‘Victory is near,’ Syria’s Assad tells troops

DAMASCUS: Syrian President Bashar al Assad told his troops on Wednesday they were close to winning the country’s seven-year civil war after inflicting a succession of defeats on rebels.
Early last year, government forces held just 17 per cent of national territory, but a series of blistering offensives has since forced the rebels out of many of their strongholds, putting Assad’s government in control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
“Our date with victory is near,” Assad wrote in an open letter to the rank and file.
“They (the rebels) were ultimately forced to leave — humiliated, rolled back, their tails between their legs — after you gave them a taste of bitter defeat.”
Much of the territory was recaptured without any ground fighting as the rebels reluctantly agreed to leave their bombed-out enclaves in Russian-protected convoys.
The army has been bolstered in its offensives by Russian air strikes, Iranian military advisers and militiamen from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Government troops are now mopping up the remaining pockets of rebel and IS territory in the south, where the uprising first broke out in 2011. Last week, Assad promised a similar offensive against the rebels’ sole remaining major stronghold — Idlib province in the northwest.
But his ally Moscow has ruled out any large-scale assault on the province in the near future.
Idlib is the last of four “de-escalation” zones agreed by world powers in 2017 where the rebels still have a major presence.
Rebels and civilians bussed out of the other three zones when they fell to the government were all taken to Idlib, increasing its population to around 2.5 million people.
A military operation in the province would cause mass displacement towards the border with Turkey, and even Russia has warned against an assault.
“There’s currently no question and can be no question of an operation — of a major assault — on Idlib,” Russia’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying that Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but Israel deemed the pullback inadequate.
Backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, Assad has retaken territory in southern-western Syria from rebels, closing in on the Golan.
Moscow has sought to reassure Israel by saying it wants only Syrian forces to deploy on or near the Syrian-held Golan.
Israel, however, insists that forces controlled by Iran exit Syria entirely now the civil war there is ending.
“The Iranians withdrew and the formations are not there,” TASS news agency quoted Alexander Lavrentiev, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, as saying.
Lavrentiev said Iranian service personnel, whom he described as advisers, could be among Syrian army forces who remain closer to the Israeli border.
“But there are no units of heavy equipment and weapons that could pose a threat to Israel at a distance of 85 km from the line of demarcation”, Lavrentiev said.
An Israeli official deemed such a pullback insufficient.
“What we have laid down as a red line is military intervention and entrenchment by Iran in Syria, and not necessarily on our border,” Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio. “There’ll be no compromises nor concessions on
this matter.” — Agencies