BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a broadcast Wednesday that his regime needs more time to win the civil war, acknowledging that his forces are struggling to contain the rebel challenge.
He also addressed the growing stream of defections from the military and the government, but tried to play down the flight by saying it was healthy.
"We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it," Assad said in an interview with the pro-regime private TV station Dunya. "We are moving forward. The situation is practically better but it has not been decided yet. That takes time," he told the station, which is majority owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad and one of Syria's wealthiest men.
He appeared to make light of the significant number of defections, some of them senior military and political officials — including the prime minister — and diplomats.
"Defections are a mechanism of self-cleansing of the nation," said Assad. "If there is a Syrian citizen who knows of someone who wishes to flee but is hesitant to do so he should encourage him," he said with a smile.
He tried to blame his difficulties in defeating the rebels on what he claimed to be outside forces fueling the rebellion.
Over the past few months, the military has increasingly been stretched thin fighting on multiple fronts against rebels seeking to oust Assad's authoritarian regime. His forces have been unable to quell the rebellion as it spread to the capital Damascus with significant clashes that began in July and to Syria's largest city, Aleppo, a few weeks later. At the same time, the military is fighting in a string of other cities and towns around the country.
The comments were released in an advance excerpt of the interview to be aired by Dunya in full later in the day.
Taken together with his comments to a visiting Iranian official over the weekend, Assad shows willingness for an even more prolonged conflict, even with more than 20,000 estimated dead in more than 17 months of fighting. He told the Iranian official his regime would continue the fight against the rebels "whatever the price."
Rights groups monitoring the violence now report the deaths of 100 to 250 or more Syrians on daily basis, though the figures are impossible to independently verify. The fighting has been intense enough to force hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, seeking refuge elsewhere in the country or in neighboring nations.
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.
Assad has rarely appeared in public since four of his top security officials were assassinated in a July 18 rebel bombing in Damascus.
Appearing confident and relaxed, Assad paid tribute to the Syrian people, saying they stood steadfastly behind him and his armed forces.
But he 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."
He also paid tribute to government forces.
"If we ask ourselves which segment (of Syrian society) did more than all others in enabling this country to stand fast, it is undoubtedly the armed forces."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said 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 — a number 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 conflict began as peaceful protests last year but has since morphed into a civil war.
Assad's description of the civil war as a regional and global battle is consistent with the regime's line that the rebels are members of terrorist bands. He speaks often of a Western conspiracy to break Syria, which he sees as the last bastion of Arab resistance against Israel.
State news agency SANA said government forces repulsed a major rebel attack on the military base of Taftanaz in the northern Idlib province. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the regime used fighter-jets and helicopter gunships in clashes with rebels near the base. The observatory monitors violence and abuses in Syria.
The Observatory also reported clashes in Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama as well as the suburbs of Damascus.