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Al Assad in rare Damascus mosque appearance

Sermon depicted Syria as victim of conspiracy hatched by Israel and the West

Image Credit: EPA
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad (centre) greets clerics after attending the Eid Al Fitr prayers at the Al Hamad Mosque in Mohajirin quarter, in Damascus, Syria on Sunday.
Gulf News

Beirut: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad performed Eid prayers in a Damascus mosque on Sunday, state television showed, in his first appearance in public since a July bombing in the Syrian capital that killed four top security officials.

Al Assad, who is battling a 17-month-old uprising, was accompanied by his prime minister but not his vice-president, Farouq Al Shar’a, whose reported defection was denied by the government the previous day.

In the state TV footage, Al Assad was sitting cross-legged during a sermon in which Syria was described as the victim of a conspiracy hatched by the United States, Israel, the West and Arab states but which would not “defeat our Islam, our ideology and our determination in Syria”.

The July 18 bombing at the state security headquarters in Damascus was a stunning blow to Al Assad, who lost a brother-in-law in the attack, and fighting subsequently intensified with rebels making inroads into Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo.

Syrian authorities on Saturday dismissed reports that Shar’a had defected as Al Assad’s forces pursued an offensive against rebels, bombarding parts of Aleppo in the north and attacking an insurgent-held town in the oil-producing east.

Shar’a “never thought for a moment about leaving the country”, said a statement from his office broadcast on state television in response to reports that the veteran Baath Party loyalist had tried to bolt to Jordan.

Al Assad, battling a spreading rebellion led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, has been abandoned by a number of senior officials, including prime minister Riyad Hijab two weeks ago.

Shar’a, whose cousin — an intelligence officer — announced his own defection on Thursday, is a Sunni Muslim from Daraa province where the revolt began against Al Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The 73-year-old ex-foreign minister kept a low profile as the revolt mushroomed but surfaced in public last month at a state funeral for three of the slain officials from Al Assad’s inner circle.

The statement 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, who hesitated for days before accepting a job that France’s UN envoy Gerard Araud called an “impossible mission”, will replace former UN 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 political negotiations was based on an April ceasefire agreement which never took hold. The conflict has deepened since then with both sides stepping up attacks.