Army shrinking but still packs punch, says Assad

DAMASCUS • Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has acknowledged the shrinking ranks of his government's army in a rare public speech, but insists the force is still capable of beating rebel fighters.

The army once had around 300,000 members but has been roughly halved in size by deaths, defections and a rise in draft dodging, a fact that Mr Assad acknowledged publicly yesterday.

"There is a lack of human resources" in the army, he said, addressing representatives of economic organisations in a speech broadcast live on Syrian state television. "The problem facing the military is not related to planning but to fatigue."

"It is normal that an army gets tired, but there's a difference between fatigue and defeat," Mr Assad insisted. "The word 'defeat' does not exist in the Syrian army's dictionary," he added.

"We will resist and we will win."

The rare public acknowledgement of weakness comes amid growing concern in Damascus about the state of the country's armed forces.

Early this month, a campaign was launched to encourage citizens to join the army, with billboards going up around the capital. The government has also regularly urged Syrians to perform their military service. On Saturday, Mr Assad decreed a conditional amnesty for deserters and draft dodgers. The amnesty does not extend to defectors who joined the uprising.

Mr Assad's speech comes after several months of setbacks for his government, which faces opponents including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and other rebel groups.

In recent months, government forces have been pushed out of almost all of the north-western province of Idlib, as well as losing the ancient city of Palmyra.

"Sometimes we concentrate our arsenal and the army in an important area, but that comes at the expense of other areas, which become weaker," he acknowledged.

"We are obliged in certain circumstances to abandon regions in order to move troops to regions that we want to hold on to."

These areas include Damascus, the central cities of Homs and Hama, and the coastal areas that include the President's heartland.

The Syrian conflict has proved stubbornly resistant to several rounds of peace talks, and the efforts of three UN envoys.

More than 230,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests before spiralling into a civil war after a regime crackdown.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Army shrinking but still packs punch, says Assad'. Print Edition | Subscribe