Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad referred to the country’s multiple defections of government officials as a “cleansing” in a rare televised interview broadcast Wednesday on the state Dunya TV station.

In video clips that have appeared online, Assad defended the Syrian army as “heroic.” His comments followed reports of escalated mass killings in Damascus and elsewhere by Syrian forces.

“I think this is a battle of wills. And I can say that the situation is now better,” he said. “The army are doing their job. They are doing heroic acts in every sense of the word.”

Assad also seemed to brush off the many defections over the past 18 months, including at the highest levels of government. Most recently, Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab fled to Jordan.

“If there is a Syrian citizen who knows that one of them [the terrorists] is hesitant and wants to escape, he should encourage him to do that,” Assad said, referring to the “operation” as a cleansing of Syria.

The international community has called for Assad to step down, but he made it clear during the interview that he intends to stay in power.

In a July 5 interview with Germany’s ARD network, Assad said he would leave office if he fell out of favor with the Syrian people, but he seemed to believe that he still enjoyed majority public support.

“I can nominate myself, but to leave or not to leave, that’s up to the Syrian people,” he said then. “If I don’t have the public support, how could I stay in this position? So of course I still have public support.”

Click here to see more photos of violence in Syria:

View Photo Gallery: Violence escalates between government and opposition forces in the key Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

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