Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing in Damascus on July 18 killed four of his close security aides although he has been seen on television. His latest remarks -- made as the two sides battled for control of Syria’s commercial capital Aleppo -- appeared in a statement in the military’s magazine to mark armed forces day.
But it was not clear exactly when or where he was speaking, indicating heightened concern over his personal security in the wake of the bombing at the defense headquarters in the capital. “The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle,” he said.
In confronting “terrorist criminal gangs” -- the government’s usual term for the opposition, the army had proved it had “the steely resolve and conscience and that you are the trustees of the people’s values”, he said.
In the northern city of Aleppo, opposition fighters seized three police stations while fighting the army for control of a strategically important district. Explosions could be heard on Wednesday morning and helicopter gunships cruised the skies as government forces battled the opposition.
Earlier, at least 10 volleys of shells lit up the darkened sky and drowned out the Islamic call to prayer. Carloads of opposition fighters shouting “God is great” sped off towards the fighting.
The battle for Aleppo has become a crucial test for both sides. Neither Assad’s forces nor the opposition can afford to lose if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.
Since last month’s bomb attack, the fighting has become more intense, reaching into Damascus and Aleppo for the first time in the 17-month-old uprising against the Assad dynasty.
The Salaheddine district in the southwest of Aleppo has been the scene of some of the worst clashes, with shells raining down for hours at a time. While the Syrian army said at the weekend it had taken control of Salaheddine, scrappy street fighting was still underway with neither government forces nor the opposition in full control. Salaheddine resembles a ghost town, its shops shuttered, with little sign of normal life.
Opposition fighters, some in balaclavas and others with scarves around their faces, fired machineguns and assault rifles around street corners at invisible enemies. Wounded civilians and fighters were carried to makeshift dressing stations. An opposition commander said his fighters’ aim was to push towards the city center, district by district, a goal he believed they could achieve “within days, not weeks.”
The opposition forces say they now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts. “The regime has tried for three days to regain Salaheddine, but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw,” said Col. Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several opposition groups in Aleppo.
Oqaidi, who defected from the army six months ago, told Reuters that more than 3,000 opposition fighters were in Aleppo.
The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub with an ancient Old City that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked Damascus and other cities. Thousands have fled and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel as well as the risk of injury or death.