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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad acknowledged on Wednesday what he said were recent "setbacks" in the war against rebels trying to topple him, promising a comeback by his troops entangled in heavy fighting with rebels in northern Syria.

The rare admission of defeat follows a string of opposition advances in northern and southern Syria that saw them flush out Assad's troops from previous government strongholds.

The embarrassing losses have punctured the notion that Assad is on his way to defeating the four-year-old rebellion. They also undermined Assad's claim of being a bulwark against the Islamic State group, which had eclipsed the rebels over the past year.

Assad spoke during a visit to a school in Damascus to mark Martyrs Day, surrounded by cheering students. It is normal in wars to have "ebb and flow, gains and losses and ups and downs," he said.

"Everything fluctuates except one thing, which is faith in the soldier and his belief in ultimate victory," Assad said. "So when setbacks occur, it is our duty as a society to boost the morale of the soldier and not wait for him to raise ours. It is a mutual thing."

At the same time, Assad dismissed media speculation that his forces were in trouble as "propaganda" and added that he is not worried.

Government troops withdrew from the city of Idlib in northern Syria after it fell to opposition fighters at the end of March, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour and the Qarmeed military base last week.

His troops are now under fire at the few remaining outposts still in government hands, including the national hospital in Jisr al-Shughour where his forces have been holed up since the rebels took over the town on April 25.

Assad promised a comeback by his troops there.

"God willing, the army will soon reach those heroes besieged in Jisr al-Shughour hospital to continue the battle to eradicate terrorism," he said.

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