BREAKING: I know where Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is!

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Well, I don't really know where he is at this precise minute, but I think I have been able to identify where he swore in his new defense minister today. Here is a screen shot from the video of President Assad siting with his new Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij at a secure undisclosed location:

The location of this seems to be a big mystery. Yesterday after the explosion took out some of his top people, the press started to fill with the growing speculation created by the absence of any evidence that Bashar al-Assad had survived the blast. We certainly engaged in it here around my diary, BREAKING: Is Syria's Bashar al-Assad dead or dying?

Then, today, Syrian state TV released a video designed to kill all of that speculation. It was a video without audio that purported to show President Assad swearing in his new Defense Minister today. The picture above is from that video.

CBS This Morning has a piece with the headline:

Where is Bashar Assad?
Speculation is rampant as to the whereabouts of President Bashar Assad. He hasn't been seen publicly for two weeks, since he did an interview with German television, and he made no direct statement after yesterday's bombing.

Some opposition members say he has left Damascus for the heartland of his Alawite tribe, in the coastal city of Latakia. That claim seems unlikely, however, given that Assad's security apparatus is in Damascus and a move to Latakia would appear as the president conceding his capital and backing away from the fight.

On Thursday, state-run television reported that Assad had attended the swearing-in of his new defense minister, but there were no details as to the location of the ceremony.

The Huffington Post posed the same question today in an article titled

"Syria's Bashar Assad Whereabouts Remain Unclear"

The whereabouts of Assad, his wife and their three young children have been a mystery since the attack that killed his brother-in-law and his defense minister. Assad does not appear in public frequently, and his absence was notable following such a serious blow his inner circle.

The state TV announcement appeared aimed at sending the message that Assad is alive, well and still firmly in charge. It said Assad wished the new defense minister good luck but it did not say where the swearing-in took place. Nor did it show any photos or video of the ceremony, as it usually would.

I think this video was shot in the Presidential Palace in Damascus and that's where Bashar al-Assad is, provided, of course, that it was shot today as claimed by the always reliable Syrian government SANA News Agency.

Here is a recent picture of Bashar al-Assad with Kofi Annan on 9 July 2012. You can see that it is the same room.

Here he is again in that same room on 9 August 2011 with Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu, back when they were still friends. Davutogtu even got flowers.

No doubt, this is the place were he normally stages high profile photo ops, and I must say that this shows a lot of guts on the part of Bashar al-Assad, to continue doing business in the usual place so soon after a bomb took out top aids who were doing exactly that, and while, at least from our POV, it is far from clear how and who set the bomb. If that's what he really did today.

On the other hand, it makes the video less valuable in proving exactly what the video release is intended to prove, namely that President Bashar al-Assad is alive and well and on post. Its value is already limited owing to the fact that it has no audio, and thus no way to date it that way, when it would have been so easily to have him speak about the events of the day and erase those doubts.

Now, that we know it was shot at the same location where he often creates such photo-ops, we can't help but speculate on the availability of footage from past meetings with his top brass. Here's a picture of him with some of the top brass, including the new Defense Minister. I wonder how many of them have ever been filmed sitting in that chair opposite Assad?

From EAWorldView we have this:

Some still disputed the "live" appearance of Assad. This morning the website of the State news agency SANA offers no further information --- it is off-line.

11:53 AM PT: The Huffington Post has an article today that also questions the authenticity of the images of Bashar Assad released yesterday:

Bashar Assad Photoshopped? Photos Of Syrian President From Official State Media Appear Doctored
Posted: 07/20/2012 11:32 am

While rumors as to the whereabouts of Syrian President Bashar Assad continue to swirl following an attack that killed four senior regime officials, on Thursday Syrian state media broadcast images of the embattled leader allegedly swearing in the country's new defense minister.

Assad's appearance on state TV, however, did little to settle rumors because the ceremony did not take place before the public. As the Associated Press notes, "The state TV announcement appeared aimed at sending the message that Assad is alive and well. It said Assad, dressed in a blue suit and tie, wished the new defense minister good luck but it did not say where the swearing-in took place."

The article first compares a the picture Bashar al-Assad sitting with Fahd Jassem al-Freij to one where he is sitting with Kofi Annan, like I did last night, and then looks at another released photo:

Though another new photo showing Assad and Syria's new defense minister, also released Thursday, seems just questionable enough to raise eyebrows:

Fahd Jassem al-Freij and Bashar Assad
This is the latest development in Syrian state images. This photo comes from the alleged swearing in of Syria's new Defense Minister, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, after his predecessor was killed in a bomb attack on Wednesday. Not quite as bizarre as last year's thousand-yard stare-fest, but still strangely sterile.

Again, clenched fists, same stance.

The shadows aren't quite as strange as the previous photo, but a couple of things still look fishy. The table seems to head toward the correct vanishing point, but the reflection of the door handle and frame in the floor seems sharply angled.

Ostensibly, there's a chandelier behind Assad, per the reflection in the floor behind him, and another somewhere in front, per the highlight on the top-left corner of the door. That's unclear, however, given that there's no highlight on the table. Perhaps the chandelier is just above the camera.

And perhaps that cream-colored pillar is just out of frame. The placement seems strange, and the highlight, too, with what you see in the mirror.

But who needs mirrors when you've got that floor? You could do your makeup in that floor; and with that lighting and the help of SANA, you'd probably look like a Disney Princess when all is said and done.

It probably sounds like gunshots when you walk in heels in that mausoleum. But Assad wouldn't know anything about that.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Syria's new Defense Minister, left, is sworn in before Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, July 19, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)

It also has a slideshow of past photo releases from SANA that shows that they are very much in the habit of doctoring photos.

5:53 AM PT:

6:26 AM PT: The NY Times is reporting this morning:

Assad Troops Force Rebels to Retreat in Damascus Battle
Published: July 20, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Government forces in Syria struck back on Friday, claiming to have retaken a pocket of Damascus a day after rebel fighters, building on the momentum gained by their brazen assassination of top security officials, seized all four border crossings with Iraq and one into Turkey. Rebels described the latest fighting across Syria as the bloodiest of the 17-month uprising.

The newest developments showed the perils facing the region if Syria sinks deeper into strife, with Iraq reported to have thrown up blast walls to seal its main border crossing with Syria while thousands of Syrians fled toward Lebanon.

Syrian state television also reported that a fourth member of President Bashar al-Assad’s elite circle, Hisham Ikhtiar, the head of general security, had died of wounds sustained in Wednesday’s rebel bombing at a security headquarters buildings.

The attack also killed Asef Shawkat, who was the president’s brother-in-law and a senior security official; the defense minister, Gen. Dawoud A. Rajha; and Maj. Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister. News reports said the funerals of the three men were scheduled for Friday. Maher al-Assad, President Assad’s brother who commands the praetorian guard protecting the family, and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa were said to have presided over a ceremony honoring them.

On Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said a group of rebel fighters claimed to have routed government soldiers in a section of Midan neighborhood, taking over a piece of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. The claim, like most of the reports of fighting and of casualties, could not be independently confirmed.

But on Friday Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory said government forces, fighting back with a superior military machine pitted against an opposition still working predominantly with small-caliber weapons, had retaken Midan, while the number of dead in fighting across the land on Thursday was reported to have risen above 300. Of the dead, 98 were soldiers, 139 civilians and 65 rebels, rebels said.

The figures updated earlier estimates by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights for the death toll on Thursday, claiming that 155 civilians and 93 government soldiers were killed, including nearly 60 civilians in and around Damascus.

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