In a rare public appearance Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared at a mosque in Damascus to attend prayers, Agence France-Presse reported. Assad’s appearance comes at a moment of increased uncertainty over Russian troop and equipment accessions inside the conflict-torn state.
During the service, Assad led Eid al-Adha prayers with Muslim clerics. Syria’s state-run news agency SANA reported that civilians were present as well as other members of Assad's Baath political party.
“Syria knows the real Islam, atop the minarets and in the mosques,” said Minister of Religious Endowment Ahmed Samer Qabbani, according to SANA. “We ask God to defend our country against evil and harm, and to grant success to President Bashar al-Assad.”
Assad issued a wage increase for public sector workers on Wednesday ahead of his appearance, AFP reported. Assad’s public appearance comes at a moment of U.S. uncertainty over Russia’s actions in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed Russia’s force and equipment build-up in Syria Tuesday, saying it was consistent with the way it protects its own forces. “It is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type represents basically force protection,” Kerry said.
Satellite imagery released earlier this week appeared to show that Russia was building two military bases in Syria, including a weapons depot near the city of Latakia. Reports indicated that approximately 200 Russian military personnel also had been sent to Syria.
The U.S. has long called for the removal of Assad, and the U.S. and Russia have agreed to hold talks over the situation in Syria.
“They are going to have to overcome big obstacles, one of which is, 'What is the place of Assad in all of this?'” Steven Pifer, former American ambassador to Ukraine, told International Business Times.
The war in Syria began in 2011 and has killed more than 240,000 people and displaced millions. Neighboring countries have shouldered a burden as Syrians flee to escape the conflict and thousands of Syrians refugees have moved on to the European Union to seek asylum, prompting a refugee crisis.
Since the conflict began, Assad has limited his number of public appearance usually appearing on official holidays or at prayer services.