BEIRUT — Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday predicted victory for his military in the bloody civil war and made it clear he wouldn’t be stepping down, snubbing members of the international community who have called for his ouster and signaling a protracted battle for control of the country.
In an hour-long interview that aired on the pro-regime Dunya TV, Assad also hinted that the military, which opposition groups say has killed more than 20,000 people, could use more force.
“When the armed forces want to use all of their power, they can destroy areas entirely,” he said. “But they care about two things: the lives of civilians and private property.”
Assad appeared defiant, even cocky, in the interview, the first since four government officials were killed in a bomb attack in mid-July, and he repeatedly played down the crisis in the country. In one portion of the interview, Assad called the numerous defections that have hit both his government and the military “a self-cleaning process of the state and the nation.”
Assad’s comments came after heavy fighting continued in and around Damascus on Wednesday, leaving at least 45 people dead, according to the Local Coordination Committees activist network.
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army acknowledged that it had faced great difficulty in the battle for control of the capital in recent days. “We are suffering in Damascus from the amount of regime security forces there,” Col. Aref Hammoud said. “The losses of the regime and the Free Syrian Army are huge.”
Meanwhile, the international community is struggling to deal with a growing refugee crisis as more than 200,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, the majority of them to Turkey, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, during a news conference in Ankara on Wednesday, called on the United Nations to create a safe zone for refugees inside Syria.
“We expect the U.N. to step in and protect the refugees inside Syria, and if possible, to shelter them in camps there,” he said.
During the interview aired Wednesday, Assad dismissed talk of a buffer zone inside Syria and blasted Turkish leaders for their support of the opposition. But he also praised his closest ally, Iran.
“We were asked clearly and continually to move away from Iran. Our answer is clear: As long as Iran stands with us and supports us and stands with our rights without hesitation . . . how can we stand away from them?” he said.
While critics have accused Iran of sending men and materiel to support the Syrian government, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on his first official visit to Tehran to attend a Non-Aligned Movement summit Wednesday, said that Iran could play a positive role in resolving the Syrian crisis.
During a meeting with Ban, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran is “ready for any kind of effort to solve the crisis in Syria,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “But solving the crisis in Syria is dependent on one natural condition, which is preventing the shipment of arms to irresponsible groups inside Syria,” Khamenei said.
In a lighter moment during Wednesday’s Dunya interview, the interviewer noted that there are rumors that Assad has fled to Tehran, Moscow or Latakia, the traditional homeland of the president’s Alawite sect, and asked, “Where are you right now, Mr. President?”
Assad laughed and replied, “I’m here with you in Damascus, on the ground, in the presidential palace.” He added, “They have not been able to enter fear in my heart, nor in the heart of any Syrian.”
Ahmed Ramadan and Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.