Syria: Bashar al-Assad sends personal message to west as he takes wife and children to rally

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad sent a very personal challenge to the world, taking his wife and young children on a filmed walkabout with cheering supporters as he promised to finish off the uprising against his rule.

By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
7:53PM GMT 11 Jan 2012

Attending a rally in Damascus, Mr Assad reiterated the central theme of his speech on Tuesday, his first since June, that the outside world would not stop him seeking a military rather than negotiated end to the revolt. He said he wanted to “draw from the strength” of those still backing him. “Without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end,” he said, in deliberately and unusually casual mode, with open-necked shirt.

The appearance alongside him of his British-born wife Asma came as a surprise. A former investment banker who was brought up in London by her Syrian parents, a cardiologist and diplomat, and attended Queen’s College, a London private school, she was once seen as a figurehead of reformist elements in the regime.

She had kept such a low profile since the start of the uprising that she was at one stage rumoured to have fled the country and returned to Britain, a claim her presence at the rally in the historic Umayyad Square may have been designed to quell.

The presence of Mr Assad’s children was an even greater act of defiance, given the family nature of the regime which he inherited from his father and which he now runs with his brother and brother-in-law.

His son, Hafez, 10, is named after his father, whose coup and 30-year dictatorship created modern Syria. His daughter, Zain, is 8, and younger son Karim, 6. The children appeared confused and frightened in pictures beamed across the world from the scene.

Opposition figures were already accusing Mr Assad of being in denial over his speech, in which he poured scorn on the Arab League peace mission to the country and made little mention of allegations of abuse levelled against his forces by the United Nations and others.

“He still speaks of the existence of a global conspiracy against Syria,” Omar al-Khani, of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, told The Daily Telegraph from Damascus. “But who killed more than six thousand people in Syria so far?”

Earlier in the day, one member of the Arab League monitoring mission resigned, saying it was a “farce” that was being orchestrated to buy time and hunt down activists who spoke to them.

The observer, Anwar Malek, a prominent Algerian writer, said what he had seen in Syria was a “humanitarian disaster”. “The regime isn’t committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people,” he said in a dramatic interview with Al-Jazeera television, while still wearing his orange observer’s jacket.

“The regime has gained a lot of time that has helped it to implement its plan. They wanted to use this mission and they’ve sent spies and intelligence officers with our team to act as drivers and minders to get our information and as soon as we left an area they attacked people.” The League decided at a meeting on Sunday to push ahead with the mission and even expand it despite criticism that it was achieving little. It is now under even more pressure since Mr Assad’s speech.

The League was further humiliated at the United Nations on Tuesday night when the assistant secretary-general, Lynn B. Pascoe, said that 400 people had been killed in the ten days after the observers arrived, a rate higher than the average according to Susan Rice, the United States’ ambassador.

The League justified the continuance of the mission by saying it had reduced the level of violence.

Activists claim the latest atrocity was the killing of a four-month-old girl, Afaf Mahmoud al-Sarakbi, whose body allegedly showed signs of beating when it was returned to her family though the cause of her death could not be verified independently.

She was with her father, an activist, and mother when they were seized trying to escape from Homs two weeks ago, activists said. The parents have not been seen since.

“These are the reforms of the Assad regime – the torture and killing of children,” Mr Khani said.

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