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Tuesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: UN Envoy Brahimi Moves Through the Region br>
The Latest from Israel-Palestine (16 October): Netanyahu's Threats That Will Dominate the Elections
1921 GMT: Syria. Another plane shot down? This video was reportedly filmed over Hanano, Aleppo. At least one parachute is clearly visible:
We'd like to see multiple angles, just so we can compare it to other videos of planes being shot down. However, if confirmed, this is another sign of how weak Assad's air forces are becoming.
The Guardian and C.J. Chivers think so too.
Last August, Chivers wrote that Syria’s fleet of Mi-25 Hind-D attack helicopters, which numbered 36 at the start of the conflict, was insufficient to hold back the rebels.
He also cited estimates that only half the regime's helicopter fleet may be operational at any given time – "maintenance technicians are struggling to keep the machines aloft" – and that some of the original 36 helicopters have been cannibalised for spare parts.
That was late August --- but Assad is now losing helicopters and airplanes at a rate of one to two per day.
Earlier, France's Foreign Minister said that the insurgents' recently acquired anti-aircraft weapons were forcing Syrian air force jets to fly higher, but frankly we're not seeing much evidence of that - yet. We've also yet to see definitive evidence that the FSA has used surface-to-air missiles. But we know, based on extensive video evidence collected, that the FSA has these weapons, so it's only a matter of time before they are used. And if the rate of Assad loses is this high now, how high will it be once these missiles are deployed into the field?
1854 GMT: Bahrain. Protesters in Sanabis are tearing up pictures of King Hamad, following a call by leading human rights activist Zainab AlKhawaja, who was recently released from jail after serving a two-month sentence for ripping a picture of the King.
Protesters ripping pictures of the King.
1804 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:
Four citizens have been arrested and charged with "defaming" King Hamad on Twitter, in what the Ministry of Interior (MOI) describes as the "misuse" of social media. A fifth citizen is wanted by authorities. Prosecutor Ahmed Bucheeri said the individuals will stand "an urgent trial before the criminal court" according to Bahrain state media.
In a statement, the MOI says:
The arrests were made as part of the recent monitoring of social media networks to tackle the misuse of such platforms.
Index On Censorship notes the revision last month of Bahrain's online defamation laws. At the time, the Acting General Director of Corruption Combating and Electronic and Economic Security warned that "violators would be prosecuted and charged with cybercrimes as stipulated in the law", saying:
Online smear campaigns are tarnishing the reputation of national symbols and leading public figures from different age categories.
These changes follow in the wake of the three month sentence given to Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, in June when he was charged with libelling the citizens of Muharraq on twitter. He was acquited after serving two and a half months of the sentence, however Rajab remains in jail serving a three-year sentence for organising and participating in protests.
1739 GMT: Bahrain. Mohammed AlMaskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, has been released from jail. He was detained yesterday and held overnight, facing charges before the public prosecution this morning of "illegal gathering, rioting and participating in illegal protest".
1732 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:
A Danish MP has said that he has been informed that he will not be allowed to enter Bahrain because he has a stamp from Israel in his passport. Søren Espersen MP, from the Dansk Folkeparti party, is planning to travel to Bahrain in November with a delegation from the parliamentary Foreign Policy Committee, of which his is vice-chairman. In a press release, Espersen said:
I think it’s about time that someone stood up to these embarrassing Arabic countries that toy with diplomats, politicians and businessmen that have ‘dared’ to visit Israel simply to indulge their perverse hatred of Israel.
The Danish government has often been a vocal critic of the Bahrain government, particularly concerning the issue of Abdulhadi AlKhawaja, the human rights leader and political prisoner currently serving a life sentence, who holds Danish citizenship. However, Espersen himself has questioned AlKhawaja's commitment to democracy, echoing the Bahrain government in publicly suggesting that he may be plotting to establish an Shia Islamic Caliphate.
1459 GMT: Syria. A few videos to paint a picture of what's happening in Ma'arrat al Nouman.
A jet fighter drops a bomb, but no explosion is heard. A dud?
Members of the FSA sit on remnants of a helicopter that they reportedly shot down today (see earlier updates):
1447 GMT: Syria. Some of the accounts we follow we've been watching for more than a year and a half. Some of the live-streaming video accounts post video that focuses on a single city, or sometimes a single neighborhood where the person lives or works. As such, we've had the chance to watch these neighborhoods change, sometimes gradually and sometimes rapidly, and almost always for the worse.
A Bambuser account we've followed for some time posts a disturbing video from central Aleppo, where explosions appear to have destroyed buildings and residents are working to free survivors, or bodies, from the rubble.
1435 GMT: Saudi Arabia. EA's John Horne reports:
Sixteen people accused of being members of AlQaeda have been sentenced to between 3 and 25 years. According to a report by official state media, the suspects were convicted of "carrying out terror attacks, targeting oil (sites), and carrying out assassinations", as well as "establishing Al-Qaeda training camps" inside the Kingdom. One of the individuals is a Yemeni national, the rest are Saudi citizens.
