A video aired by the Syrian state television on Sunday showed embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an unusual rush to end his Eid al-Fitr prayer before the Imam in a mosque in the capital Damascus.
Assad appeared turning his head to the right as he recited “salaam” even before the imam did so. Reciting “salaam” at the end of the Muslim prayer is one of its essential pillars, and it is not acceptable that some recite it before an imam performing prayers.
The video showed the prayer lasted for about 11 minutes, a much shorter span than customary Eid al-Fitr prayers.
Unlike previous Eids, the embattled president did not pray in al-Amawi Grand Mosque. Instead, he and regime members chose to pray in a less grand Rihab al-Hamad Mosque.
Observers said Assad possibly chose the Hamad mosque because it was a more secure venue as the president forces fight armed revolt in the capital and elsewhere in the country.
Rihab al-Hamad Mosque is closer to the Presidential Palace than the historic grand mosque, which is also surrounded by old-structures that could conceal opposition attackers.
Among the senior officials present for prayers were Syria’s Foreign Minister Waleed al-Muallim and Minister of Religious Endowments Abdul al-Sattar al-Sayid.
The prayer ceremony aired on TV was only around 11 minutes, making it an unprecedentedly short one.
It was Assad’s first appearance in public after a bombing in the Syrian capital last month killed the country’s defense minister and three other top security officials.
Eid al-Fitr, a three-day religious occasion Muslims celebrate after the holy month of Ramadan, has not brought any halt of violence in Syria.
Activists reported on Sunday shelling of a mosque in al-Rustun city in Homs while worshippers were performing the early morning eid prayers.
The July 18 rebel bombing of the state-security headquarters in the capital was a major blow to Assad. His brother-in-law was among five officials killed in the attack.
The Syrian regime has suffered a series of other setbacks over the past month that point to a loosening of its grip on the country.
There has also been a steady stream of high-level defections by government officials, diplomats and generals, though Assad's inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Assad’s appearance comes amid much speculation on the whereabouts of Vice President Farouq al-Sharie, who was said by some members of the Free Syrian Army to have defected to the opposition. On Saturday, his office denied the reports and said al-Sharaa “did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country.”
The statement said he had worked since the start of the uprising to find a peaceful, political solution and welcomed the appointment of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new international mediator for Syria.
Brahimi, who hesitated for days before accepting a job that France’s U.N. envoy Gerard Araud called an “impossible mission”, will replace former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is leaving at the end of the month.
Annan’s six-point plan to stop the violence and advance towards negotiations was based on an April ceasefire agreement which never took hold. The conflict has deepened since then.
Eid protests against Assad
Assad’s forces have resorted increasingly to air power to hold back lightly armed insurgents in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and business hub. More than 18,000 people have died in Syria’s bloodshed and about 170,000 have fled the country, according to the United Nations.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 190 Syrians were killed on Saturday, 62 of them in Damascus and the surrounding countryside as a result of bombardment by government forces. The figure could not be independently verified.
The Observatory added that protesters took to the streets in and around Damascus and in Idlib province in the northwest to demand an end to Assad’s rule following Sunday’s Eid rites.
Aleppo has been the theatre for some of the heaviest recent fighting. Rebels hold several districts in the country’s largest city and have tried to push back an army counter-offensive.
In the town of Tel, north of Damascus, local activists said the bodies of 40 people killed by bombardment were gathered together for a joint burial. A picture showed what appeared to be several corpses wrapped in colourful blankets on a street.
Syrian state television reported that government forces had thwarted several attempts by armed groups to infiltrate Syria from neighboring Lebanon, a country whose own fragile stability has been put under strain by the conflict next door.
Observers set to leave
Brahimi will have a new title, Joint Special Representative for Syria. Diplomats said this was to distance him from Annan, who complained that his peaceful transition plan was crippled by splits between Western powers - who want Assad out - and Russia - his weightiest ally - and China in the U.N. Security Council.
Describing the situation in Syria as “absolutely terrible”, Brahimi told Reuters he urgently needed to clarify what support the United Nations can give him and said it was too soon to say whether Assad should step down - in contrast to Annan who said it was clear the Syrian leader “must leave office.”
The last U.N. observers who deployed in Syria four months ago to monitor Annan’s failed ceasefire planned to leave after midnight on Sunday, when their mandate expires.
They will leave a “liaison office” open in Damascus after their departure, though its size and role have not been finalised, a U.N. spokeswoman said.