BEIRUT — In a rare acknowledgment, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Sunday that his forces have lost some territory to rebels because of “manpower” problems.
The embattled leader made the admission during a speech in the capital, Damascus, his first public address since a recent string of rebel advances. Assad also said that his forces had to abandon parts of the country to protect other fronts.
“A shortage of manpower exists,” he said.
The remarks, which were televised, came a day after his government issued a general amnesty for military deserters and draft dodgers. Syrians have been evading compulsory military service in huge numbers, depriving the military of crucial ranks amid a civil war that has killed more than 230,000 people and displaced millions.
The armed forces have been weakened by defections, desertions and high casualty rates during the four-year-old conflict. Casualties have been especially high within Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Alawites form the backbone of the government’s military and security establishments, spearheading the fight against a rebellion that is led by Sunni Muslims, who formed a large majority of Syria’s prewar population of about 24 million people.
During his unusually frank address, Assad, who controls less than half of Syria’s pre-conflict territory, rejected mounting speculation that his government is nearing collapse. He vowed to stand “steadfast” in the fight, echoing the confident posture of previous speeches.
But he also acknowledged recent battlefield losses, which analysts and many Syrians have described as startling and potentially devastating to his hold on power. He said his government was forced to “designate” which areas of the country to “hold on to,” adding that certain parts had to be “let go” of because of concern for the lives of soldiers fighting there.
A largely Islamist rebel alliance recently captured areas in northwestern Syria. The Islamic State militant group has pushed westward against government forces from its strongholds in eastern Syria. And in the south, relatively moderate rebels backed by the United States and Arab countries have made recent gains.
Assad’s forces have mounted a counteroffensive against the opposition with the support of fighters allied with Iran, the Syrian government’s primary backer. With support from Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, assaults have intensified on areas along the Syrian border with Lebanon.
Diplomats say that Iran and Russia, another Assad ally, have pressured the Syrian leader to reposition his forces to bolster a strategic corridor that stretches from Damascus, runs along the border with Lebanon and extends to the western coastal areas of the country.