Syria's Assad lauds his army, says he will win war

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By ALBERT AJI and BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's president on Thursday lauded his troops' struggle against opposition forces, saying they are fighting the fiercest of wars but that he is confident they will win in the country's conflict, now in its third year.

Bashar Assad's comments followed several significant regime gains against the rebels on key battlefields recently, mostly in the central province of Homs and near the capital, Damascus.

His remarks coincided with an alarm raised Thursday by five major aid agencies, which warned that the Syrian refugee crisis is stretching aid efforts to their limits.

More than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against the Assad family's four-decade rule began in March 2011. The revolt later escalated into a civil war, which has uprooted millions of people from their homes.

In a statement marking Syria's Army Day, Assad said his men are confronting the "fiercest barbaric war in modern history."

"Had we in Syria not been confident of victory, we wouldn't have been able to resist" for over two years, Assad said in a statement carried by the state news agency SANA.

In an apparent reference to wide expectations over the past two years that the opposition forces would remove him from power, Assad told his troops: "You have surprised the world with your steadfastness and ability to face difficulties and achieve results."

The rebels suffered two major setbacks during a wide-ranging government offensive in central Syria. In June, Assad's army recaptured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and this week, government troops took control of a district in the city of Homs that had long been an opposition stronghold.

The five aid agencies — including CARE International, Oxfam, Danish Refugee Council, Handicap International and World Vision — said they are increasingly concerned that the international response is failing to match the scale of the crisis.

Their joint statement said more than 1.4 million Syrians — or 80 percent of all Syrian refugees — are now living in tents, temporary settlements, or over-crowded and expensive rented accommodations.

"People are living in shopping centers, empty garages or make-shift tents on derelict land," said Oxfam's response manager in charge of Syria, Colette Fearon. "They are struggling to survive on little or nothing, and many are falling through the cracks with no immediate end in sight to the conflict the problem will only get worse."

"We need to make sure assistance reaches refugees no matter where they are," she added.

Last month, assistant U.N. secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, said an estimated 5,000 Syrians are dying every month in the country's civil war and refugees are fleeing at a rate not seen since the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Because of huge number of people fleeing the conflict, refugees are pursuing whatever options they can to find shelter, the aid groups' statement said.

Many arrive in shelters across the border with just the clothes on their backs and need help to cover basic costs such as food, safe drinking water and a roof over their heads, it added.

Health care has become a luxury that many refugees cannot afford, and vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and persons with disabilities or chronic disease, have no access to essential services beyond what organizations such as Handicap International can provide.

"People left Syria with nothing and are trying to carve out a new life for themselves," said Hugh Fenton of the Danish Refugee Council. "But they are starting from scratch and everything is expensive. Many are getting into increasing debt in order to survive."

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Mroue reported from Beirut.

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