A confident Assad vows to ‘liberate’ every inch of Syria


DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday his troops would “liberate” every inch of Syria, just like they recaptured the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group, in a speech that reflected his renewed confidence as the military pressed on toward Raqqa, the extremists’ self-styled capital.

His remarks in parliament came as his opponents, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are struggling for survival and his troops have almost encircled rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Saying the military situation was much better than it was months ago, Assad told the lawmakers that Aleppo will be “the graveyard where the hopes and dreams of the butcher Erdogan will be buried.”

The reference was to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the staunchest supporters of the rebels fighting to topple Assad. Erdogan has allowed safe passage from his country for fighters and weapons over the border into Syria.

Assad also described Erdogan as a “thug” and a “fascist” in the speech, which was frequently interrupted by applause.

When Assad walked into the chamber to speak, the legislators had stood and chanted, “Our soul, our blood we sacrifice for you, Bashar!”

The civil war, now in its sixth year, has turned in Assad’s favor ever since Russia began a bombing campaign in September, helping Syrian troops recapture wide areas from insurgents.

The biggest victory came in March, when government forces evicted the Islamic State group from Palmyra, a desert town in central Syria world famous for its majestic Roman-era ruins.

“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.

“Our war on terrorism will continue not because we like war. They imposed the war on us,” he added, reiterating his often-used line of blaming foreign countries for the conflict. “The shedding of blood will not end until we uproot terrorism, wherever it is.”

Erdogan denies he is aiding the Islamic State, although he does support other rebels fighting to oust Assad. Reflecting the complexities of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. supports the predominantly Kurdish, U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces fighting the IS militants.

The Islamic State group also is under siege in neighboring Iraq, as government forces there surround the western city of Fallujah, which has been held by the extremists for more than two years.

The speech was Assad’s first to Syria’s newly elected parliament and his first public remarks since January. He also thanked China for using its veto at the U.N. Security Council months after the crisis began to prevent the imposition of sanctions on Syria as well as Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group – three key allies who have played a critical role in boosting Assad’s forces.

He 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 his speech, Assad rejected any changes in the constitution that could lead to the partitioning of Syria on a sectarian basis.

Assad spoke as a two-pronged advance is underway to capture key urban strongholds of the Islamic State group and its de facto capital of Raqqa. The Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, is moving from the southwest, while the Syria Democratic Forces are pushing from the north and west. The SDF are closing in on the IS stronghold of Manbij, 72 miles to the northwest of Raqqa.

Turkey’s top diplomat, meanwhile, said Kurdish rebels known as the YPG may provide logistical support in the fight against IS in Syria, but he warned that their presence would not be tolerated west of the Euphrates River.

The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is a Kurdish faction within a mixed coalition of Kurdish and Arab groups fighting against IS in northern Syria with the support of U.S. special forces in Syria. Ankara, unlike Washington, views the YPG as a terrorist organization.

“If the YPG want to provide logistical help east of the Euphrates, that’s different, but after the operations end, we don’t want a single YPG member west of the Euphrates,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Sherfan Darwish of the Syria Democratic Forces said that as of Tuesday, his fighters were surrounding Manbij on three sides after capturing scores of villages and farms since the offensive began.

The alliance last week launched a wide offensive, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, in a push to capture Manbij, which lies on a key supply route linking the Turkish border with Raqqa.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks and said they discussed the situation in Syria. Russia has coordinated its action with Israel to prevent any possible incidents between their forces.

“We had a long and thorough discussion of the challenge cast to the entire civilized world by the radical Islamic terrorism,” Netanyahu said.

Putin praised the countries’ high level of cooperation and noted Israel’s key role in the Middle East.

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