Fate of Syria VP Casts Shadows on End of Ramadan Festivities

Damascus denies Farouk Shara's defection, yet fails to provide proof; meanwhile, departure of the UN observer team may fan the flames of violence across the country.

Sunday marks the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday celebrated at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Hundreds of thousands gather around the Ka'aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, while millions more across the Muslim world celebrate in their homes.

Syrian President Bashar Assad joined in the festivities, marking the holiday with a prayer at a Damascus mosque. The footage broadcast on Sunday morning by Syrian television showed Assad standing besides Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and several clerics in the small Al-Muhajiroun mosque.

The choice of this specific mosque was not coincidental: Only a limited number of people can attend it during prayers, making the task of Assad's security personnel much less complicated. And yet the airing of the footage is interesting in itself: Assad is trying to display business as usual, but the pictures convey anything but usual.

Missing from the footage is Vice President Farouk Shara. Assad's supporters will likely argue that Shara, a Sunni from Daraa, was "spending time with his family" or "feeling under the weather." Still, the absence of the regime's second-in-command is suspicious, particularly in light of the various reports of Shara's defection.

Despite widespread reports of his defection to another country, one must assume that 74-year-old Shara is probably still in Syria. The question here is whether he is there by choice and whether he wished to defect. Logic would have it that if Shara were in Jordan as reported in the past few days, he would have relayed some kind of official message or appeared in the media. He hasn't. On the other hand, opposition representatives were widely quoted in the Arab media on Saturday (not including Al-Jazeera) as saying that Shara is indeed in Jordan and has defected from the regime.

Syrian television and Hezbollah's Al-Manar channel officially denied the reports of Shara's defection, claiming he was in Damascus. Yet if this is true, why hasn't the regime made sure Shara appears before the cameras? The reality, it seems, is much more complicated. Abdo Hussam el Din, the country's former deputy oil minister who defected from the regime, recently claimed that Shara has been placed under house arrest. This may be the case, while another possibility is that Shara is hiding elsewhere in Syria.

What is clear this morning is that the holiday spirit may lure Assad into a mosque, but it has no bearing on the reality on the ground. 19 people were killed across the country on Sunday morning alone, following an almost customary bloody weekend. And yet it seems that the worst still lies ahead: Tonight at midnight the UN observer team's mission – which began in April - will come to an end. Chief observer General Babacar Gaye spoke with journalists on Sunday, charging both sides in Syria with crimes against humanity.

Robert Fisk wrote Sunday in The Independent that while Gaye promised that the United Nations would not abandon Syria, his team members were quick to pack their bags. Fisk, who has been following the Middle East closely for decades, warns that the observers' departure may turn Syria into "a free-fire zone." He adds that Assad's regime has so far managed to remain intact, and shows little signs of impending collapse.

Yet even Fisk admits this assessment may only be relevant to central Damascus; the regime has lost control of the situation outside the capital, and the entire country has turned into a black hole of non-stop massacres and violence. The UN's departure surely will not make the situation better – and it seems that even Gaye's holiday greeting to the Syrian people will be of little help.