Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a surprise visit to an educational center in the capital Damascus on Wednesday, the presidency said on its official Facebook page.
“President Assad made a surprise visit to the Educational Center for Fine Arts where the education ministry was honoring the families of students who were martyred as a result of terrorist acts, to honor the parents himself,” the presidency wrote, alongside photos of Assad at the center.
The visit appeared to be Assad’s first public appearance since he attended prayers at a mosque in a northern district of Damascus to mark Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on January 24th.
Before that he had not been seen in public since a rare speech to supporters on January 6, in which he dismissed calls for his removal and said he had no partners with whom to negotiate for an end to the conflict.
In photos posted on the presidency page, Assad is shown meeting with relatives of those killed in the violence that has enveloped his country, killing more than 70,000 people according to United Nations estimates.
In one, he is shown looking at a poster featuring photos of victims, and in another, talking to a group of women, one of whom is clutching his hand.
The education center specializes in training teachers of the fine arts, and is in the Tijara neighborhood of eastern Damascus, near Jawbar district, where fighting has raged for months between regime and rebel forces.
The visit came a day after the regime accused opposition forces of using chemical weapons in their battle to oust Assad, a charge the rebels denied.
Regime, opposition demands investigation into chemical use
Syria's regime and rebels on Wednesday called for international investigations into an alleged chemical weapons attack in the country’s north.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford said there was no evidence that rebels had fired chemical weapons. Washington said it would consult its allies on claims that the regime had used the arms.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters Wednesday morning that he had just requested U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint an independent mission to investigate the attack.
Ja’afari requested Ban on behalf of the Syrian government “to form a specialized, independent and neutral technical mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons yesterday against civilians in the town of Khan al-Assad in Aleppo.” The Syrian government refers to the rebels as “terrorists.”
Ja'afari said Syria asked the secretary-general for assistance “in a sign of good faith, good will, good intentions” to the international community, international public opinion and the Syrian people.
He recalled that the Syrian government had sent a letter to the secretary-general and the U.N. Security Council in December warning of the possible use of chemical weapons and chemicals by rebel groups who would then accuse the government of a chemical weapons attack.
“The Syrian government, if it has such weapons, will never use it against its own population,” Ja'afari said.
The opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, urged a “full international investigation” into the attack on the village in Aleppo.
“The Coalition demands a full international investigation, and asks for a delegation to be sent to inquire and visit the site,” the group said in a statement.
“All evidence now indicates that the Assad regime is using these weapons against its own people. Testimonies and images from the attacks today demonstrate that these banned weapons have been used in what amounts to a crime against humanity.”
Dissidents leave coalition grouping
Meanwhile, at least 12 key members of Syria’s National Coalition said Wednesday they had suspended their membership in the SNC, a day after the election of the first rebel prime minister.
The group of 12 included the Coalition’s deputy Soheir Atassi and spokesman Walid al-Bunni.
Their decision came amid bitter disagreement over the election of Ghassan al-Hitto as the first opposition premier.
Other members who said they had “frozen” their membership in the Coalition included Kamal Labwani, Marwan Hajj Rifai, Yehia al-Kurdi and Ahmad al-Assi Jarba, with sources saying more such announcements were expected.
Though the dissenting members said they had different reasons for their decisions, some expressed their opposition to Hitto’s election, and the process by which he was chosen.
“The Coalition is a non-elected body, and as such it does not have a right to choose a prime minister on a majority vote. There should have been consensus,” Labwani told AFP.
Hitto was elected Tuesday by 35 of approximately 50 Coalition members present in Istanbul, after some 14 hours of consultation. Some members who opposed his election walked out before the vote.
“We Coalition members weren’t elected to represent the Syrians. So the only person Hitto represents is the 35 Coalition members who voted for him. This government is a gift to [President] Bashar al-Assad’s regime, ” Labwani said.
“The key issue is the timing and way in which the voting took place. The Coalition pushed for a majority in a group that was not elected, ” Bunni told AFP. “Each of us had different reasons for freezing our membership. We will release a statement that represents us all in the coming days.”
Atassi announced her decision on her Facebook page: “Because I am a Syrian citizen, I refuse to blindly follow and to be an accessory. I announce I am freezing my membership in the National Coalition.”
Atassi could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Atassi, a secular female activist, was praised for her key role in the Coalition when the group was formed in Doha in November, amid concerns the opposition was dominated by men and Islamists.
Hitto, a former IT executive who has lived in the United States for decades, is expected to name a technocratic government that will move inside Syria, attempting to bring rule of law and basic services to large swathes of rebel-held territory.