ِThe custom in Syria over the past fifty years, first during the reign of Hafez Assad and then his son, was to show up unannounced at a random mosque every year to pray on the occasions of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. This year, more than 11 years after the start of the Syrian revolution, and 12 years since Bashar was last seen in the city of Aleppo, the Ibn Abbas Mosque next to the Al-Bassel Roundabout in Aleppo was chosen for this year’s unannounced visit. Bashar Assad’s presence in Aleppo on the first day of Eid was shocking and surprising to many people as some used to believe that he was forbidden to visit Aleppo according to the agreement reached between Russia and Turkey in 2016.
This visit to Aleppo was a challenge to the Syrian people and his unspoken message was: “I am here and I am still in charge.” The impression that Assad gave after the end of the sermon and prayer when he was talking to the well-chosen people present, was that he is still the president of Syria. He was speaking as if he had been a teacher in a school lecturing his students.
The imams of all the mosques in Aleppo were called to leave their own congregations and be in attendance at the Ibn Abbas Mosque for the Eid al-Adha prayer on Saturday morning. Dr. Mahmoud Akkam, who was chosen to lead the prayer, was visibly nervous and did not quote any Quranic verses as is usually done at the beginning of any sermon and instead spent most of time praising Assad from the beginning to the end of his speech.
As for the security aspect, the mosque was chosen for its location near the entrance to the city next to the Al-Bassel Roundabout, and is a sparsely inhabited residential area which gives comfort to Bashar and his vast security escort. It is an area where Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces and allied militias have the upper hand exercising full control over the region. Incidentally, there are mosques inside the city of Aleppo that have much greater historical and religious significance, but the choice fell on this particular mosque because it was an easier location for protecting Bashar because it is far from the city center with its crowded buildings and many residents.
The location choice for this year’s visit by Bashar continues the symbolic nature of previous locations that had once been under opposition control, such as the al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus where he appeared for Eid prayers last May, and Homs during previous Eids. These visits have all been intended to impress upon the people that Bashar is present in all of Syria, even though his visits have not always been well-received by the people whose cities he has ravaged and destroyed.
As for the areas he visited in Aleppo with his family on Friday night, they are all currently under the control of Iran (such as the thermal power station) and others within a very tight security framework.
It goes without saying that the Russians gave the green light for Assad’s Iran-protected visit to Aleppo. But the most important question for the Syrian people in this regard is whether Turkey also gave the visit its green light. If so, this is a game-changer in the Syrian arena and the region as a whole.