On Sunday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was seen for the first time in six weeks attending prayers in the al-Hamad mosque in Damascus, at the Eid al-Fitr festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Assad has not been seen in public since a July 18th bombing that took the lives of several senior security officials including his defense minister.
Eid al-Fitr is a three-day holiday usually celebrated with visits and feasting, with the purchase of sweets and clothing. As the New York Times reports, the mood in the capital — which has been beset by tanks, shelling and artillery fire for weeks — was gloomy.
Notably, Assad appeared with only some but not all of the members of his inner circle, possibly to keep them separated in the event of another large-scale attack. His government and military have also seen a continuous stream of officials defecting. Rebels report that Assad’s vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa, who has not been seen on television for a week, has defected to Jordan though his office issued a statement that he has not thought “at any moment, of leaving the country.”
Assad usually prays at Damascus’ oldest and largest mosque, the Umayyad mosque. The smaller al-Hamad mosque is near the presidential palace.
Bloody battles continue throughout Syria, where what began as peaceful anti-government protests 18 months ago has become a civil war that is showing signs of drawing in Syria’s neighbors in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region and led to unrest among the Kurds in Syria’s north, as soldiers have been recalled to put down the uprising.
On Sunday, the United Nations observer mission to Syria ended. 300 truce monitors were gradually deployed following a UN Security Council resolution in April that had called for a ceasefire. But neither side ever truly honored this and UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who had negotiated the ceasefire as part of a six-point peace plan, resigned this month.
His replacement, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, is described as having a “formidable reputation at the UN but is also seen as independent of the major powers,” according to the BBC. But opposition groups are skeptical about Brahimi’s ability to end the crisis. In contrast to Annan, who called for Assad to step down, Brahimi has said that it is “too early” to demand such.
At least 20,000 people have died in the conflict and close to a million have been displaced or fled. Al Jazeera says that there are at least 150,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan now and over 70,000 in Turkey. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently told the newspaper Hurriyet that “if the number of refugees in Turkey surpasses 100,000, we will run out of space to accommodate them. We should be able to accommodate them in Syria.”
Within Syria, the humanitarian crisis grows and grows. The Guardian says that the Syrian Red Crescent is distributing 175,000 food parcels within the country. Abu Mohammed is a father of three who fled bombs in the central city of Homs in February and resettled in Damascus, where bombs are falling again. As he says to the Guardian, “The country is almost destroyed. We have no idea what’s going to happen. I never thought this could happen in Syria.”
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Photo of Syrian refugees at a camp in Turkey by FreedomHouse2