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Assad stays cool amid reported slaughter on the bread lines

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes a rare public appearance by giving an interview to a pro-government news channel in Syria. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Calm. Defiant. Confident. That’s how embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared in a lengthy interview on Wednesday evening on the pro-government news channel, Al Donnya.

The interview had the feel of a casual conversation rather than the hard-hitting questioning of a leader who is unleashing the might of his military on his country.

Even as Assad spoke, rights groups were documenting new outrages they say have been perpetrated on civilians.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Thursday said Syrian jets and artillery have struck at least 10 bakeries in Aleppo in the last three weeks, killing dozens of people as they waited in line to buy bread.


"The attacks are at least recklessly indiscriminate and the pattern and number of attacks suggest that government forces have been targeting civilians," the group said, calling them "war crimes" -- although no claim by either side in this civil war can easily be verified.

Rebels said they shot down a Syrian fighter jet in the northwestern province of Idlib near the Turkish border, Reuters reported. 

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

The Syrian Martyrs Brigade claimed in a statement the plane was brought down near the town of al-Thayabiya. Video footage on al-Arabiya television showed what appeared to be smoke in the sky and a person parachuting down. An army helicopter hovered over the area, apparently in search of the pilot. 

There were no major announcements in Assad's interview; perhaps the boldest declaration he made was that he was still in the capital, Damascus, speaking to the Syrian people from the presidential palace.

This undoubtedly was to quash rumors that he had fled the capital in recent weeks as the fighting there intensified and rebels brazenly killed senior members of his regime.

Flames of Syria's conflict singe rest of region

And yet despite high-level assassinations,  territorial gains made by rebels, increasing international isolation, sanctions and condemnation of his regime, Assad seemed optimistic.

"We are fighting a regional and global war, so time is needed to win it," he said. "I can summarize and say that we are moving forward. The situation on the ground is better, but there is no conclusion and this requires some time."

Time may not be on the president's side. Seventeen months after street protests morphed into a full-scale rebellion against his rule, his use of superior military power has done little stop calls for his removal from power.

This is how Assad described the conflict: "This issue is a battle of wills in the first place. They have the will to destroy the country; they started in Deraa, then moved to Homs, then Damascus, then Halab, to Deraa to Latakia. They're trying to move from one location to the other."

Bomb explodes near hotel used by UN monitors, Syrian state TV reports

From the villages to towns and now to the country’s largest two cities of Aleppo and Damascus, the fight for Syria has left no corner untouched. Rebels have managed to make in-roads into these areas, at times seizing control of them.

Opposition activists claim unverified footage shows the aftermath of a brutal massacre of Syrian rebels in Daraa. Meanwhile, pro-regime TV says forces were eradicating the city of terrorists. Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo, Egypt.

Assad dismissed such setbacks, saying, "When the army enters a certain place, it means they are capable of taking it. They [the rebels] believed many of these neighborhoods were out of the government's influence. But the army easily entered most of these neighborhoods.The opposition could not control these neighborhoods.”

Assad saved his harshest criticism for those behind what he labeled as regional interference in his country, particularly one-time ally Turkey. "The Turkish position is well known. I hold the Turkish government accountable for all of the bloodshed in Syria,” he said.

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin answers your questions about Syria

In recent weeks, Turkey, France, opposition leaders and rebels inside Syria have floated the idea of a no-fly zone or a buffer zone over the northern part of the country to help shield civilians escaping the fighting.

But such a measure would require significant military commitments from foreign powers, something Assad dismissed, “I believe that firstly, a no-fly zone is not going to work practically and secondly, the countries that are pressing for it, or the enemy countries, know that it is unrealistic to achieve."

Perhaps the one thing Assad and Syria’s opposition both agree on is that Syria’s war has become a battle of wills. And neither side has shown a willingness to back down anytime soon.

Reuters and NBC News' Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.

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