1420 GMT: Syria. A possible ceasefire over the holiday? Not likely. For starters, the Syrian government, echoing statements and behaviors its demonstrated during several previous ceasefires, has stated that it is reluctant to start a ceasefire because there is no centralized opposition leadership with which it feels confident it can negotiate with:
Syria's state-run Al-Thawra newspaper said Wednesday that the biggest obstacle to a holiday ceasefire called by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is the lack of an authority to sign for the rebels.
The scores of brigades fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar al Assad have no unified leadership, and many don't communicate with each other.
However, a government spokesman says that a ceasefire is possible, and UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has expressed confidence that the Syrian opposition would also abide by any ceasefire:
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday evening, Mr Makdisi said the government in Damascus would listen to any initiative Mr Brahimi might have to "stabilise the situation in Syria and end the crisis, whether on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, independence day or any other anniversary".
The purpose of [a ceasefire] is not calm itself but transition to a political dialogue between Syrians themselves”
"If we want the initiative to succeed, it is not enough for only the Syrian [government] side to be bound by it," he said.
"But at the same time, I would say that calming down the situation is in the interest of the Syrian government because we support a political solution and dialogue under this umbrella without preconditions.
"The purpose of [a ceasefire] is not calm itself but transition to a political dialogue between Syrians themselves."
We're not buying it. Who did Brahimi speak to in the Syrian opposition? Remember that the Syrian opposition has been burned by previous ceasefire agreements, and the FSA is on the advance in Idlib province. It's not clear that the opposition trusts the government enough to proceed with a ceasefire attempt, and it's less clear that the FSA would think it strategically wise to halt the fighting now.
The UN has yet to establish any ability to procure peace for Syria, and there's not much reason to be confident that they can do it now.
1404 GMT: Syria. The town of Kafranbel, a symbol of the anti-Assad uprising, is far enough back from the fighting in Ma'arrat al Nouman that it would serve the regime little military purpose to bomb it. However, many civilians from the frontlines have fled to Kafranbel, and it does appear that the Assad airforce is taking its wrath out on the populace there. Many eyewitness reports and videos tell the same tale:
Many bodies are reportedly trapped in the rubble:
1324 GMT: Syria. The Guardian, speaking to Free Syrian Army fighter in Heish, reports that the majority of the fighting is actually happening 10 kilometers south of Ma'arrat al Nouman (map):
An hour ago we were able to shoot down a Syrian army helicopter. We believe the pilot was killed inside the helicopter.
There is a military convoy heading to Maarat al-Numan to recapture it from the FSA, but the FSA fighters are not allowing the convoy to progress at all.
The Syrian army has sustained heavy losses in soldiers and equipment, being stuck in this place and receiving all sorts of rockets from the FSA.
Hiesh town is under heavy shelling from the Syrian army and most of the people fled to another areas. All the villages and towns on the highway are under heavy shelling by warplanes.
The FSA fighters are using Hiesh town as a base to attack the convoys because it has a rocky nature and fighters can hide from the warplanes' shelling.
In other words, the outgunned FSA has actually advanced into the face of Assad's oncoming forces and has gained ground. While ambushes have been happening in Heish for days, now the FSA is strong enough to stop, or significantly slow, Assad forces, preventing the army from even getting close to the heart of insurgent territory.
This is where it is important to remember that Assad simply does not have the resources to spare in this fight. In our communication with Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War, he estimated that if we were to measure forward operating combat units, then Assad may have far fewer than 100,000 fighters to spare in the entire country, and many of them are confined to bases in Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, and Deir Ez Zor, to say nothing of the forces that are already forward deployed across the country:
The 2011 Military Balance estimated an Army of 220,000. Not only does this number include cooks and clerks, but it includes units full of unreliable Sunni conscripts. Some estimates put the percentage of forces actually used by the regime at 30%, which I think is about right. Even at the beginning of the conflict, they had to cobble together small units of reliable forces out of much bigger pools of troops.
We anticipated that the Assad regime would throw everything it had at Ma'arrat al Nouman and would retake it in days. This has not happened - in fact the opposite has happened. Furthermore, Assad's helicopter forces had already taken a significant hit before October, but the FSA is now bringing down a helicopter at an average rate of about one per day. This could run Assad completely out of helicopters in a matter of a couple of months.
1304 GMT: Syria. For yet another day, insurgent forces and the Syrian Army are locked in battle for Ma'arrat al Nouman and the nearby base of Wadi Al Daif, two areas that the regime absolutely must hold in order to keep supply lines open to the north, and two areas that the regime has failed to retake in the last week, despite throwing all their strength at the objectives.
