Where’s Assad? Mystery deepens about Syrian leader

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BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad urged his military Wednesday to boost its fight against rebels, but his written call to arms only deepened a mystery over his whereabouts two weeks after a bomb penetrated his inner circle.

Assad has not spoken publicly since the July 18 bombing killed four of his top security officials — including his brother-in-law — during a rebel assault on the capital, Damascus. The president’s low profile has raised questions about whether he fears for his personal safety as the civil war escalates dramatically.

The United States called the Syrian president a coward for marshaling his forces from the pages of the army’s official magazine.

“We think it’s cowardly, quite frankly, to have a man hiding out of sight, exhorting his armed forces to continue to slaughter the civilians of his own country,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.

Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Syria, said Wednesday that international observers witnessed warplanes firing in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where intense fighting has been raging for 12 days.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Ghosheh said the situation in Aleppo was dire.

“Yesterday, for the first time, our observers saw firing from a fighter aircraft. We also now have confirmation that the opposition is in a position of having heavy weapons, including tanks,” she said, adding that for civilians, there “is a shortage of food, fuel, water and gas.”

The U.N.’s World Food Program said it was sending enough emergency food aid for 28,000 people in the city of 3 million. The U.N. has estimated that some 200,000 residents have fled Aleppo.

As the country delves further into chaos, there are mounting concerns about Syrian rebels carrying out atrocities against regime supporters.

A video posted online, which was impossible to verify independently, appeared to show rebels executing a man they identified as a member of the “shabiha,” or a pro-regime militiaman, in a hail of gunfire. Such developments pose a serious problem for the opposition, which has tried to claim the moral high ground against an authoritarian regime that has been accused of war crimes.

The conflict in Syria, which activists say has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011, has drawn deep international condemnation. But world powers have few options to help beyond diplomacy — in part because of fears that any military intervention could make matters worse. Syria’s close ties to Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon mean that the conflict has the potential to draw in the country’s neighbors.

Arab countries are pushing ahead with a symbolic U.N. General Assembly resolution that tells Assad to resign and turn over power to a transitional government. It also demands that the Syrian army stop its shelling and helicopter attacks and withdraw to its barracks.

A vote is set for Thursday morning.

The draft resolution takes a swipe at Russia and China by “deploring the Security Council failure” to act. Moscow and Beijing have used their veto in the Council three times to kill resolutions that might have opened the door to sanctions on Syria.

While the 193-member General Assembly has no legal mechanism for enforcing such a resolution, it can carry moral and symbolic power if a vote is overwhelming.

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