Assad makes first appearance since top aides killed

Syrian President Bashar al- Assad made his first appearance yesterday 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 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 violence.

Assad’s appeared on state TV yesterday without audio, but the report seemed to be 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 place.

Assad does not appear in public frequently, and rumours swirled that there was far more to Wednesday’s bombing than meets the eye.

“It is a war going on here, literally a war,” said a 25-year-old woman in the Muhajereen neighborhood.

“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.”

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.

A diplomatic solution to ending the bloodshed was even more remote after Russia and China again vetoed a UN resolution aimed at pressuring Assad’s government to end the conflict.

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”.

Thousands of Syrians streamed across the border into Lebanon at the Masnaa crossing point — about 40km from Damascus.

Even 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.

Assad has not spoken about the bombing that killed three top aides: Defence Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the uprising; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 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, 77, a former defence minister.

Rebels claimed responsibility, saying they targeted the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were meeting.

It is still a mystery how anybody could have planted a bomb in such a high-level meeting. Some observers believe it was almost certainly an inside job, carried out by a sleeper agent, a trusted regime confidante.

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