The Syrian government says it has weathered worse spells in the four-year-old conflict than the current advances by insurgents across the country and is confident its army can hit back with the help of its allies.
The assessment offered by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in an interview with Reuters in Damascus conflicts with the view of Western officials who see mounting pressure on President Bashar al-Assad from insurgent advances across Syria.
An uprising which started against Assad in 2011 has evolved into a civil war in which hardline groups such as al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Islamic State have become the dominant insurgent forces. Around a quarter of a million people have died and 8 million have lost their homes.
Mekdad said increased support from Assad’s regional foes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had been key to recent insurgent advances. But he forecast more support from Syria’s allies: Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, “our principal ally”.
Western areas of the country widely seen as key to Assad’s survival – including the capital – were secure, he said. Damascus was not vulnerable like during parts of the first two years of the crisis, he said.
“I think Syria was under more pressure (before),” Mekdad said in the interview late on 11 June.
“Even Damascus was under a direct threat. Nowadays Damascus is absolutely not under such a threat. Homs is safe, Hama is safe, now al-Qalamoun is safe,” he said, describing two major cities and a mountainous area along Syria’s western border with Lebanon.
He was speaking after three months of gains against government forces by hardline Islamist groups including Nusra Front in the northwest, Islamic State in the east, and an array of other insurgent factions in the south.
He said a new alliance between Syria’s regional foes Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, supported by the West, had given a boost to insurgent groups fighting government forces.
“Some advances have been made whether we like it or not,” he said. But the military was regrouping.
“What makes us optimistic are two things. The first is the increase in the strength and morale of the Syrian Arab Army,” he said, adding that this was because troops had secured “fundamental requirements” for their duties, in an apparent reference to military equipment.
“The second is the strong support we have received and will receive from our allies, whether it be the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Russian Federation or from our main ally Hezbollah,” he said. The Iran-backed Lebanese group has sent fighters over the border into Syria and is fighting in Qalamoun.
“We hope the performance of the Syrian army will be different in a few days, if not a few weeks.”
Mekdad said he hoped relations between Damascus and Ankara would improve after Turkish parliamentary elections which have dealt a blow to President Tayyip Erdogan.
He also said Syria wanted to deepen cooperation with Iraq on fighting Islamic State, which holds tracts of land in both countries. But the West had been preventing such improved cooperation, he said.
Western and Arab countries led by the United States have been bombing Islamic State positions in both Iraq and Syria since last year. But while Washington supports the government in Baghdad, it opposes Assad’s government in Damascus.