BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Thursday he
was confident of victory against rebels and made a symbolic visit to a town once
overrun by insurgents but now mostly retaken by his army.
The visit to
the battered town of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, and a defiant speech
illustrate the confidence of a president who is taking the upper hand in a
conflict two years after many Syrians saw him as about to be toppled.
we were not sure that we were going to win in Syria, we would not have the
ability to resist and the ability to continue fighting for more than two years
against the enemy," state news agency SANA quoted Assad as
Insurgents have seized large swathes of territory, but Assad's
forces have staged a counter-offensive in recent weeks, pushing them back from
around the capital Damascus and retaking several towns near the border with
Assad has framed the revolt against four decades of his family's
rule as a foreign-backed conspiracy fought by Islamist "terrorists". When
pro-democracy protests started in March 2011, a military crackdown eventually
led to an armed insurrection.
Rebels have used bombs and mortars to hit
government-controlled areas of the country where they are unable to push in with
A huge explosion hit a majority Alawite - the same sect as the
president - neighborhood of the central city of Homs on Thursday, blasting a
fireball hundreds of meters (yards) into the air, video posted on the Internet
by opposition activists showed.
Residents in the area said the explosion
was a rebel attack on a weapons cache. One said the sound of multiple explosions
could be heard for over an hour as munitions were detonated.
the attack hit a sports hall in the district of southeastern Wadi al-Dhahab,
which the army has taken over.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,
an anti-Assad monitoring group, said that the blast killed at least 22 people
including soldiers and civilians.CHEMICAL WEAPONS
UN investigators say
Assad's forces have carried out war crimes including unlawful killing, torture,
sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging in what appears to be a
state-directed policy. They say rebels have also committed war crimes, including
executions, but on a lesser scale.
Both sides accuse the other of using
chemical weapons and - after months of diplomatic wrangling between the United
Nations and Damascus over access - a chemical weapons investigation team will
visit three sites where alleged attacks have occurred, the United Nations said
It is hard to say if the trip will be able to establish who
was behind the attacks. One attack in the northern town of Khan al-Assal was in
March and samples of Sarin gas - a fast-acting nerve agent that was originally
developed in 1938 in Germany as a pesticide - can degrade very quickly, within
Rebels also seized Khan al-Assal from Assad's forces last week so
access to the site could be hard from the government side. There is still
fighting in the area.
At best, weapons inspectors will only determine
scientifically whether banned chemical agents were used in the 28-month-old
conflict, and not who used them, according to the Organisation for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which works with the United Nations on
Members of the 15-person team assembled by UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been on standby in Cyprus since April and have
only last month went to Turkey to gather evidence. The UN chemical weapons
experts cannot enter Syria without the government's permission.SCENES OF
In a statement published in the official army magazine to mark the 68th
anniversary of the Syrian army's creation, Assad said soldiers had shown
"courage in the face of terrorism... and the fiercest barbaric war in modern
A picture posted on the presidency's Facebook page showed
Assad, in a suit, shaking hand with a soldier in army fatigues and a helmet.
Behind them was a scene of war; wires hanging from electricity pylons near an
apartment block damaged by an explosion. No civilians could be seen.
army targeted Daraya with artillery after rebels moved into the area last year.
It has since been able to retake parts of the town but at the expense of
widespread material damage and many civilian casualties, according to
The struggle in Syria has become markedly sectarian, broadly
pitting majority Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's minority Alawite sect,
which is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Assad has relied on Alawite-led
army units and security forces from the start, but has turned increasingly to
loyalist militia armed and funded by Damascus to fight the rebels.
also received solid support from Shi'ite regional powerhouse Iran, Lebanon's
Hezbollah movement and longtime ally Russia, while his fragmented foes have
received little military aid from their Western backers, wary of the growing
presence of hardline Islamist groups, some of which are linked to al
Nine European Union nations urged the European Parliament on
Thursday to back plans for an EU-wide passenger data list aimed at thwarting
suspected militants traveling from Europe to fight in Syria, fearing they will
return to home to carry out attacks in Europe .
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