President Bashar al-Assad, confident after his forces inflicted two major defeats on rebels in as many months, repeated on Thursday that he was “sure of victory” in Syria’s civil war.
Yet hours after he spoke, his forces were hit hard in the still-contested city of Homs, when suspected rebel rockets hit an ammunition dump in an attack a monitoring group said killed at least 40 people but the regime said left no deaths.
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.
“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, but it did not air any footage.
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 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.”
Senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun expressed his disgust at Assad’s remarks.
It is “repulsive that he speaks of victory after he destroyed his country, killed tens of thousands and forced into exile half the population, after a period of two and a half years.”
Assad’s comments came as the army pressed its month-old offensive in Homs — Syria’s third-biggest city — buoyed by its recent retaking of Khaldiyeh.
But at least 40 people were killed and as many as 100 hurt when an ammunition dump belonging to pro-regime militia exploded in the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
But a security source told Al-Ikhbariya state television no one had been killed in the “terrorist attack” and only 16 civilians wounded.
Despite that, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman stuck by the death count of 40, saying that “all of the dead and most of the wounded were members the forces of national defence.”
Rockets also crashed into Akruma and Al-Nozha, all districts in southern Homs inhabited mainly by members of Assad’s Alawite community.
Khaldiyeh was the second key military triumph for Assad’s forces in less than two months after loyalists recaptured the Homs provincial 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.
— ‘FSA cover up ‘ —
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said in comments published on Thursday that the government was in favour of a proposed Geneva peace 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 was quoted by pro-government daily Al-Watan as saying.
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.