BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said Wednesday that his government forces need time to win the country's civil war, which he says has drawn in regional and international powers.
The remarks were a sign Assad's regime may be hunkering down for a drawn out struggle against rebels on a multitude of fronts, including Damascus, the capital and Assad's seat of power, Aleppo, the nation's largest city, and a string of cities and towns across the Arab nation.
They also appeared to reinforce Assad's remarks to a visiting Iranian official over the weekend that his regime would continue the fight against the rebels "whatever the price."
"We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it," he told privately owned Dunya television, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria's wealthiest men.
Assad responded with a hearty laugh when told by the interviewer that rumors about his whereabouts often made the rounds among Syrians. "I am here with you in the studio in Damascus," he said.
The comments were given in an advance excerpt of a television interview to be aired in full later Wednesday.
"I can sum up all this explanation in one sentence: We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time."
Confident and relaxed, Assad paid tribute to the Syrian people, saying they stood steadfastly behind him and his armed forces, and criticized the leaders of onetime ally Turkey, saying some of them were "ignorant."
Syrian officials routinely cite neighboring Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as among the rebels' main supporters, providing them with money and weapons.
"The fate of Syria, I tell the Syrian people, is in your hands," Assad said. "This broad base of the Syrian people protects the country."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday he would press the U.N. Security Council to set up a safe haven inside Syria to protect thousands of people fleeing the violence.
Turkey has long been floating the idea of a no-fly zone, or buffer zone, to protect displaced Syrians from attacks by Assad's forces, but the issue has become more pressing now the number of refugees in Turkey has exceeded 80,000 — an amount it says approaches its limits.
"We expect the U.N. to step in and protect the refugees inside Syria, and if possible, to shelter them in camps there," Davutoglu told reporters before leaving for New York to attend Thursday's high-level U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria.
The rebels are fighting to overthrow Assad, who came to office in 2000 after succeeding his father, the late Hafez Assad who ruled Syria with an iron fist for some 30 years. The Syrian conflict has its roots in a wave of mostly peaceful protests that began last year but later morphed into a civil war.
At least 20,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, according to anti-regime rights activists.
Assad's description of the civil war as a regional and global battle stays true to form for a regime that refers to the rebels as members of terrorist bands and speaks often of a Western conspiracy to break Syria, which he sees as the last bastion of Arab resistance against Israel.
Rights groups monitoring the violence report the death of 100 to 250 or more Syrians on daily basis, but these figures are impossible to independently verify. The fighting however is intense enough to force hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee their homes, seeking refuge elsewhere in the country or in neighboring nations.