DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad congratulated his forces Monday for consolidating control over the entire province of Aleppo in northern Syria, pledging to press ahead with a military campaign to achieve complete victory “sooner or later.”
Assad, who rarely appears in public, pledged in a televised address that the onetime economic hub of Aleppo, the provincial capital, will “return stronger than it was before.”
“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,” Assad said. “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 northwestern Syria that has sparked a humanitarian catastrophe and as government troops consolidated their hold over the key province, capturing over 30 villages and hamlets in the western countryside in a single day. 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 that ran through rebel territory, are set to better link northern and southern Syria, including the city of Aleppo, which was Syria’s commercial center before the war.
The developments sparked late-night celebrations in the city, with state media showing residents waving flags and dancing in the streets packed with vehicles.
“We should not rest, but continue to prepare for coming of battles, and therefore the battle of liberating Aleppo countryside and Idlib will continue, despite the empty noise that is coming from the north (Turkey),” Assad said.
“Our beloved people of Aleppo, I congratulate you for the victory. … With it we will fight the bigger battle, the reconstruction of Aleppo and with the will of Syrians we will rebuild all of Syria and we will continue liberation, God willing,” said Assad, seated behind an empty wooden desk and wearing glasses.
Syrian troops have been on the offensive since December in the area and nearby Idlib province, biting bit by bit at the crowded rebel enclave, home to over 3 million people. The offensive displaced more than 800,000 people, sparking one of the largest humanitarian crises in the nine-year war.
Troops removed barriers and roadblocks in villages and districts that were earlier controlled by the rebels, state TV reported. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, reported clashes in Jabal Sheik Akeel, northwest of the provincial capital of Aleppo.
Rescuers and a medical aid worker said airstrikes on Darat Izza, a town still in opposition hands in northwestern Aleppo, knocked two health facilities out of service. One hospital was hit directly, wounding two staffers, said Mazen Kewara of the Syrian American Medical Society, a group that supports the hospital’s dialysis unit. Video from the rescue team, Syrian Civil Defense, showed extensive damage. Another airstrike hit near the other medical facility, some 150 meters (yards) away.
Syrian rebels were driven out of the provincial capital’s eastern quarters in late 2016, which they had controlled for years while battling government forces in charge in the western section. However, rebel groups continued to target government forces from outside the city with mortar rounds. They also controlled large parts of western rural Aleppo province, territories that linked them to Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold.
Assad spoke shortly after a statement by the Syrian military praising troops for rapidly taking over rebel-controlled territory in the country’s northwest, vowing to continue to chase armed groups “wherever they are.”
Gen. Ali Mayhoub, spokesman for the Syrian Armed Forces, said in a televised speech that government troops were continuing their ground advances to “eradicate what is left of terrorist groups,” and he congratulated the soldiers for the swift advances in “record time.”
The armed opposition is squeezed into a shrinking area of Idlib province, where the government is also on the offensive, as well as the sliver of adjacent territory in western Aleppo.
Turkey, which backs the opposition, has sent thousands of troops and equipment into the opposition enclave, to try to stall the Syrian government’s advance. Ankara has also called for an end to the Syrian government offensive. Already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Turkey fears a new wave of them may overwhelm its borders.
Support from Russia and Iran has enabled Syrian troops to regain control of much of the territories they had lost to armed groups who worked to topple Assad.
Over 400,000 people have been killed and half of Syria’s population displaced since peaceful protests in 2011 turned into a civil war.
Separately, state media reported that Syrian authorities on Sunday had uncovered a mass grave containing nearly 70 bodies in eastern Ghouta, an area outside of Damascus that rebel fighters lost control of in April 2018.
The area, which includes the town of Douma and extends into the capital’s suburbs, was widely destroyed as Syrian troops drove out rebel fighters there two years ago.
Ayman Khallou, a forensic doctor at a military hospital, told Syria’s state news agency that most of the remains found in the mass grave Sunday were handcuffed. He said most of the bodies appeared to have gunshot wounds to the head, while some were strangled. The official provided no immediate evidence to support the claim. Human rights groups blame both sides in the conflict for carrying out atrocities in Syria’s nine-year civil war.
Syrian authorities said the body of a woman was among those found in the grave. Damascus’ military police chief said a tip had led to the discovery of the mass grave in al-Ebb, a farm area southeast of Douma.
The report led to speculation among Syrians that the body could belong to Razan Zaitouneh. The prominent woman activist was documenting violations by government and rebel groups in the war when she disappeared, along with two other colleagues and her husband, in December 2013.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed reporting.