BEIRUT — A rebel group claimed it struck Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s motorcade with shellfire Thursday, shortly before he attended prayers in Damascus to mark a major Muslim holiday, exposing his potential vulnerability to attack despite a string of recent advances against rebel forces.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of Assad smiling and greeting people as he arrived for prayers at the Anas bin Malik mosque in the upscale Damascus district of Malki, about a mile from his home, indicating that the president had not been harmed. It was not immediately possible to confirm the date of the footage.
The rebel claim could not be independently verified, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that several shells struck the neighborhood moments before Assad arrived, and two residents of the area said they were awoken by several explosions.
The rebel Tahrir al-Sham Brigade claimed on its Facebook page that the group had hit the convoy as it passed through central Damascus, although the rebel brigade produced no proof. “We just hope that he was injured,” a man who identified himself as Firas Bitar, the head of the brigade, told al-Arabiya satellite television channel.
Another rebel group, Liwa al-Islam, also claimed responsibility.
The government denied that the convoy had been hit. “The news is completely baseless and a mere reflection of the wishes and illusions of some media outlets and the governments standing behind them,” Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi was quoted by the official Syrian Arab News Agency as saying, referring to the Saudi Arabia-funded al-Arabiya.
Although there was no evidence that the shelling had posed any serious threat to Assad, the incident served as a reminder that rebels remain within striking distance of the heart of the capital despite recent gains by loyalist forces. The loyalists have won back territory for the government, notably in the central province of Homs.
The gains have clearly bolstered Assad’s confidence, and this was his third public appearance in a week. But he always attends the Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and he would have been widely expected to drive from his palace in the Mohajireen area to a mosque nearby for the early-morning prayer. The rebel brigade commander, Bitar, said his unit had been tipped off by “intelligence” that Assad’s convoy had left his home and was headed to a mosque.
A resident of Mohajireen said he was jolted awake by six or seven explosions shortly before 7 a.m. and saw smoke rising from the vicinity of Malki and the nearby Ummayed Square. It was the biggest attack in the capital, as well as the closest to Assad’s neighborhood, that he could recall, and he said it instantly occurred to him that this would have been the time Assad was on his way to the mosque.
“We rarely see something like this inside the city and this close to us,” said the man, a lawyer, who did not want to be identified out of fear for his safety. “Usually, there are two or three shells.”
Shellfire inside Damascus was more frequent earlier this year, when the rebels were on the offensive and closing in on the center of the city. The government has since managed to halt the rebel advance, but the opposition has proved more resilient in the Damascus area than in Homs. Rebel fighters have retained control of most of their major strongholds in the suburbs, keeping the rebels in striking distance of the heart of the capital.
Meanwhile, a recent influx of arms to rebel forces appears to have reversed the government’s momentum in some key locations. Rebel fighters captured a key air base near the northern city of Aleppo on Monday after an eight-month siege, and they have launched a new offensive in the coastal province of Latakia, home to many members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.