Assad predicts total victory after gains in northern Syria

By Albert Aji and Zeina Karam, Associated Press

Syrian President Bashar Assad has congratulated his forces over recent gains in north-estern Syria that led to his troops consolidating control over Aleppo province.

And he pledged to press ahead with a military campaign to achieve complete victory “sooner or later”.

Mr Assad, who rarely appears in public, said in a televised address that the onetime economic hub of Aleppo, the provincial capital, will “return stronger than it was before”.

Syrian soldiers flash the victory sign as they patrol the village of Tallet Shweihna, in Aleppo province (SANA via AP)

“This liberation does not mean the end of the war, and does not mean the end of the schemes nor the end of terrorism or the surrender of enemies,” Mr Assad said, seated behind an empty wooden desk and wearing glasses.

“But it means that we rubbed their noses in the dirt as a prelude for complete victory and ahead of their defeat, sooner or later.”

The address came amid an ongoing military advance in north-western Syria that has sparked a humanitarian catastrophe which the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned “has reached a horrifying level”.

In a statement, he said the UN believes 900,000 people have been displaced since December 1, most of them women and children.

In the past few weeks, government troops backed by Russian air power have captured more than 580 square miles in the north west, consolidating their hold over Aleppo province after capturing over 30 villages and hamlets in the western countryside in a single day on Sunday.

The advance secured the provincial capital that had for years remained within range of opposition fire.

The new gains, along with securing a key highway through rebel territory, are set to better link northern and southern Syria, including the city of Aleppo, which was Syria’s commercial centre before the war.

The highway, known as the M5, links the country’s four largest cities and population centres and is key to controlling Syria.

The developments sparked late-night celebrations in the streets of Aleppo that continued through Monday, with state media showing residents waving flags and dancing in roads packed with vehicles.

“We should not rest, but continue to prepare for the coming battles, and therefore the battle of liberating Aleppo countryside and Idlib will continue, despite the empty noise that is coming from the north (Turkey),” Mr Assad said.

Mr Lowcock said “the crisis in northwest Syria has reached a horrifying level”, calling the violence “indiscriminate” and stressing that “the only option is a cease-fire”.

He warned that “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century will only be avoided if Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first”.

He did not identify any countries but the message appeared directed first and foremost to Russia, Syria’s closest ally.