A small town once hummed with the life of 10,000 people. Now its empty buildings lie ruined while tanks lob shells.
The Syrian government’s battle to put down the mass uprising that began last year is moving forward, and the situation has become “better”, President Bashar al-Assad said in a television interview broadcast on Wednesday.
In the interview by the privately owned but pro-government Al Dounia channel, Assad disparaged the idea of foreign countries creating buffer zones in Syrian territory and said that citizens who have fled the country and officials who have defected are helping “cleanse” Syria.
“I can summarise in one phrase: we are progressing, the situation on the ground is better but we have not yet won. This will take more time,” Assad said.
“Talk of buffer zones firstly is not on the table and secondly it is an unrealistic idea by hostile countries and the enemies of Syria.”
The interview is the second time Assad has appeared on television this month after a six-week absence in the wake of a deadly July bombing that struck his inner circle of top security advisers.
He made his first public appearance on August 19, when he attended Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of Ramadan.
“He did express confidence … that he will be able to survive this crisis,” Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported from Beirut. “Obviously [he’s] trying to talk to his constituency, trying to assure them that there is hope for him and for them.”
The release of the interview came as rebels mounted one of their most audacious attacks in the Aleppo area since a battle for the country’s largest city began a month ago.
Fighters with truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns and tanks captured from the army attacked the Taftanaz air field, where the government houses helicopters and jets used against the rebels.
Video filmed by activists showed rebels firing at the airfield and scattered explosions, as well as some damaged helicopters.
‘I’m in Damascus’
In the interview, to be aired in full on Wednesday night, Assad appeared healthy and relaxed, even laughing when the interviewer suggested Assad should appear on television daily to dispel rumours and asked where he was currently living.
“I’m with you in Damascus, in the Republican Palace,” Assad said, smiling.
The president also mocked those defecting from his regime, saying their departure amounted to a “self-cleansing of the government firstly and the country generally”.
He paid tribute to government security forces, who have been fighting rebels nationwide, for their “heroic conduct”.
“Despite several mistakes, there is a strong bond between the policies of the state and the people,” Assad insisted, boasting the support of the majority of the country’s population.
“Everyone is worried about their country, that is normal. But [rebels] will not be able to spread fear, they never will,” he said. “I say to Syrians, destiny is in your hands, and not in the hands of others.”
French President Francois Hollande said on Monday that France was working with its partners on the possible establishment of buffer zones, which are aimed at protecting refugees and possibly assisting rebels.
But his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, admitted on Wednesday that plans to create buffer zones in Syria were “very complicated” and would require the imposition of partial no-fly zones.
Addounia said it would screen the full interview at 9pm on Wednesday.
Fight for Aleppo
Taftanaz has been the target of several attacks by insurgents entrenched in these two cities, which have suffered daily shelling by government troops.
The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, has lasted for over a month, with the army unable to dislodge the rebels.
Regime forces also again shelled rebel strongholds in a belt of outer eastern suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which are composed of activists on the ground.
On Tuesday, a car bomb in a Damascus suburb killed 27 people at the funeral of two government loyalists who themselves had been killed in a bombing.
Activists said Syrian fighter jets made rare sorties on the outskirts of Damascus on Monday, killing at least 60 people in its eastern suburbs, the same day a Syrian military helicopter crashed while under rebel fire.
Activists say around 25,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March last year, and the United Nations says more than 214,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries.
They said aerial attacks by at least two fighter jets targeted the neighbourhood of Zamalka, and the more easterly suburb of Saqba, where Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters had attacked and overrun several army checkpoints earlier in the day.
The continuing violence comes as UN agencies said that around 214,000 people had already fled Syria.
Turkey has taken in more than 80,000 refugees, and that number could reach 200,000 as the conflict deepens, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Turkey’s foreign minister says he will press the UN Security Council to set up a safe haven inside Syria to protect thousands of people fleeing violence.
Jordan is housing another 44,000; almost 40,000 are in Lebanon; and in Iraq, there are an estimated 15,000 refugees.