Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday that the civil war in his country was at a “turning point.” At the same time, opposition fighters were advancing on his Alawite homeland in the northwest of Syria.
Speaking at Damascus University, Assad “pointed out that there is a turning point in the crisis in Syria in terms of the continuous military achievements … by the army and armed forces in the war against terror,” state news agency SANA reported.
Assad, who first came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, is standing for reelection in July.
As recently as November, Syrian officials admitted the civil war was at a stalemate when neither the regime nor the disparate rebel forces seemed capable of breaking the deadlock. Since then, loyalist troops have steadily reconquered the territory between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs to the north, once a hotbed of rebel activity. That has given them a secure supply line into the homeland of Assad’s tribe, an area that had largely escaped fighting up until three weeks ago when rebels moved south from Turkey.
Rebels are now fighting in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, bringing the country’s main port of Latakia within their range. The city is the main hub for an international effort to ship out Syria’s chemical weapons by the end of this month — a deadline the regime looks likely to miss.
The northwestern provinces of Syria are the main recruiting ground for Assad’s core praetorian guard units who have proved to be among the most effective in combatting the rebellion.
Alawites in the area have largely stood by the Syrian leader through three years of civil strife. As the conflict has taken on a sectarian character, many now fear reprisals from Sunni Muslims who are the country’s majority population but were shut out of power for decades.
In August of last year, Alawite villagers near Latakia were attacked by Syrian Islamist and foreign jihadist fighters.
Earlier, reports had surfaced that Alawite militias were eradicating Sunni towns in the an-Nusayriyah Mountains, raising suspicion that the regime was carving out a homogenous enclave for the group.