BEIRUT – In a striking admission, President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that his armed forces will need time to defeat the rebels and addressed the string of defections from his authoritarian regime.
The comments amounted to an acknowledgment that even though the opposition lacks the government's tanks and airplanes, their tenacity and tactical creativity — combined with the military's struggle to fight on multiple fronts — have yielded a stalemate that could prolong the civil war with many more dead.
Over the past few months, Syria's military has increasingly been stretched thin fighting on multiple fronts against rebels seeking to oust Assad. His forces have been unable to quell the rebellion as it spread to the capital, Damascus, with significant clashes that began in July and to Syria's largest city, Aleppo, a few weeks later. At the same time, the military is fighting smaller scale battles in a string of other cities and towns around the country.
With neither side making significant advances, the conflict is looking more like a war of attrition that could be very drawn out.
"We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it," Assad said in an interview with the pro-regime private TV station Dunya. "We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time," he told the station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria's wealthiest men.
"If the armed forces wanted to use the entire range of its firepower, it can wipe out many areas. But this will be unacceptable," said Assad.
Assad also appeared to make light of the significant number of defections, some of them senior military and political officials, including the prime minister.
"Defections are a positive process. Generally, it is self-cleansing of the state and the nation," said Assad. "If there is a Syrian citizen who knows of someone who wishes to flee but is hesitant to do so he should encourage him," he said with a smile. "Whoever flees is either weak or bad. A patriotic or a good person does not flee."
Assad claimed there were cases when authorities knew in advance of officials who wanted to flee and allowed them to do so unhindered. But he did not provide any specifics to back up the claim.
Taken together with his comments to a visiting Iranian official over the weekend, Assad shows willingness for an even more prolonged conflict, even with more than 20,000 estimated dead in more than 17 months of fighting.
His regime, he told the senior Iranian official, would continue the fight against the rebels "whatever the price."
Some analysts saw the interview as a counter-attack by the regime to burnish its image in the face of recent military gains by the rebels.
Analysts and rights activists say the military has been unable to defeat the rebels in large part because of the tactics of its enemy — a rag-tag army of civilians-turned-fighters and defected soldiers without a clear chain of command.
"It is extremely difficult to stop an insurrection that has spread so widely, even with far superior firepower, as demonstrated by the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Christopher Chivvis, a senior analyst with the Rand Corporation. "The task becomes even harder when there are neighboring countries that support the insurrection"
The insurgents do not have to hold territory and can take advantage of the fact that the military cannot fight as easily on multiple fronts, said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert who monitors the Syrian conflict for the Century foundation in New York.
Hanna also picked up on Assad's claim that the military is holding back on using its full power.
"If the Syrian military wants to retake territory it can do so but will be forced to use disproportionate force," he said. "Such actions run the perennial risk of alienating civilians and creating new motivations for anti-government actions."
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads a Beirut-based think tank, argues that Assad's military cannot employ overwhelming force to put down the fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two largest cities with major political and economic importance.
"Assad may be ready to destroy Homs and Hama (cities in central Syria) but he cannot do that in Aleppo, for example, and does want heavy casualties among civilians," he said. "At the end, a regular army is not suited for guerrilla warfare."
Syrian activists speak of the limitations faced by the regime in using everyone in uniform. Assad's Alawite-led regime, they explain, is unable to trust military personnel from the majority Sunni Muslim sect to fight mostly Sunni rebels.
Assad is a follower of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Other activists speculate that Sunni pilots have been grounded out of fear they would defect with their warplanes.
On the other hand, they say the rebels are taking advantage of growing logistical and moral support from the civilian population in many areas, while the military was being increasingly seen as an oppressive force that kills with impunity.
Rights groups monitoring the violence now report the deaths of up to 250 or more Syrians on daily basis, though the figures are impossible to independently verify. The fighting has been intense enough to force hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, seeking refuge elsewhere in the country or in neighboring nations.
Assad appeared confident and relaxed in the interview and at times tried to laugh off or make light of serious issues in the conflict.
He responded with a hearty laugh when told by the interviewer about speculations and rumors about his whereabouts.
"I am here with you in Damascus in the presidential palace," he said. "They have not been able until now to instill fear in my heart or the heart of Syrians. Everyone (in Syria) is worried about the country and that's natural. "
Assad has rarely appeared in public since four of his top security officials were assassinated in a July 18 rebel bombing in Damascus.
He sought to deflect any charges of military failure, reverting to his favored rhetoric that the uprising is a conspiracy by foreign powers to weaken Syria.
"What is taking place (in Syria) is neither a revolution, nor a spring. It is a conspiracy," he said, alluding to the Arab Spring revolutions that have topped authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Assad paid tribute to his supporters at home, saying they stood steadfastly behind him, and also praised the armed forces.
But he criticized the leaders of onetime ally Turkey.
"The state of Turkey bears direct responsibility for the blood being shed in Syria."
Syrian officials routinely cite neighboring Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as among the rebels' main supporters, providing them with money and weapons.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Wednesday he would press the U.N. Security Council to set up a safe haven inside Syria to protect thousands of people fleeing the violence. Turkey has long been floating the idea of a no-fly zone, or buffer zone, to protect displaced Syrians from attacks by Assad's forces, but the issue has become more pressing now the number of refugees in Turkey has exceeded 80,000 — a number it says approaches its limits.
"We expect the U.N. to step in and protect the refugees inside Syria, and if possible, to shelter them in camps there," Davutoglu told reporters before leaving for New York to attend Thursday's high-level U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria.
On that prospect, Assad said: "Talk about safe havens does not exist and is unrealistic, even for countries that have assumed the role of a foe."