DAMASCUS/DAVOS - Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad attended prayers at a Damascus mosque on Thursday, in a rare public appearance, as his troops bombarded rebel districts of Homs in the centre of the country.
Key Damascus regional ally Iran, meanwhile, warned that Syria as it near a second full year of conflict was unlikely to see peace in 2013.
Assad joined prayers at Al-Afram mosque in a northern district of Damascus to mark the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday. Appearing in public for the first time since a rare speech on January 6, he was shown in a live broadcast, flanked by Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, the highest Sunni religious authority in Syria, and the religious endowments minister.
The minister, Mohammed Abdel Settar, earlier called for “million man prayers” at mosques on Friday to appeal for the re-establishment of security in the country, rocked by a deadly anti-regime uprising for the past 22 months.
After the brief ceremony in Damascus, attended by dozens of religious clerics and laymen, the president smiled and seemed at ease as a crowd gathered around him to offer holiday greetings.
In Aleppo in northern Syria, clashes raged and the 22-month conflict has displaced thousands of people. “The family did not get together to celebrate the feast this year,” said Abu Mohammed, an Aleppo resident.
The army shelled besieged areas of Homs in a fifth straight day of fighting in western districts of the city, where 31 soldiers, 16 rebels and 26 civilians have been killed since Sunday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Among those killed on Thursday were two children and a woman, it added.
The Syrian Revolution General Authority, a network of opposition activists on the ground, said regime troops used heavy artillery and clashed with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in an attempt to storm the west side of the city.
The regime has “escalated its attack on Homs city and its environs in order to disperse the people on sectarian lines and achieve what it believes will be a final victory,” said the Syrian National Council (SNC), a key opposition group.
“The regime uses the most heinous criminal methods against human beings... shelling with heavy weaponry, blocking off areas to prevent the bare necessities - food, medicine - from entering,” it charged.
The SNC called for a nationwide rescue campaign, for the “FSA all over Syria to aid their comrades in Homs with equipment and men” and for aid agencies to give priority to the trapped and displaced people of Homs.
As at least 69 people were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, air raids struck the embattled town of Daraya near Mazzeh military airbase southwest of the capital Damascus and the rebel-held town of Yabrud, the Observatory said.
The violence raged as Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Danaie-Far, told AFP that Syria is unlikely to see peace this year. “I believe it is far-fetched,” he said.
However, “we have also noted there were some signals in the past one to two months,” he added of remarks by UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi which he said Iran interpreted as marking the “end of the process of military options.”
At the same time, Danaie-Far said he believed that not all rebels fighting Assad’s forces can be called “terrorists,” a term broadly used by the Syrian regime for insurgents.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon made a fresh appeal to members of the Security Council on Thursday to overcome their divisions and find a solution to the bloody civil war in Syria.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ban said it would be an “abdication” of the world body’s responsibilities if it fails to unify over the crisis that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
Russia and China have used their powers as permanent members of the 15-member Security Council to block three resolutions that would have threatened sanctions against Bashar al-Assad. Embattled UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is due to brief the full council next Tuesday.
“It will be essential for the Security Council to overcome the deadlock, and find the unity that will make meaningful action possible,” Ban told the annual gathering of the global elite in a Swiss ski resort.
“The alternative - letting the sides fight it out, resigning ourselves to Syria’s destruction with all its regional implications - is too costly and unacceptable,” he added.
“That would be an abdication of our collective responsibility to protect. The world, and above all the Security Council, must uphold its responsibilities.”
The UN secretary general appealed to world powers to increase their funding for aid for people displaced by the 22-month conflict, ahead of a donors conference in Kuwait on January 30. Ban also renewed his call for all sides to stop arming the conflict’s warring parties.