BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday he was confident of victory against rebels in a 28-month-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and sent nearly two million fleeing abroad.
Insurgents have seized large swathes of territory, but Assad’s forces have staged a counter-offensive in recent weeks, pushing them back from around the capital Damascus and retaking several towns near the border with Lebanon.
“If we were not sure that we were going to win in Syria, we would not have the ability to resist and the ability to continue fighting for more than two years against the enemy,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying.
Assad has framed the revolt against four decades of his family’s rule as a foreign-backed conspiracy fought by Islamist “terrorists”. When pro-democracy protests started in March 2011, a military crackdown eventually led to an armed insurrection.
In a statement published in the official army magazine to mark the 68th anniversary of the Syrian army’s creation, Assad said soldiers had shown “courage in the face of terrorism... and the fiercest barbaric war in modern history”.
State television said Assad visited the town of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, on Thursday to meet members of the security forces.
A picture posted on the presidency’s Facebook page showed Assad, in a suit, shaking hand with a soldier in army fatigues and a helmet. Behind them was a scene of war; wires hanging from electricity pylons near an apartment block damaged by an explosion. No civilians could be seen.
The army targeted Daraya with artillery after rebels moved into the area last year. The army has since been able to retake parts of the town but at the expense of widespread material damage and many civilian casualties, according to residents.
U.N. investigators say Assad’s forces have carried out war crimes including unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging in what appears to be a state-directed policy. They say rebels have also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a lesser scale.
The struggle in Syria has become markedly sectarian, broadly pitting majority Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
Assad has relied on Alawite-led army units and security forces from the start, but has turned increasingly to loyalist militia armed and funded by Damascus to fight the rebels.
He has also received solid support from Shi‘ite regional powerhouse Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and longtime ally Russia, while his fragmented foes have received little military aid from their Western backers, wary of the growing presence of hardline Islamist groups, some of which are linked to al Qaeda.
Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Gareth Jones