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Assad acknowledges 'setbacks' in the fight against rebels

Syrian president Assad said that "ups and downs" are normal in a war, following a string of defeats suffered by the government forces. Assad also dismissed reports that his troops are in trouble as "propaganda."

Surrounded by cheering students, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad urged his supporters to stay confident in the face of a "loss here and there," during a visit to a Damascus school Wednesday.

"In battles... anything can change except for faith in the fighter and the fighter's faith in victory," he said.

"So when there are setbacks, we must do our duty as a society and give the army morale and not wait for it to give us morale."

'Heroes' under siege

Assad's latest remarks come after rebels, including al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, took over

several government strongholds

, triggering speculation about the strength of government forces after four years of fighting.

At the end of March, rebels pushed the army out of provincial capital Idlib, and then seized control of the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour and the Qarmeed military base in the north of the country last week. Government forces are now under fire at the few outposts still held by them, including a Jisr al-Shughour hospital.

However, Assad promised that the army would head to the besieged town to assist the remaining fighters.

"And now, God willing, the army will arrive soon to these heroes who are besieged in the Jisr al-Shughour Hospital to continue the battle to defeat the terrorists," he said.

In addition, Assad rejected media speculation that his forces were in trouble as "propaganda"

"Psychological defeat is the final defeat and we are not worried," he said.

Harsh words for Erdogan

In his speech to mark Martyrs Day, a Syrian holiday dedicated to the nationalists executed by the Ottomans in 1916, Assad also harshly criticized current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling him a "butcher."

The Syrian government has repeatedly

accused Turkey

and other rebel supporters of backing "terrorism."

More than 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

dj/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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