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Assad makes public appearance after Syria wildfires

A firefighting plane tries to extinguish a forest fire near the Isralei military base of Har Dov on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, on October 10, 2020. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)
A firefighting plane tries to extinguish a forest fire near the Isralei military base of Har Dov on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, on October 10, 2020 [JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images]

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made a rare public appearance yesterday to inspect the damage caused by wildfires in the coastal province of Latakia, with state-run media showing him allegedly talking with and listening to civilians.

The wildfires have been ravaging the Syrian countryside in the west of the country for months during the summer, and were revived in Latakia, Tartus and Homs last week. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 156 wildfires emerged between Thursday and Sunday.

As the fires were then tackled by the authorities and died down, Assad visited one of the hardest-hit areas of Latakia, the province which he himself hails from and is a stronghold of the ruling Alawites and support for Assad’s regime.

Talking to a large crowd of men on his public appearance, Al-Assad stated: “This is a national catastrophe…humanitarian, economic and environmental.” He guaranteed support for the areas hit and those affected, claiming that “The state will bear the largest burden in offering this support.”

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His visit, however, was also criticised by some as being misleading and an example of false reporting for making it seem as if the president was genuinely talking to civilians who were affected. One activist on Twitter named Mohamed Al Neser questioned the purposes of Al-Assad’s appearance, saying that the vast majority of those surrounding him were his security guards, regime officials and controlled media operatives. He posted edited pictures of the visit, highlighting in different colours those operatives.

If Al-Assad’s public appearance was indeed simply a propaganda campaign orchestrated by the regime, it would come after numerous other incidents showing it in a positive light were also previously revealed to be staged, such as pro-Assad protests which were set up by regime intelligence and which people were forced to attend months ago.

As a result of the fires, three people are reported to have died, over 70 people were admitted to hospitals, up to 25,000 residents are estimated to be displaced, and as many as 140,000 suffer from the effects of the wildfires on their homes, farmland, and their access to government and health services.

The wildfires come at a time when Syria is already suffering from a shortage of essential supplies such as wheat, as well as from an economic crisis due to regime corruption, international sanctions, and the ongoing nine-year-long conflict in the country.

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