President Bashar al-Assad giving a speech during a meeting with members of public organizations, vocational syndicates; and chambers of industry, trade, agriculture and tourism in the capital, Damascus, on July 26, 2015
President Bashar al-Assad giving a speech during a meeting with members of public organizations, vocational syndicates; and chambers of industry, trade, agriculture and tourism in the capital, Damascus, on July 26, 2015 © - Facebook/AFP
President Bashar al-Assad giving a speech during a meeting with members of public organizations, vocational syndicates; and chambers of industry, trade, agriculture and tourism in the capital, Damascus, on July 26, 2015
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AFP
Last updated: July 27, 2015

Syria's Assad acknowledges shrinking army manpower

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged the shrinking ranks of his government's army in a rare public speech on Sunday, but insisted the force was still capable of beating rebel fighters.

Speaking in Damascus, Assad also said any bid to end the conflict that was not based on fighting "terrorism" would be "meaningless".

Syria's 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 Assad acknowledged publicly on Sunday.

"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," he added.

"It is normal that an army gets tired, but there's a difference between fatigue and defeat," Assad insisted.

"The word defeat does not exist in the Syrian army's dictionary," he added, telling the applauding audience that "collapse" was not on the cards.

"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.

In early July, 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 and on Saturday Assad decreed a conditional amnesty for army deserters and draft dodgers.

- 'Army can't be everywhere' -

"We must take specific measures to increase (troop numbers) so they can carry out urgent missions," Assad said.

"This (amnesty) decree is to encourage deserters to rejoin the army."

The amnesty does not extend to defectors who left the army to join the uprising against the government.

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

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

"There were areas where we wanted to show our committment," Assad said.

"But the army cannot be on every part of the territory."

He appeared to acknowledge that his government was being forced to concentrate on holding territory it considers a priority over other areas.

"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."

Experts say Assad's government has realised it cannot hold all of Syria and is concentrating on the areas it considers vital.

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

- Talks must focus on 'terror' -

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

Syria's opposition insists Assad must step down under any political deal, and his government says the focus of negotiations must be tackling "terrorism," a term the regime uses for all those who oppose it.

Any political proposal "that is not based on the fight against terrorism would be meaningless," he said.

"As long as terrorism is part of the external opposition that participates in the dialogue... talk of a political solution will be nothing but empty words."

That appeared to be a reference to the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group in exile.

The body is backed by much of the international community, which Assad's government accuses of supporting "terrorism" in Syria.

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.

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