Assad appears on TV after bombing
20 July 2012, 09:43
Beirut — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his
first appearance on Thursday since a bomb killed some of his top
lieutenants, looking calm and composed on state TV even as his forces
turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and rebels seized two of the
country's border crossings.
The unprecedented attack on Assad's
inner circle on Wednesday, along with the government's inability to
crush the rebels after five days of intense clashes in the Syrian
capital, point to an unravelling of his grip on power after 16 months of
"It is a war going on here, literally a war," said a
25-year-old woman in the Muhajereen neighbourhood. The sounds of battle
had kept her up all night and she stayed home from work because she
feared random gunfire, she added.
"It reminded me of that night
when the Americans shelled Baghdad nine years ago," said the woman, who
spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety. "I
was watching it on TV, but today I'm living a very similar situation."
though Assad's powerful military remains mostly loyal — suggesting a
total collapse may not be imminent — the rebels appeared to be making
startling gains as the conflict intensified.
Besides the fighting
in Damascus, about a half-dozen rebels took over a Syrian border
crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim, said Iraqi army Brig. General
Qassim al-Dulaimi. There are four major border posts with Iraq.
Diplomatic solution remote
Rebels overtook a Syrian army outpost near the Syrian-Iraq border after clashes that killed 21 Syrian soldiers, he added.
addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab
al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stomped on portraits of
Assad. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video
because the government bars most media from working independently in the
A diplomatic solution to ending the bloodshed seemed
even more remote after Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed UN
resolution aimed at pressuring Assad's government to end the escalating
Analysts said the regime was clearly shaken by the
violence in the heart of its power base of Damascus, but the next step
was not clear yet.
"We should not get carried away with
speculating about the impending fall of the regime," said Salman Shaikh,
director of the Brookings Doha Center and an analyst on regional
politics. He said the regime's forces "are still showing a certain
amount of cohesiveness in battle".
Citing a network of sources on the ground, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
reported intense clashes in a string of neighbourhoods along the
southern edge of Damascus, the northeastern neighbourhood of Qaboun, and
in number of western suburbs.
and booms from shelling could be heard throughout the capital, and
streets in the hard-hit areas were largely empty, save for government
troops or rebels.
On Thursday, many Syrians said they were not
waiting around to see if the violence would end any time soon. Thousands
streamed across the Syrian border into Lebanon at the Masnaa crossing
point — about 40km from Damascus.
Hundreds of private cars as well as taxis and buses ferried people across.
if Assad did leave power, the opposition is widely perceived to be far
too disorganised to take over. There is no clear candidate to lead the
country in Assad's absence, and the grim sectarian tint to much of the
violence suggests any power vacuum will usher in a bloodbath.
make up most of Syria's 22 million people, as well as the backbone of
the opposition. But Assad and the ruling elite belong to the tiny
Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Assad is relying
heavily on his Alawite power base to crush the uprising, prompting
revenge attacks and fear among other minorities that they face
retribution if the regime falls.
Increasing presence of al-Qaeda
fearsome factor is the emergence of extremists among the forces looking
to oust Assad. Several big suicide attacks this year suggest that
al-Qaeda or other terrorist forces are joining the fight.
officials said al-Qaeda's presence has risen slightly, with one official
putting the estimate at a couple hundred operatives attempting to
hijack Syrian unrest.
They operate under the name of the
al-Nusra Front, which has claimed responsibility for a series of bomb
attacks on regime targets, including a government-run TV station in
June, the officials said.
But opposition forces, such as the
leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army, have made clear to US officials
that they reject the group's methods, because the attacks often occur in
public areas where civilians have been killed and injured.
officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not
authorised to describe the intelligence and analysis publicly.
has not spoken about the bombing that killed three top aides: Defence
Minister Dawoud Rajha, aged 65, a former army general and the most
senior government official to be killed in the uprising; General Assef
Shawkat, aged 62, the deputy defence minister who was married to Assad's
elder sister, Bushra, and was one of the most feared figures in the
inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, aged 77, a former defence minister.
Assad alive and well
claimed responsibility, saying they targeted the room where the top
government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were
Assad's appearance on Thursday was carried on state TV
without audio, but the report appeared aimed at sending the message that
he is alive and well, and in control.
The report said Assad,
wearing a blue suit and tie, swore in the new defence minister and
wished him good luck. The report did not say where the ceremony took
Assad does not appear in public frequently, and rumours
swirled that there was far more to Wednesday's bombing than meets the
It is still a mystery how anybody could have planted a bomb
in such a high-level meeting, inside the National Security building, at a
time of deep crisis.
Some observers believe it was almost
certainly an inside job, carried out by a sleeper agent who had been a
trusted regime confidante. Others speculate the bombing was actually the
work of the regime itself, to decapitate a group of leaders who may
have been planning a coup.
the confusion, Syria's state news agency warned citizens that gunmen
were disguising themselves in military uniforms to carry out attacks.
are wearing Republican Guard uniforms in the neighbourhoods of Tadamon,
Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha, proving that they are planning attacks and
crimes," it said.
In one chilling online video, dozens of dead
and wounded were shown on the floor of a mosque in the Sayida Zeinab
area, south of Damascus. An off-camera narrator says government
helicopters fired on them Wednesday. Another video showed what appeared
to be at least 40 bodies wrapped in cloth in a mass grave.
The AP could not verify the video.
General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of nearly 300 unarmed UN
observers in Syria, urged a diplomatic solution, which appears
increasingly out of reach.
"It pains me to say, but we are not on
the track for peace in Syria," Mood told reporters in Damascus. Hours
later at the United Nations, Russia and China vetoed a new Security
Council resolution on the crisis.
UN team in limbo
resolution would have imposed non-military sanctions against Assad's
government if it didn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated
areas in 10 days. It was tied to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which
could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict.
and China have long opposed any moves that put the blame exclusively on
Damascus or could pave the way for foreign military intervention in
The 11-2 vote, with two abstentions, leaves in limbo the
future of the 300-member UN monitoring team in Syria, whose mandate
expires on Friday.
A frustrated White House declared that Russia
and China placed themselves on the "wrong side of history" and the
"wrong side of the Syrian people".
White House spokesperson Jay
Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One that Washington does not
support extending the mission without the necessary backup.
United States does not support extending a mission where you send
unarmed UN employees into Syria to try to observe the brutality of the
Assad regime, when there is no mechanism within the resolution to create
consequences for the regime for failing to live up to its obligations,"