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Syrian President Bashar Assad made a rare public appearance Wednesday, defending recent military setbacks to his government forces that are still locked in a bloody four-year civil war with rebel groups.

Last month, Islamist elements of these rebel groups — including the al-Qaeda-linked Nursa Front — captured a town in Syria's Idlib province and edged closer to a government-held heartland along the country's coast.

"We are today waging a war not a battle, and war is different than a battle," Assad said during a visit to a school that was broadcast on the government-sympathetic television station, Syria TV. "It is an operation of attack and retreat, victory and defeat, rise and fall."

His appearance came two days after a scathing report by Amnesty International alleged that Assad's forces have been guilty of "crimes against humanity," indiscriminately dropping barrel bombs on schools, hospitals and mosques.

— Alexander Smith
Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad (center), attending a ceremony organized by the Martyrs Sons and Daughters Schools Establishment to honor the children of martyrs who followed in their fathers' footsteps and joined military academies, in Damascus, Syria, om May 6.SYRIAN ARAB NEWS AGENCY / EPA