Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages
UPDATE: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared publicly for the first time since last month’s bombing that killed four of his top officials. The last time Assad appeared in public was on July 4, when he gave a speech to parliament. On Sunday, Assad attended prayers at a Damascus mosque to commemorate the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. State TV showed Assad listening to a sermon that described how Syria was under attack by “terrorism” and was the victim of a conspiracy launched by the United States and Israel, reports Reuters.
In other parts of the country though, thousands took part in anti-government protests in mosques and cemeteries following prayers, notes the Associated Press. As speculation continues to grow about whether Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa had defected, many were quick to see as significant that he wasn’t at the mosque with Assad. Yet the two rarely appear at the same events for security reasons.
Even though Muslims usually visit graves of relatives on Eid, the fighting didn’t stop and the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 37 civilians had been killed Sunday.
Meanwhile, the AP interviews the new U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who says that one of his main priorities is to try to get the Security Council to speak “with a unified voice” because it is the only way his mission has a chance of succeeding. Yet Brahimi acknowledged he doesn’t really have any ideas on how that goal could be achieved.
Saturday, August 18: The Syrian government denied reports that Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa had defected. In fact, his office released a statement saying that President Ashar al-Assad’s deputy “did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country,” reports the Associated Press. In the same statement, the vice president also expressed support for Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian diplomat who will take over as the new U.N./Arab League envoy to Syria after Kofi Annan steps down on Aug. 31.
On Saturday, the last 100 of 300 U.N. observers began leaving Syria in advance of the official end of their mission Sunday, reports the Guardian.
The international community welcomed Brahimi, who reportedly hesitated for days before accepting the position. "My message to special envoy Brahimi is simple: The United States stands ready to support you and secure a lasting peace that upholds the legitimate aspirations for a representative government of the people of Syria," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, according to the BBC.
Yet even as it welcomed the new envoy, the Assad regime stepped up its offensive against rebels with reports that the army bombarded neighborhoods in Aleppo Saturday. Activists also uploaded footage supposedly from the western district of Sail al-Dawla showing a plane dropping two bombs over buildings, reports Reuters. Al Jazeera claims warplanes also bombed Aleppo suburbs Saturday. In addition, fighting appears to have broken out in Damascus, showing how the regime’s forces have not been able to fully push rebels out of the capital.