x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Has Assad's No2 defected in Syria?

Mystery surrounds the status and whereabouts of Bashar Al Assad's vice president Farouk Al Sharaa; some reports suggested he had defected and others that he was under house arrest.

President Bashar Al Assad's deputy, Farouk Al Sharaa was reported to have defected to the Syrian opposition and fled to neighbouring Jordan.
President Bashar Al Assad's deputy, Farouk Al Sharaa was reported to have defected to the Syrian opposition and fled to neighbouring Jordan.

Confusion last night surrounded the status and whereabouts of Bashar Al Assad's vice president Farouk Al Sharaa; some reports suggested he had defected and others that he was under house arrest, while the Syrian government claimed he was at work as usual.

A former Syrian minister who joined the opposition this year said Mr Al Sharaa had tried to leave the country. "Sharaa's position is well known. He has been trying to leave Syria," the former deputy oil minister Abdo Hussameddin told Al Arabiya television. "But there are a series of circumstances that prevent him from leaving, especially the fact that he has been under house arrest for some time."

However, Mr Al Sharaa's office said he "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country".

Mr Sharaa, 73, is the most senior Sunni Muslim official in Mr Al Assad's Alawite-led regime, and has served for decades under both the president and his father and predecessor Hafez Al Assad. But he has been seen in public only a few times since the uprising against the regime erupted in March last year.

The vice president's cousin Yaroub, a colonel in the military, defected to the opposition this month. Mr Al Assad's regime has suffered a string of prominent defections, though his inner circle and military have largely remained loyal.

The highest-ranking political defector so far, Mr Al Assad's former prime minister Riad Hijab, has gone to Qatar. It is among a group of Arabian Gulf nations that have backed the uprising. The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said last week he had information that Mr Al Assad's regime would be rocked by more "spectacular" defections soon.

The Syrian government yesterday welcomed the appointment of a former Algerian diplomat as the United Nations envoy in efforts to halt the civil war.

Lakhdar Brahimi takes over from Kofi Annan, who is stepping down on August 31 after his attempts to broker a ceasefire failed. His appointment comes as UN observers have begun leaving Syria, with their mission officially over at the end of today.

Their deployment this year had been one of the few concrete achievements in Mr Annan's peace attempts. The observers had been intended to watch over a ceasefire, but no truce ever took hold.

Also yesterday, Lebanese security officials said five more Syrians had been abducted in Beirut's southern suburbs overnight. It was not clear who carried out the latest abductions, but earlier kidnappings were carried out by Al Mikdad clan, a powerful Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon.

The clan says it has snatched a number of Syrians and a Turk in Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction of their relative, Hassane Salim Al Mikdad, by rebels in Syria.

The United Kingdom charity ShelterBox suspended planned shelter deliveries to Syria because of the kidnappings. The group halted planned shipments via Lebanon after learning a local government contact had been targeted by the Lebanese Shiite clan.

In new violence yesterday, regime air strikes and shelling hit rebel-held areas across the country, including the southern province of Daraa, the northern region of Aleppo, Deir El Zour to the east and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Activists said at least 15 people were killed in the Deir El Zour area.

Forty bodies were found piled on a street in the Damascus suburb of Al Tal, according to activist groups. The 40 had all been killed by bullet wounds, but their identity was not known, nor was it known who had killed them, said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"It is not clear if they were civilians, army defectors or soldiers," he said. Also unclear was whether they had been killed at the place where the bodies were found or if residents had collected the bodies there.

* With reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters