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Syria (and Beyond) LiveBlog: "Assad's Problems are Everywhere"

See also Egypt Opinion: "Why I Am An Optimist About the Future" (Ghonim)
Wednesday's Egypt, Syria (and Beyond) LiveBlog: Which Story Leads in Cairo?

2033 GMT: Following the BICI report on human rights abuses in the wake of unrest in Bahrain, the Bahraini government is scheduled to shake up their law enforcement structure. And they've picked an American, with vast experience in handling difficult situations, to help out.

Bahrain's Interior Ministry says a former Miami police chief will lead training programs for the Gulf kingdom's forces as part of reforms after an independent report detailed abuses against pro-reform protesters.

The announcement Thursday says John Timoney will head a team of law enforcement advisers from the U.S. and Britain.

Good news, right? Clearly, the Bahraini police need training, leadership, and restraint, so Timoney will restore the honor of the police force. The St. Petersburg Times, back in 2003, reported on Timoney's stellar record:

Miami police Chief John Timoney must be mighty proud of the social order he maintained during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit a couple of weeks ago in Miami - sort of the way Saddam Hussein was proud of quieting dissension in his country.

Timoney has a well-deserved reputation for using paramilitary tactics to turn any city where large protests are planned into a place where the Constitution has taken a holiday. During the FTAA meeting on Nov. 20, Timoney dispatched 2,500 police officers in full riot gear against a crowd estimated at 8,000 people, mostly union members and retirees.

The result was a show of force that would have made a Latin American dictator blush.

The Times goes on to accuse Timoney of all sorts of heavy handed, tear gas laden tactics, including the suppression of free speech and free press, and the illegal arrests of demonstrators.

The Bahraini government seems to think he'll fit right in.

2006 GMT: An activist shares this video, reportedly showing a burned home, the result of the Syrian military shelling of the town of Rankous, north of Damascus:

1956 GMT: The LCCS reports on a protest that started in the central Midan district in Damascus, which was also the site of an earlier protest this afternoon:

"Damascus: Midan: A demonstration marched from Al Mansour neighborhood chanted for Rankos and the besieged cities and demanded the downfall of the regime and to trial Bashar."

1832 GMT: An interesting video out of Cairo - protesters reportedly put this picture of Syrian President Bashar al Assad on this roadway near a hotel in which officials were attending a meeting. The picture is labeled "child murderer." As one car drives over the picture, one of the men inside seems to agree:

1820 GMT: Lebanon has struggled with the Syrian crisis. The Syrian military has placed landmines along the border to prevent weapons smuggling into the country, yet inside the country Assad loyalists have been fighting a secret war with supporters of the Syrian opposition. The nation's leaders, on the other hand, have repeatedly stated that they are trying to stay out of the conflict.

It appears, however, that new sanctions passed by the Arab League, and others, is forcing Lebanon to pick sides. Economy Minister Nicholas Nahhas has said that Lebanon will follow the sanctions, and Lebanese banks will avoid dealings with the Syrian regime. We'd add, perhaps he feels no choice, without wanting to face the international consequences of doing otherwise.

"Banks are taking extremely strong precautions to avoid bad surprises regarding people or institutions under sanctions," said one official who works at one of Lebanon's top banks. "No one wants to expose himself to pressure or problems.

"Banks are running away from anything that has to do with Syria like it's a disease because the U.S. is closely watching."

The Syrian regime's list of friends is getting thin, indeed.

1814 GMT: A protest earlier today in Homs, with a large contingent of women in the crowd:

1806 GMT: Despite international pressure, and a growing crisis, Russia has delivered anti-ship missiles to Syria:

"The Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles have been delivered to Syria," a military source told the Interfax news agency without disclosing when the shipment was made.

Russia signed a contract reportedly worth at least $300 million (222 million euros) in 2007 to supply its traditional Arab world ally with a large shipment of the cruise missiles.

Reports said Russia intended to deliver 72 of the missiles to Syria in all.

1743 GMT: The LCCS reports that 23 people have been killed today, " including 2 children and a woman. 13 martyrs in Hama, 8 martyrs in Homs and one martyr each in both of Dael and Idlib."

The LCCS also reports another important development, a large protest at Damascus University:

Coalition of Free Syrian Students in Damascus University: Damascus University: A moment of silence on the martyrs souls with participation of more than 400 students in the Mechanical, Electrical and Informatics Engineering Faculties, despite the wide security and thugs deployment.

The increase in reported protests at Universities, particularly in Aleppo and Damascus, is significant. The students at these institutions are young, energetic, and well connected, making them important visual symbols for the opposition. Universities have often been the hotbed of dissent in the Middle East, so if the opposition can establish a foothold in the universities they can use the schools as a springboard for broader protests, particularly in cities where protests are harder to conduct, such as Damascus and Aleppo.

1645 GMT: Impressive footage - this video was reportedly taken in the Al Midan district of Damascus, where a large and enthusiastic crowd of student protests staged a rally earlier today:

1635 GMT: While the UN is reporting that the overall death toll in Syria has likely topped 4000, Syrian activists are reporting fresh civilian casualties. In a town near Hama, Al Tarremesa, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights is reporing that at least 6 have been killed:

‎6 people were fallen martyrs and 9 were wounded during the operations carried out by security forces in the town of Al-Tarremeesa in the rural area of Hama. 5 of the wounded people are in critical conditions.

1624 GMT: The Egyptian election results were supposed to be in yesterday, then they were expected to be released at 5 PM today (local time)... now, Egyptian officials are saying that the results may not come out until Saturday!

1551 GMT: Turning towards Egypt, The Guardian posts two different reactions to the news that the Islamist parties will take the majority of the seats in parliament. First, they publish an excerpt of an article by Issandr el-Amrani, on the Arabist blog, entitled "Don't Panic Yet," which attempts to comfort the fears of liberal Egyptians. For an opposite reaction, The Guardian notes an article on women's rights from Amnesty International:

With the Islamists seemingly a shoo-in to be the biggest winner in the first round of the Egyptian election, is it mere coincidence that Amnesty International USA has blogged on the subject of women's rights in the Middle East?

1541 GMT: Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News is also covering the news of the meeting between the Syrian Free Army and the Syrian National Council, but notes that the Turkish military knew that the meeting was taking place:

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said they knew about the meeting but did not have any details on what was said at the meeting.

Other high-ranking members of the SNC, including Ahmed Ramadan and Sweden-based Abdulbaset Seida, also attended the meeting, according to reports. The organization, with a membership of over 260, was formed in Istanbul in September to work for the removal of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad after he intensified his military crackdown on street protests. Ghalioun, who is based in France, has led the organization since.

[Free Syrian Army head Col. Riad] Al-Asaad has been staying at a refugee camp in Hatay after escaping from his post in the Syrian Air Force in July.

Speaking to the Daily News on Oct. 9, Al-Asaad called on the international community and the United Nations to provide armed help to Syria’s opposition movement so that it can finally remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

1529 GMT: The Local Coordinating Committees of Syria have released a statement that 14 people have been killed across Syria today, "including a woman and a girl. 7 martyrs in Hama, 6 martyrs in Homs and one in Idlib."

Perhaps the most interesting update in the press release, however, is a statement that Shabiha are paying very close attention to the University of Aleppo:

University of Aleppo - Shabiha forces (members of Students Union) with units from security forces have searched the students IDs in front of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in the search of wanted students list.

A student demonstration, reportedly in Daraa University:

1523 GMT: Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department has passed targetted sanctions against two Syrian officials:

Treasury blacklisted Muhammad Makhluf, an uncle of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, and Aus Aslan who was described as a general in the Syrian military and said Americans are banned from any dealings with them.

It also named the Military Housing Establishment as a Syrian government-controlled company that provides financing to the regime and Real Estate Bank, which Treasury said handles borrowing for the government. Americans are prohibited from any dealings with the firms.

1459 GMT: AFP has the full account of a meeting between representatives of the Syrian Free Army, the militant wing of the opposition comprised mostly of defected soldiers, and the Syrian National Council. Up to this point, they have been two different groups with little interaction, and the SNC has condemned the attacks made by the SFA. Now, each group has recognized the other, and both have agreed to coordinate efforts:

"We agreed that the duty of the Free Syrian Army is to protect people, but not to attack," said Khoja, a member of the SNC's foreign relations committee.

"Protecting minorities, preventing possible conflicts among the factions by sending its troops to conflict areas," Khoja added, enumerating some of the FSA's duties.

He quoted rebel leader Asaad as vowing to follow the political line set by the SNC, which has been touring Western and other capitals to muster support for its bid to unseat Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting between the council and the rebel army came after the head of the SNC last week urged the FSA to refrain from launching attacks against Assad's forces and save the country from civil conflict.

"We would like this army to carry out defensive actions to protect those who have left the [regime's] army and peaceful demonstrations, but not take on offensive actions against the army," Ghaliun of the council had said.

This is massive news. What it means is that the opposition movement is finally showing signs of organization. This development will decrease concerns of fundamental divisions within the opposition. It also means that the Syrian National Council, a group that has struggled to obtain credibility at home and abroad, will almost immediately be recognized as the political leadership of the opposition. The SFA is widely recognized by dissidents as the military leadership, but has been condemned for militarizing the conflict. Their meeting with the SNC means that the Syrian Free Army will be looked upon as a legitimate, and restrained, militant front to the opposition, while the Syrian National Council is an umbrella political group, recognizing the full spectrum of viewpoints within the opposition.

The development that others have focused on, that the SFA will hold back on conducting offensive strikes, is not as significant as it appears. The SFA is hardly strong enough to mount a direct assault on Assad's military machine. However, the defecting soldiers have now officially been charged with the task of defending protesters and defectors, placing them in direct, and SNC sanctioned, conflict with the Syrian military in places like Homs, Hama, and Daraa.

Perhaps even more significantly, international organizations now have a better organized opposition to work with, a development which makes calls for a no-fly zone much easier to make.