Today, there are more problems. Multiple reports, and this video, claim to show a helicopter shot down by insurgent forces, apparently by machinegun fire, in Deir al Gharbi, just south of the city (map):
The "Justice Arrows Brigade" has claimed responsibility.
1240 GMT: Syria. There is a reason why cluster bombs are banned. They are indiscriminate, hurt civilians more than hardened military targets, and have an unacceptably large failure rate. But as the regime is now growing desperate, in the last several weeks the use of cluster munitions has increased dramatically. Some Twitter accounts remind us today that the more the regime uses cluster bombs, and the less the average Syrian knows about cluster bombs, the more children may die in really pointless and stupid ways:
James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.
Makdisi appeared to put the onus on the opposition: "Any initiative, regardless of its type, requires commitment by all sides in order for it to succeed," and continued:
The Syrian side is waiting for the arrival of...Brahimi to learn about the results of his recent visits to a number of countries, including countries that have influence over armed groups.
The insurgents reportedly attacked outposts and an airbase with rocket launchers. Turkish forces responded with ground operations, assisted by helicopters.
Marhon had been hospitalised for about 2 months because of the effects of the gassing.
An appeals court upheld the conviction of Benshaib for blocking a road, theft, aggression, and drug dealing, Faisal Ousser of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights said.
Benshaib was arrested in March and sentenced to a five-year jail term, with another five-year suspended sentence, for organising the protest near Al-Hoceima in northern Morocco.
"The cabinet decided to authorise Abdelbassit Turki, the head of the Board of Supreme Audit, to run the central bank indefinitely," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi said, adding that Sinan al-Shabibi had been removed.
Mussawi said the investigation had been launched because of "what happened with the dinar exchange rate with the dollar" and that a parliamentary report had blamed "the chief of the bank and several other people".
Mussawi declined to comment on whether arrest warrants would be issued for any Bank officials, but Baha al-Araji, chairman of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee, said 30 warrants had been issued, including for Shabibi and his deputy, Mudher Saleh.
0757 GMT: Turkey. Global Voices Online reports that hundreds of Kurdish political prisoners are entering the sixth week of a hunger strike over their treatment, demanding re-trials and language rights.
The Foreign Affairs Committee's report argues that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) should "be more transparent in acknowledging that there will be contradictions in pursuing [strategic, commercial or security-related] interests while promoting human rights values".
The report considers Bahrain at several points, making the following points:
Given the Bahraini authorities’ brutal repression of demonstrators in February and March 2011, we believe that Bahrain should have been designated as a country of concern in the FCO’s 2011 report on human rights and democracy....
We find it difficult to discern any consistency of logic behind the Government’s policy in not taking a public stance on the Bahrain Grand Prix but implementing at least a partial boycott of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship matches played in Ukraine.
The report also offers an interesting observation, taken from evidence by Human Rights Watch:
Human Rights Watch described the case study on Bahrain in the FCO’s 2011 Report as “very weak” and told us that the FCO continued to “talk up” progress when in fact there had been none.
The Foreign Affairs Committee will shortly be holding an inquiry into UK relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. On Monday, BBC's Frank Gardner, relaying a message from the Saudi Embassy in London, reported that Saudi officials were "insulted" and "re-evaluating their country's historic relations with Britain".
0545 GMT: Syria. Following United Nations-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's tour of the region, with talks in Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad, another diplomatic initiative on Tuesday --- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has suggested discussions among Egypt, Turkey, and Iran.
The proposal is a revision of the short-lived "contact group", which was launched last month by the three countries along with Saudi Arabia. That move ground to a halt when the Saudis refused to send any representative to the initial meeting of Foreign Ministers in Cairo. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi subsequently cancelled a meeting of the four powers, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York, because of Erdoğan's absence.
Speaking to reporters on his return to Ankara from Azerbaijan, where he spoke for 40 minutes with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an Economic Cooperation Organisation summit, Erdogan said, "We proposed a three-way system here. This system could be a trio of Turkey-Egypt-Iran. A second system could be Turkey-Russia-Iran. A third system could be Turkey-Egypt-Saudi Arabia."
Erdoğan's third option appeared to be a veiled reminder to Iran that it will continue to be excluded from the process if Tehran does not accept the departure from power of Syrian President Assad and a transitional government.
The Turkish Prime Minister's statement also left open key questions. To what extent did it intersect with Brahimi's next steps, given the UN envoy's talks with both Ankara and Tehran? Does it have the backing of other powers, including the Arab States, the US, and European nations?
So far those actors have remained silent, as has the Syrian regime. The insurgents reportedly were concentrating more on possible discussions to unify the military effort, while rumours circulated of a new political group to supersede the Syrian National Council.
And fighting continued throughout Syria. Regime warplanes trying to soften up the insurgency in airstrikes in Idlib and Aleppo Province, in the hope that Syrian ground forces could reclaim territory seized by the opposition in recent days. The Local Coordination Committees claimed that 134 people had been killed by security forces.