Middle East

Syria: President Assad admits army strained by war

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Media captionThe BBC's Alan Johnston on why President Assad has "never sounded weaker"

The Syrian army has been forced to give up some areas in order to retain others in the war against rebels, now in its fifth year, President Bashar al-Assad has acknowledged.

The Syrian leader also said the army faced a shortage of soldiers.

A day earlier, he declared an amnesty for draft-dodgers and deserters.

The conflict is thought to have left more than 230,000 dead and displaced millions. Vast areas are no longer under government control.

Syria's conscript army was once 300,000 strong, but has been roughly halved by deaths, defections, and a rise in draft-dodging, AFP news agency said.

'Resist and win'

The Syrian leader said the army did not have the manpower to defend the entire country, especially as rebel groups were receiving increased support from outside - a reference to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

"Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto," Mr Assad said in a televised speech to dignitaries in Damascus.

"We must define the important regions that the armed forces hold onto so it doesn't allow the collapse of the rest of the areas."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Syrian government forces have suffered a number of setbacks this year

The BBC's Jim Muir - in neighbouring Lebanon - says it has been evident for some months that Syrian government forces have been focusing on defending certain key areas while not doing everything they might to defend outlying regions where the army is really overstretched.

This year, the Syrian military has lost the north-western provincial capital Idlib, parts of the south, and Palmyra in the north-east, which was taken over by militants of Islamic State.

'Resist'

Bashar Assad said he was sure the army could defend the core areas where it was consolidating - meaning Damascus, the cities of Homs and Hama and the coast.

But other big cities such as Aleppo in the north and Deraa in the south may come under question, our correspondent says.

However, Mr Assad pledged to fight on and ruled out the prospect of any negotiated settlement at the moment.

"The word defeat does not exist in the Syrian army's dictionary," he said, adding that "collapse" was not on the cards.

"We will resist and we will win."

The Syrian army, which is fighting rebels and jihadist groups, began a recruitment drive at the start of July to try to tackle its manpower shortage.

At least 70,000 men have avoided military service, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than 80,000 soldiers and pro-government militiamen have been killed since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

Image copyright BBC/SNAP