Syria's Assad: We are in a 'real state of war'

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told his new government yesterday to spare no effort to win what he now calls a full-scale war.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to the new government in Damascus in this handout photo distributed by Syrian News Agency (SANA) June 26. Al-Assad issued a decree to form a new government on Saturday, shaking up many cabinet posts but keeping the heads of the interior, defence and foreign ministries, state television reported.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last night pronounced his country to be in a state of war and told a new government to spare no effort in achieving a victory.

"We live in a real state of war from all angles," Mr. Assad said in a speech broadcast on state television, according to Reuters. "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war."

The comment, made during a speech to his newly appointed cabinet, is Assad's first pronouncement of war; he has previously dismissed Syria's conflict as an armed insurgency led by foreign militants. News organizations and international leaders, including some at the United Nations, began describing the conflict as a civil war weeks ago. 

But the rebel forces now number between 10,000 and 15,000, according to US estimates, and they have stepped up their campaign, staging bolder, higher-impact attacks, CNN reports. They've also benefited from several high-level defections from the Syrian Army.

Today, gunmen stormed the headquarters of pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya south of Damascus, leaving seven people dead and kidnapping several more before blowing up station buildings, the Associated Press reports. "What happened today is a massacre, a massacre against the freedom of the press," Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi said in comments broadcast on state-run Syrian TV. "They carried out a terrifying massacre by executing the employees."

Meanwhile, the outskirts of Damascus are home to the site of some of the fiercest fighting the capital area has seen. Violence so close to the center of the capital – roughly five miles from the city's oldest open air markeplace and downtown – has been rare. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the Globe and Mail that today's fighting marked the first time the regime forces have used artillery in such proximity to Damascus.

The fighting happened close to bases of the elite Republican Armed Guard units. That rebel forces were willing to fight so close to their main bases is "unprecedented" and possibly an "indicator of increasing prowess," according to The Globe and Mail. 

But US intelligence officials told Reuters that despite the military defections and the rebels' growing strength, Assad's "inner circle" remains strong and they see no sign that the regime will fall anytime soon. The more likely scenario is that the conflict, already ongoing for 15 months, will continue. 

"Our overall assessment ... would be that we are still seeing the military regime forces fairly cohesive, they've learned some lessons over the last year and a half about how to deal with this kind of insurgency," an official said. "Both sides seem to be girding for a long struggle. Our sense is that the regime still believes it can ultimately prevail or at least appears determined to try to prevail and the opposition at the same time seems to be preparing for a long fight."

The head of United Nations peacekeeping operations said yesterday that the situation remained too dangerous for the UN monitoring mission in Syria, which suspended its work earlier this month, to resume operations, Syria's Day Press News reports.

Russia agreed yesterday to attend a meeting in Geneva with the rest of the permanent UN Security Council members and Kofi Annan, the UN-appointed mediator for Syria. Mr. Annan has been attempting to broker an end to the fighting for months. He crafted a peace plan that failed rapidly and spectacularly, despite the fact that both the government and rebels agreed to its terms.

That Moscow – which has been at loggerheads with Britain, the US, and France for remaining an ally of the regime – agreed to attend gives the Geneva meeting some substance, the Globe and Mail reports. Iran, another Assad ally, could also be invited. If the US accepted Tehran's involvement – something it has not supported so far – it would signal a new level of concern about the situation on the ground in Syria.

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