The violence Saturday left at least 145 people dead across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, stayed out of public view, as he has done since a bombing in Damascus on July 18 that killed four top security officials.
Amid the turmoil, gunmen kidnapped 48 Iranian pilgrims from a tour group bus in Damascus. The group was on its way to a Muslim shrine popular with Shiites shortly before noon when the bus was attacked, according to an Iranian Embassy official in Damascus quoted by Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency.
A week ago, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had proclaimed the defeat of rebel forces in Damascus and predicted they would soon be defeated in Aleppo, as well. But the renewed fighting in the capital, as well as the mass kidnapping, signaled the possibility that Syrian security forces are losing their grip on the city.
The Iranian Embassy official noted that Iran’s government has halted official tours to Syria, presumably because of the widespread violence, and that the pilgrims kidnapped Saturday had arranged a private tour.
A photo of the bus published by Fars News showed a cracked windshield with at least one bullet hole, suggesting that the gunmen had fired on the vehicle to force the driver to stop.
Iranians have been kidnapped before in Syria. Since the country’s uprising started in March 2011, 32 Iranians, including seven engineers, 22 pilgrims and three truck drivers, have been kidnapped there, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Although 27 of them have been released, five — two engineers and the three drivers — are being held by armed groups.
None of the armed opposition groups in Syria had asserted responsibility for the kidnapping by late Saturday, but a Syrian government official quoted by Fars News blamed “terrorists linked to the Free Syrian Army.” Col. Malik Kurdi, the deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army, said when reached by phone that he had no information about the identity of the perpetrators.
An Iranian Embassy official quoted by IRNA said that the pilgrims had been located and that the embassy was following up with Syrian officials to secure their release.
The kidnapping could represent an attempt by opposition groups to pressure the Iranian government, which is Assad’s strongest regional ally, to withdraw its support for or denounce the Syrian government, analysts say.