Assad emerges to praise Syrian army as fighting rages in cities

Syrian President Bashar Assad has made a rare public statement urging his armed forces to step up the fight against rebels as the uprising continues to rage.

Assad has not spoken publicly since a bombing killed four of his top aides two weeks ago. The latest written statement was carried by the state-run news agency.

“In the war in which the country is embroiled and the battle against criminal and terrorist gangs, the army has proven its mettle,” he said, adding the Syrian people have shown themselves not easily “tamed” by foreign plots.

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Assad was speaking to the army on the 67th anniversary of its founding, calling it the “homeland’s shield” against foreign plots. “I have great confidence in you and the masses see you as a source of pride and honour ... and a defender of just causes,” he said.

While there have been many defections from the rank and file and even a few generals, Syria’s armed forces for the most part have remained cohesive. Supported by heavy weapons, they have been slowly regaining momentum against the rag tag rebel army.

At least one person was killed in dawn clashes in the Syrian capital of Damascus yesterday while the battle for Aleppo continued to rage.

Fighting broke out between rebels and security forces in Bab Touma, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood on the eastern side of the medieval city centre, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Residents said shots lasted for about half an hour between 3am and 4am.

Violence has been rare in the city’s Christian areas, which have for the most part not joined the 17-month rebellion against the Assad family dictatorship.

Rebels staged a fierce battle for Damascus two weeks ago but were crushed by government forces.

At least 200,000 people have fled Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the current focus of its civil war where the military siege will today enter its 12th day.

Conditions in the once bustling commercial hub have become almost unbearable, say those who have managed to escape.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist living in the city, said via Skype. “There is not enough food and people are trying to leave. We really need support from the outside.

“There is random shelling against civilians.”

In a report on the Aleppo carnage released on Tuesday, London-based Amnesty International said: “Scores of demonstrators and bystanders, most of them young men and boys but including several children and older men, have been shot dead and hundreds injured in the city by security forces and the notorious shabiha, the armed militias working alongside government forces.

“Some of the victims were bystanders who were not taking part in the demonstrations. Families of demonstrators and bystanders shot dead by security forces have been pressured to sign statements saying that their loved ones were killed by ‘armed terrorist gangs’.”

The battle for Aleppo is among the most significant of the 17-month-old Syrian uprising. If the regime loses its grip on Aleppo, it could be a tipping point in the civil war.

Although the rebels are outgunned, they have captured a number of government tanks and planned to use them in future operations.

The government says its opponents are terrorists and claims the uprising is a plot by Western powers – not Syrians seeking reform inspired by the Arab Spring.

However, Assad’s terrorism claims are now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as foreign militants take advantage of the chaos to fight a jihad, or holy war,.

Militants from Chechnya, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been joining the rebels in significant numbers say Western intelligence analysts.