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Syria's president makes rare public appearance

By Bryony Jones, CNN
March 21, 2013 -- Updated 1920 GMT (0320 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Normally camera-shy Syrian president makes surprise visit to arts education center
  • Bashar al-Assad met families of those killed in "terrorist attacks", state news agency reports
  • YouTube video of visit shows al-Assad arriving at the center at the wheel of his own car
  • Official Syrian news agency says president, first lady later spoke to "families of martyrs"

(CNN) -- Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has made a rare "surprise" visit to an educational center in the capital, Damascus, in an apparent effort to show that it is "business as usual" for the regime, despite the country's brutal civil war.

A video posted on YouTube by al-Assad's office shows him driving up to the building in the al-Tijara neighborhood -- at the wheel of his own car -- on Wednesday and walking inside, alone, watched by families from balconies and apartments nearby.

The film then shows the president, wearing a dark suit and tie, smiling as he is greeted with applause, before talking to those who have gathered to meet him. He is seen hugging one woman, shaking hands with a man, and putting his hand on the shoulder of a young woman wearing a pink headscarf.

Middle East expert Christopher Phillips, of think tank Chatham House, said the video and reports of the meeting chime with efforts to portray al-Assad as an approachable man of the people.

He said the visit was part of efforts to convince those inside and outside the country that life is carrying on as normal in Syria. The regime has continued to pass laws and hold elections in spite of the deadly conflict tearing the country apart.

Assad's wife ventures out to the opera

Read more: Al-Assad, defined by violence

"The pretense is a vital part of the strategy," he told CNN. "The regime still believes it will win the war; to do that it is important that al-Assad is not seen as a deranged, butchering madman, but as a normal person.

"They believe that they can survive isolation, that they can defeat what they call the 'insurgency' and that, after a time, they will be reintegrated into the international fold... but they have to maintain that pretense."

A closer look at Syria
Land area:
185,180 square kilometers (slightly larger than North Dakota)

Population:
22,530,746 (2012 estimate)

Capital:
Damascus (population 2.5 million)

Largest city:
Aleppo (2.9 million)

Largest ethnic group:
Arab (90.3%)

Religions:
Sunni Muslim 74%
Other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%
Christian 10%

Source: CIA Factbook

Up to 70,000 Syrians are believed to have died in the Syrian conflict since March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in February.

What began amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring as an uprising against Bashar al-Assad has spiraled into a bitter civil war which now threatens to destabilize the Middle East.

More than a million refugees have fled the fighting, crossing the border and flooding into overloaded camps in neighboring Turkey and Jordan.

Read more: Profile: Asma al-Assad

Syria's official SANA news agency reported that the president and his wife Asma later met the families of teachers and students "martyred due to terrorist attacks" to offer them support.

SANA quoted al-Assad as saying: "Today Syria as a whole is wounded... there is no one that didn't lose one of his or her relatives, a brother, father or a mother," before insisting that the country is involved in "a battle of will and steadfastness," calling on the audience to remain strong to protect others.

It was the second public outing for the normally camera-shy al-Assad family in less than a week, after months out of the limelight: Asma al-Assad was spotted at a "Mother's Rally" at the Damascus Opera House last weekend, scotching rumors she had fled the country for Russia, the UK or Jordan.

Philips said the reappearance of Syria's glamorous Sunni first lady was highly significant, with the civil war becoming increasingly sectarian in recent months.

"In marrying Asma -- a non-veiled, secular Sunni -- Bashar al-Assad, who is Alawite, crossed the sectarian divide, and their relationship helped create an image of Syria as an integrationist, non-sectarian society," he explained.

"Making sure she is seen in public, showing that she is still with him, supporting him is very important... it is part of the show of defiance, of them saying 'We're still here, and we're still doing things our way.'"

Read more: Getting to know Syria's first family

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