Assad vows to retake all of Syria hours before truce

Syrian President Assad (centre) touring Daraya after performing Eid al-Adha prayers there yesterday. Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels, was recaptured by government forces last month.
Syrian President Assad (centre) touring Daraya after performing Eid al-Adha prayers there yesterday. Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels, was recaptured by government forces last month.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Rebels say US and Russia-brokered ceasefire stacks odds in his favour

BEIRUT • An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed yesterday to take back all of Syria, hours before the start of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, which Mr Assad's opponents described as stacked in his favour.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia yesterday welcomed the US-Russian agreement to bring about a ceasefire, saying it hoped the deal would allow efforts to focus on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and to prepare conditions for a political transition.

Syria's Kurds have largely stayed out of the conflict between the government and armed opposition, carving out a semi-autonomous region in the north and north-east.

In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed Mr Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels, but recaptured last month after fighters there surrendered in the face of a crushing siege. The Syrian leader performed Muslim holiday prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.

"The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists," Mr Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media, flanked by his delegation at an otherwise deserted road junction.

He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work "without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances".

The ceasefire was due to take effect at sundown, and includes improved humanitarian aid access and joint US and Russian targeting of hardline Islamists. But it faces big challenges, including how to separate nationalist rebels from the militants.

The rebels say the deal benefits Mr Assad, who appears stronger than at any point since the early days of the war, with military support from Russia and Iran.

The capture of Daraya, a few kilometres from Damascus, followed years of siege and bombardment and has helped the government secure important areas to the southwest of the capital near an air base.

Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, the army has also completely encircled the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, which has been divided into government and opposition-held zones for years.

In the footage of his visit to Daraya, Mr Assad, 51, appeared to be driving his own vehicle, a silver SUV, as he arrived at the mosque. He smiled and waved as he entered.

Daraya was evacuated following a local agreement between the army and rebels that let fighters escape to a rebel stronghold, while civilians were sent to another government-held area.

Russia's intervention in the Syrian war a year ago has tilted it in Mr Assad's favour, after rebel advances had posed a growing threat to his rule.

It has also given Russia decisive leverage over international diplomacy that has thus far failed to make any progress towards a political settlement.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Assad vows to retake all of Syria hours before truce'. Print Edition | Subscribe