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Whereabouts of al-Assad unknown as government forces retaliate

A day after three senior Syrian officials were assassinated in a vicious attack, Syrian army launched a retaliation attack against opposition forces. The Free Syrian Army had started its offensive on Damascus a few days ago planning to overthrow al-Assad’s government by force. All previous efforts, including statements from leaders of Western countries calling Bashar al-Assad to resign, had failed. As the UN Security Council vote on Syria were vetoed by two powerful players in the organization, Russia and China in February, the Syrian government stepped up its campaign against the armed opposition, often bombing, reportedly, civilian targets causing an outrage of the international community.

Two UN SC permanent members, Russia and China have so far been reluctant to approve any motion forcing al-Assad to resign both by economic and military means. Apart from economic interests, Russia has a military base in the port of Tartus, on the western coast of Syria, the only military facility of Russia in the Mediterranean. In defiance of pressure from the United States and European counterparts, Russian leaders expanded their militay ties with Bashar al-Assad since the escalation of hostilities in Syria.  The Chinese also have a special interest not to allow the regime fall, suspecting the new government will be installed by US and its allies, which in turn will increase the dominance of the United States in the Middle East.

On July 18, as the situation in the Syrian capital worsened, three top Syrian officials close to al-Assad were killed in a bombing attack in Damascus. They are Syria’s Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, a driving force behind the fight against opposition forces; Deputy Defense Minister and Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat; and the Assistant to the Vice-President Hassan Turkomani. While the government issued a statement vowing to take revenge, Bashar al-Assad had reportedly refrained from public appearance to condemn the attacks. It is unknown if him not appearing in public is a precautionary measure or not, some media outlets speculate he might have fled the capital. It was already reported that al-Assad’s wife, Asma left the country for Russia, a claim which the Russian government refuted. 

Many, including the White House officials, believe yesterday’s blasts in Damascus killing the security elite of Syrian government are a sign of crumbling of al-Assad government. To assure the public and the international community it is not so, the Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad briefly appeared on state TV, during what was said to be a swearing in ceremony of the new Defense Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij. The location of the ceremony had not been named. The brief appearance on TV resembles the appearance of the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in an unnamed location as the opposition forces fought a brutal war against the Qaddafi regime. This kind of appearances often prove the leadership is tuning in from secure unknown refuge, and not from government offices.

Amid the speculations about al-Assad family’s disappearance, government forces continue to battle the opposition forces. Thousands of Syrians fled across the Syrian border into Lebanon today. Densely populated capital of Damascus is being emptied as thousands of cars leave taking most basic belongings. According to Associated Press, nearly 17,000 people have died since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, the larger share of which are civilians. The government stated more than 4,000 security officers were killed.

Photo: Courtesy of Flickr

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