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Assad Vows to 'Liberate' Every Inch of Syria from Militants

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, addresses a speech to the newly-elected parliament at the parliament building, in Damascus, Syria, June 7, 2016. (SANA via AP)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, addresses a speech to the newly-elected parliament at the parliament building, in Damascus, Syria, June 7, 2016. (SANA via AP)

DAMASCUS, Syria  — The Syrian president vowed on Tuesday to "liberate" every inch of the country in the same way his troops earlier this year recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group.

Bashar Assad's speech in front of the newly-elected parliament came as government forces pushed ahead in their offensive in the northern province of Raqqa, which is home to the de facto capital of IS and the seat of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Government forces have also almost encircled rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

The situation on the ground is much better than it was months ago, Assad claimed, calling on the people "not to worry because the conditions are good."

Earlier, legislators had stood up and chanted, "Our soul, our blood we sacrifice for you, Bashar" as Assad walked into the parliament's main hall in central Damascus.

The scales of war in Syria have tipped in Assad's favor since Russia began an aerial campaign last September, helping the government troops capture wide areas from insurgents. The biggest victory came in March, when Syrian forces evicted the Islamic State group from Palmyra.

"The way we liberated Palmyra and before that many areas, we will liberate every last bit of Syria from their hands. We have no choice but to be victorious," Assad said to a furious applause from the lawmakers.

"Our war on terrorism will continue not because we like war. They imposed the war on us," Assad added, reiterating his staple blaming of foreign countries for Syria's five-year crisis. "The shedding of blood will not end until we uproot terrorism, wherever it is."

The speech was Assad's first before the newly elected chamber and his first public remarks since January. He also thanked China for using its veto power at the U.N. Security Council months after the crisis began to prevent the imposition of sanctions on Syria. He also thanks Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah group — three key allies that have played a critical role in turning the balance of power in Assad's favor.

The Syrian president blamed the opposition for the failure of three rounds of indirect peace talks in Geneva this year, blasting his opponents as "traitors for foreign countries who have become mats for the feet of their masters."

The opposition demands that Assad play no part in any transitional or future political establishment in Syria. In Tuesday's speech, he rejected any changes in the constitution that could lead to the partitioning of Syria on a sectarian basis.

"A sectarian system turns the sons of the nation into enemies and foes," he said.

Assad spoke as a two-pronged advance is underway to capture key urban strongholds of the Islamic State group and its self-styled capital of Raqqa. On one side, the Syrian army is moving from the southwest while the predominantly Kurdish, U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces are pushing from the north and west. The rebel forces are closing in on the IS stronghold of Manbij, not far from Raqqa.

Also Tuesday, Syria's air force destroyed several IS positions south of the provincial capital of Raqqa, the state news agency SANA said. Syrian troops are getting close to the Tabqa air base, the last post they held in the province before it was taken by the extremists in August 2014.

Sherfan Darwish of the Syria Democratic Forces said that as of Tuesday, his fighters control two new villages.

The alliance last week launched a wide offensive, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, in a push capture Manbij, which lies on a key supply route linking the Turkish border with the city of Raqqa. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war, said SDF fighters are now about two kilometers, or just over a mile, south of Manbij.

The Observatory said SDF has captured 52 villages and farms since the offensive started.

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