Where's Assad? As grip on Syria weakens, his whereabouts come into question

In the days since key military advisers of Syria's President Assad were assassinated in Damascus, reports have him in the Alawite-dominated coastal region, where he is more secure.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (l.) meets with Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Syria's new Defense Minister, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, July 19. Assad attended the swearing in of his new defense minister Thursday, to replace Daoud Rajha who was killed in the July 18 bombing.

With his capital in open revolt and his regime shaken by the brazen assassination of several key advisers in a bomb attack, Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power has not looked less certain since the uprising against his rule began 17 months ago.

Even his whereabouts are being questioned, with various reports asserting that he and his family have fled Damascus for the relative safety of Latakia or Tartous (see map), both port cities on the Mediterranean coast and an area where the Alawite sect – to which the Assad family belongs – predominates. State-run media continue to report that he is in the capital. 

As fighting in Damascus entered a sixth day, panicked residents fled the city and headed toward the nearby border with Lebanon. Up to 30,000 Syrians were said to have entered Lebanon in the past 48 hours, stretching the capabilities of Syria’s tiny neighbor and overwhelming aid agencies. Most of those fleeing the violence in Damascus are well-heeled middle-class people driving their own cars. Some of them likely have properties in Lebanon or will be checking into hotels in Beirut.

The sense that Assad’s edifice of power is gradually crumbling has hastened speculation on his whereabouts after the devastating bomb attack two days ago that killed Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and regime strongman, and two other senior security officials.

A Syrian opposition activist who has lived in hiding in north Lebanon for the past year claims that he was informed by a senior Syrian Army officer that Assad and his wife and three children traveled to Tartous following the bomb attack. The officer is still serving in the Army but is secretly colluding with the opposition, the activist says.

“We couldn’t talk for long because it was not safe, but the officer assured me that Assad and his family moved to Tartous after the bombing,” the activist says.

Tartous is the site of a Russian naval base that is undergoing refurbishment and represents one of only two warm-water seaports available to the Russian Navy. Moscow has proven itself a key defender of the Assad regime, opposing foreign intervention in Syria and blocking Western moves to adopt forceful United Nations resolutions condemning the violence.

Syrian state media, however, said that Assad was in Damascus and broadcast footage of him swearing in a new defense minister to replace Daoud Rajha, who was killed in the July 18 bombing.

Even if it is confirmed that Assad has left Damascus, his reasons for doing so will remain unclear. One possibility is that the family was simply receiving condolences for Shawkat, who was from Mahadle, a small village close to the Lebanese border and 20 miles south of Tartous. An alternative opinion is that Assad has set in motion a much-speculated plan to retreat to the relative safety of the Alawite-populated coastal mountains should the regime begin to lose control of the country.

Reuters yesterday quoted opposition sources and a Western diplomat saying that Assad had moved to the coastal city of Latakia, the main urban center in the Alawite heartland, 45 miles north of Tartous. There is a heavily guarded presidential summer palace on a rocky promontory 12 miles north of Latakia where the Assad family often spends the summer months. With Syria shaken by revolution and bloodshed, however, it is unlikely that the Assad family would choose now for a summer holiday on the coast.

Even traveling to Mahadle is not without risk. If Assad traveled by vehicle, he would have had to pass through the Homs area, where rebel fighters often mount roadside ambushes or blockade the main roads. Alternatively, a trip by helicopter could expose Assad to attacks by militants equipped with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Free Syrian Army claims to have shot down several Syrian military helicopters in recent weeks.

“There are a number of signs that the regime is preparing a strategic retreat to the Alawite homeland on the Syrian coast,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute and author of a book on Syria under Assad's rule. “It’s more than just news reports that he is there.”

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