Assad denies Syrian rebel claim of assassination attempt

If true, claim constitutes first credible attempt on Assad’s life since the start of the Syrian war more than two years ago.

Assad attends Eid al-Fitr prayers 370 (photo credit: Syrian State Television)
Assad attends Eid al-Fitr prayers 370
(photo credit: Syrian State Television)
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 capital.
“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 main street.”
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 target.
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.
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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.
But other opposition groups voiced concerns that the footage might be old tape.
One 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.
Assad’s government 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 fire.
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 Thursday.
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 numbered.”
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 arose.
Local reports also said Thursday that rebels had brought down an Iranian cargo plane during its landing at Damascus Airport.
In another 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 Deraa.
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 insurgents.
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 rule.
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 al-Nusra Front.
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 women.
“Victory will come, God willing, to Damascus and Homs and in Hama.”
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 Geneva.
“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.
Jordan has 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 diplomats say.
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.