1434 GMT: BBC World Service is reporting that members of the Syrian Free Army have reached an agreement with the Syrian National Council, agreeing to reduce attacks against the Syria military for the time being.

We'll provide more details when we have them.

1423 GMT: Yesterday, we noted that the Syrian regime responded to growing protests in Dael, Daraa, by deploying a large amount of forces to the city. Today, according to the LCCS, the military campaign reportedly continues:

Daraa: Daeel: More than 10 injured includes three women today, while military enhancement arrived to town and closed its entrances.

15-20km to the West, in Sahem el Joulan, security forces have reportedly begun a campaign of mass arrests, burning some homes in the process. Heavy gunfire is also report in the town.

1416 GMT: Middle Eastern economist Said Hirsh weighs in on whether Syria can weather sanctions:

The answer is nuanced. The sanctions are having a "very large" effect on both the immediate economy and the value of its currency, but Hirsh also notes that sanctions alone will not tackle the regime. Syria will still be able to trade with Lebanon, possibly Iraq, and Russia and China. Hirsh agrees that the sanctions will be "devastating" but these other considerations will "cushion the blow."

1354 GMT: Turning to Yemen, the military has resumed the shelling of the southern city of Taiz. According to the government, at least 13 people have been killed, though some activists are also reporting civilian casualties.

A Defense Ministry statement says that five soldiers were killed and 15 others wounded on Thursday amid heavy shelling in Taiz.

A security official meanwhile says four tribesmen and four civilians have also died, and 28 more people have been injured. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with security rules.

A citizen of Taiz posts the video below, and one more, showing the attack on the city. At one point in one of the videos, a snapping sound can be heard, indicating that the projectile was extremely close to hitting the videographer:

Several news outlets are reporting tens of thousands of protesters in the street today, demonstrating against the shelling.

1346 GMT: The international community continues to respond to the Syrian crisis. Kuwait is the latest country to advise its citizens to leave Syria and avoid future travel to the embattled country.

Syria has responded to actions by the EU by withdrawing its membership from the Mediterranean Union. Meanwhile, the Secretary General for the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, is scheduled to meet with the EU in order to coordinate a response to the ongoing crisis.

1336 GMT: While we expect the full results from Egypt's parliamentary election later today, so far it appears that the Islamist parties have faired very well:

With preliminary results trickling through from Cairo, Alexandria and seven other regions, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party seems set to emerge as the biggest winner, with some analysts estimating it will capture about 40% of seats in the new legislature. Al-Nour, a more conservative Salafist party, looks likely to secure second place.

Despite some notable individual triumphs, Egypt's liberal and leftist political forces appear to have fallen short compared with their rivals, though the Egyptian Bloc – a largely secular alliance headed by the billionaire telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris – will be encouraged by its strong showing in certain districts in the capital.

Official results from the first round will not be announced until Thursday , before a series of runoff ballots on Monday. Under a complex electoral system, the country is voting in three regional phases, with final results for the lower house of parliament arriving on 13 January and for the upper house on 14 March.

1305 GMT: James Miller takes the blog, with Scott Lucas on the road.

An Arab League committee in charge of administering its sanctions on Syria and advising courses of action has banned President Bahsar al Assad's brother, Maher, and 17 other officials, ranging from government ministers to intelligence and military commanders, from traveling to League member nations. They have also advised a total ban on flights in and out of Syria, starting in mid-December.

The Local Co-ordination Committees activist network says 10 people have been killed in Syria today - 7 in Hama province and 3 in Homs - as a general strike is taking place in several towns. This video is said to show shuttered shops in Hama.

Meanwhile, the death toll is fairly high at this early hour, and if recent weeks are any indication it will likely rise. Al Jazeera reports:

0615 GMT: Video of Tuesday's sit-in protest by dismissed employees --- fired for alleged political activity --- in front of the Ministry of Labour in Bahrain:

0610 GMT: Amnesty International has accused Saudi Arabia of a wave of repression, with thousands of people arrested, often without charge or trial. In the 73-page report, Amnesty claims torture and abuse in detention are widespread.

0600 GMT: We begin by invoking the closing words of James Miller last night:

With tanks storming Dael, a mass-shooting in Idlib, and large student demonstrations in Aleppo, today was just another sign that this Syrian conflict is hardly isolated to Homs and Hama. President Assad's problems are everywhere.

Idlib has not seen violence like this in many weeks, though protests have steadily been growing there. Dael had zero military presence at the start of the day, and the army had to deploy dozens of tanks, armored vehicles, buses, and perhaps as many as 1000 soldiers to the city in order to commence a new crackdown. Aleppo, once untouchable, has seen protests of some sort nearly every day for the last week.

Assad has problems, but he does not have forces everywhere that he has problems. And even where he thinks he does not have problems, he has problems.

Egypt has held our attention for much of the last two weeks, amidst the flaring of violence and then the first stage of Parliamentary elections. We are anticipating, however, that Syria --- which was far from quiet during that period --- will return to the forefront.

An anti-regime demonstration in Houleh last night:

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