Syria’s Assad makes rare appearance for Eid prayers
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks at Damascus University on Jan.10 in this still image taken from video. (REUTERS/Syrian TV via Reuters TV)
BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first appearance in public since a July bombing that killed four top security officials, attending prayers at a Damascus mosque on Sunday to mark the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid, state TV showed.
The first day of Eid also gave Assad’s opponents a chance to rally and activists reported protests around Syria, including in the capital, on a holiday that marked the end of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan. Fighting raged on around Syria, killing more than 100 people, an activist group reported.
Battling a 17-month-old uprising against 42 years of rule by his family, Assad was filmed at prayer with his prime minister and foreign minister but not with his vice president, Farouq al-Shara, whose reported defection was denied the previous day.
Shaken by a July 18 bomb attack in Damascus and defections - including that of his last prime minister - Assad’s recent appearances on state TV had previously been restricted to footage of him conducting official business. He was shown swearing in the new prime minister a week ago.
Syria’s civil war has intensified since the bombing that killed members of Assad’s inner circle, including his defence minister and brother-in-law.
Assad was pictured sitting cross-legged at a mosque in the Damascus residential district of Muhajirin listening to a sermon in which Syria was described as a victim of “terrorism” and a conspiracy hatched by the United States, Israel, the West and Arabs - a reference to Gulf states which back the revolt.
Sheikh Mohammad Kheir Ghantous said the plot would not “defeat our Islam, our ideology and our determination”.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Assad smiled as he greeted officials including senior members of his Baath Party.
In attendance were Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and Prime Minister Wael al-Halki. He is the replacement for Riyad Hijab, a Sunni who has joined the opposition to Assad since his defection was announced on Aug. 6.
Hijab was the highest-level Syrian official to desert the government so far. Reports on Saturday that Shara, also a Sunni, had tried to bolt to Jordan drew a denial from the government.
Shara, 73, had “never thought for a moment about leaving the country”, according to a statement from his office broadcast on state television. Shara, whose cousin - an intelligence officer - announced his own defection on Thursday, comes from Deraa province where the revolt against Assad begun.
The ex-foreign minister kept a low profile as the revolt mushroomed but appeared last month at a funeral for three of the slain officials. The fourth died later of his wounds.
With diplomatic efforts to end the war hampered by divisions between world powers and regional rivalries, Syria is facing the prospect of a prolonged conflict that threatens to destabilise the Middle East with its sectarian overtones, pitting a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.
The statement by Shara’s office said he had worked since the start of the uprising to find a peaceful, political solution and welcomed the appointment of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new international mediator for Syria.
Brahimi hesitated for days before accepting the job. France’s U.N. envoy Gerard Araud has called it an “impossible mission”. Brahimi replaces former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is leaving at the end of the month.
Annan’s six-point plan to stop the violence and advance towards negotiations was based on an April ceasefire agreement which never took root. The conflict has deepened since then.
FIGHTING CONTINUES DESPITE START OF EID
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 100 people had been killed on Sunday. The figure could not be independently verified. It reported fighting in Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere despite the start of the Eid holiday.
In the rebel-held village of Saraja, near the Turkish border, the bereaved visited their relatives’ graves, in accordance with Eid tradition. “He had four children, he was my only son,” said an elderly woman who identified herself as Umm Jumaa, speaking in a video obtained by Reuters as she visited the grave of her slain son.
A trench had been dug nearby in anticipation of more bodies.
Even as President Assad appeared in Damascus, videos posted by activists on YouTube showed protests against him in and around the capital. “Oh martyr, your blood will not go to waste,” chanted protesters in Qudsia, a Damascus neighbourhood, in a YouTube posting dated Aug. 19.
“The people want divine protection,” chanted several dozen men shown in another video, posted by activists and dated Aug. 19. It showed a protest at Yabrud, north of Damascus.
But what started out last year as a mostly peaceful protest movement against Assad’s rule is now an armed insurrection.
Government forces have increasingly resorted to air power to hold back lightly armed insurgents in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and business hub. More than 18,000 people have died in Syria’s bloodshed and about 170,000 have fled the country, according to the United Nations. Aleppo has been the theatre for some of the heaviest recent fighting. Rebels hold several districts in the country’s largest city and have tried to push back against an army counter-offensive.
U.N. investigators said last week that government forces and allied militia had committed war crimes, including murder and the torture of civilians in what seemed to be state-directed policy.
Syrian insurgents had also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a smaller scale than those by the army and security forces, according to the investigators.
Syrian state television reported that government forces had thwarted several attempts by armed groups to infiltrate Syria from Lebanon, a country whose own fragile stability has been put under strain by the conflict next door.
SYRIAN OPPOSITION CRITICISES BRAHIMI
Brahimi will have a new title, Joint Special Representative for Syria. Diplomats said this was to distance him from Annan, who complained that his peace plan was crippled by splits between Western powers - who want Assad out - and Russia - his weightiest ally - and China in the U.N. Security Council.
Describing the situation in Syria as “absolutely terrible”, Brahimi told Reuters he urgently needed to clarify what support the United Nations can give him.
But he drew criticism on Sunday from the Syrian opposition over a statement that it was too early to say whether Assad should step down - in apparent contrast to Annan who said it was clear the Syrian leader “must leave office”.
In remarks to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Brahimi backed away from the comment, explaining that it was too early for him to say anything at all about his mission. “I was only appointed two days ago,” he said.