascus gave its go-ahead.
“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.
His comments came after as the army pressed its month-old offensive in Homs — Syria’s third-biggest city — buoyed by its recapture of Khaldiyeh.
The army shelled parts of the adjacent Old City still under rebel control at dawn on Thursday, killing two civilians, one of them a child, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Khaldiyeh was the second key military triumph for Assad’s forces in less than two months, after the army, backed by fighters from Lebanese Shiite 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, but U.N. efforts to convene a Russian- and U.S.-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 U.N. 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.”
The United Nations announced on Wednesday that a team of inspectors led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom would travel to Syria as soon as possible to investigate three of the 13 sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used.
Assad’s government had blocked the inspectors since calling for a U.N. inquiry into the use of the banned arms in March but gave its go-ahead last week.
The announcement was seen as a major breakthrough in one of the most frightening aspects of the conflict. although experts warned most of the reported attacks were now months old and there was a risk that evidence had been cleared up or had degraded.
The United Nations says reports on 13 different chemical attacks have been made. Syria, Britain, France, Russia and the United States have all handed over evidence to Sellstrom’s team.
Photo Credit: AFP/Sam Skaine