WASHINGTON – Embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad denied claims that rebel
forces attacked his motorcade on Thursday as he was traveling to a Damascus
mosque for Id al-Fitr prayers.
The rebel claim, if true, constitutes the
first credible attempt on Assad’s life since the start of the Syrian war more
than two years ago.
Assad has avoided public events since the rebellion
began, and typically dispatches a decoy motorcade when moving through the Syrian
“Rebels permeate the city, although they do not control it,”
said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise
Institute in Washington. “No regime official in his right mind would stroll down
The Tahrir al-Sham rebel brigade, a unit of the Western-
backed Free Syrian Army, said it had fired several artillery shells toward
Assad’s convoy in the heart of Damascus and that at least some hit their
Syria’s Revolutionary Command Council confirmed this report,
saying that mortar shells had been fired in the al-Maliki neighborhood, where
Assad’s presidential office is located.
Video footage that the rebels
distributed showed smoke rising from what they said was al-Maliki, and activists
in the area reported confirmation of the mortar fire.
opposition groups voiced concerns that the footage might be old tape.
well-known rebel activist and blogger, Wahid Saqr, claimed to have confirmation
that an attack had taken place but that the president had not been present in
the motorcade – implying either that he had already exited the convoy or that
rebels had mistakenly targeted his decoy entourage.
denied the reports.
“The news is wholly untrue,” Information Minister
Omran Zoabi said.
In the past, rebels have targeted Assad’s residences in
Damascus, and a bombing in the capital last year killed four members of his
inner circle, but there have been no reports of Assad coming under
Firas al-Bitar, head of the Tahrir al-Sham Brigade, said his
fighters had carried out reconnaissance of Assad’s motorcade route and fired 120
mm. artillery shells toward the president’s convoy early on
Bitar told local Arab media he had been tipped off about
Assad’s Thursday route to the mosque.
State Department spokeswoman Jen
Psaki declined to comment on the legitimacy of Assad being treated as a military
target, saying only that his days as the nominal leader of Syria “are still
Fighting has intensified around Damascus in recent days, and
activists are claiming that Assad has once again used sarin nerve gas against
Free Syrian Army troops near Yarmuk refugee camp.
“We’re still looking
into the specifics of this,” Psaki said on the sarin allegations, adding that
the US was “always concerned” when claims of chemical weapons use
Local reports also said Thursday that rebels had brought down an
Iranian cargo plane during its landing at Damascus Airport.
sign of defiance from the insurgents, a Syrian opposition leader crossed into
the country from Jordan for the first time on Thursday, signaling greater
backing from Amman for the opposition battling Assad.
Ahmad Jarba, the
president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, crossed into Syria to
attend Id al-Fitr prayers at a mosque in the contested border province of
Syrian opposition sources viewed Jarba’s brief visit to Tel
Shehab, which would likely have required approval from Jordanian authorities, as
reflecting a shift in Amman toward more public support for the
Fearing that Assad could be replaced by Islamist armed
groups, Jordan has kept diplomatic and security channels open with Syrian
authorities while backing units of the Free Syrian Army operating in Deraa,
birthplace of the uprising against four decades of Assad family
Washington and its Arab allies hope to build up the capabilities of
the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition umbrella organization to
act as a counterweight to Islamist rebel groups such as the al- Qaida-linked
Ahmad Nima, head of the Jordanian- and Western-backed
Deraa Military Council, accompanied Jarba on his visit to Tel Shehab, where
thousands of Syrians have been stranded for months after Jordan all but shut its
border to refugees.
Jarba inspected food parcels and greeted refugees at
a rundown school, including a woman from the city of Homs tending to her wounded
daughter, according to video footage his aides took.
“There are difficult
times, but they will pass. We are your servants,” Jarba told the
“Victory will come, God willing, to Damascus and Homs and in
The previous day, he led a Syrian National Coalition delegation in
talks with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh, the first publicized meeting
of its kind.
Jordan’s Petra news agency said Jarba, who has been touring
Europe and the Gulf to drum up military and humanitarian support, briefed Joudeh
on the trip.
A member of the delegation said the meeting had centered on
easing Jordanian restrictions on refugee entry, and that the participants
discussed a stalled US-Russian proposal for a peace conference in
“The Jordanians support our view that we cannot go to Geneva
unless there is a real chance it will produce a transitional government with
full powers. Otherwise, the coalition will lose all credibility with the Syrian
people,” the source said.
Jarba, son of a tribal leader from the eastern
province of Deir al-Zor, was elected in a close ballot as the president of the
coalition last month, edging out a Qatari-backed candidate.
effectively stopped allowing in Syrian refugees in the past three months, adding
to the hardship of many thousands seeking to flee the country, aid workers and
The kingdom, a US ally, was receiving hundreds of
thousands of Syrian refugees, but now says international assistance to help host
them has not been forthcoming.