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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting Escalates Near Damascus and in East

See also Israel-Palestine Live Coverage (13 November): Deadly Clashes in Gaza --- Does Hamas Have a Plan?

Monday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: New Opposition Leadership Named --- Now What?

1654 GMT: Syria. Shocking video --- while we cannot verify the claim, the amount of bombs and shells falling on the eastern and southern suburbs of Damascus today is startling:

1640 GMT: Syria. Lots of not-so-flattering things are being revealed about Ahmad Ma`adh Al-Khatib, the new leader of the new Syrian National Coalition.

The Angry Arab adds more details, with links to some of the most offensive statements:

Meet the new leader of the Syrian exile opposition: a bona fide kook. He declares that Facebook is a US-Israeli intelligence plot So I spent time last time acquainting myself with the views of this Islamist kook, who is supposed to lead Syria toward "a civic state". This kook (who could not have been appointed to the position of preacher in the Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus without the approval of the Syrian regime intelligence apparatus) here declares that Facebook is a US-Israeli intelligence plot. Read to believe....

And in another post:

I spent last night reading the writings of this Islamist kook, Ahmad Ma`adh Al-Khatib: a clear follower of the Muslim Brotherhood and a disciple of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. He has many views that his Western sponsors did not know about. Take his treatise on masturbation here: he maintains that this "sinister habit" causes tuberculosis and tears down the flesh.

PS Please copy the pages of his website before they are taken down to erase his track record of kookiness.

1632 GMT: Syria. The Guardian has interviewed a member of the Free Syrian Army who has a potentially significant claim about the prospects for foreign intervention:

The Free Syrian Army has revealed it has held talks with officials from Britain and its allies and is hopeful that a no-fly zone will be imposed on Syria’s border.

Fahad al-Masrai, spokesman for the FSA's joint command in Syria said: "There are meetings are going on now between the military leaders of the Syrian revolution and Britain as well as US, France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. For security reasons we can’t say where."

His comments come after Britain announced it was opening negotiations with armed groups in Syria.

The interview can be read here.

This would be a significant development, and it illustrates what this new opposition group is capable of. If the international community has someone whom they feel they can negotiate and plan with, NATO may be more inclined to intervene.

It also displays the shortcomings. Despite claims by the opposition leadership in Doha, and many in the press, the majority of this insurgency, and its most effective units, continue to operate independently from many of the military councils, or certainly for leadership outside Syria.

1603 GMT: Syria. A major air-defense base east of Damascus fell to the FSA on November 8th, but we missed an interesting detail --- one of the FSA brigades involved in the heaviest fighting was apparently Christian:

More interestingly, this group operated alongside the Mustafa Brigade. Mustafa, which we believe to operate under the FSA banner, have used car bombs in attacks on regime elements. The Ansar al Sunni brigade was also involved in the attack, and we're not 100% certain, but we believe they have been largely independent of the FSA up to this point. We're not sure about the affiliation of the Abdullah bin Salam brigade.

The units operating in joint missions, particularly in Damascus and Idlib, appear to be more diverse, and more organized, than ever.

[Editor's Note: Other Syrian observers have said that the "Jesus, Son of Mary Brigade" is Islamist, not Christian.]

1534 GMT: Syria. Some of the main highways in and out of Damascus have been areas of heavy fighting for two days now. For instance, many sources report that yesterday the FSA knocked out an Assad convoy in Ain Tarma, an eastern suburb, destroying at least one armored vehicle. A video corresponds to the report.

Whether the FSA is in a place to hold these territories is unknown, but it's no coincidence that as fighting is escalating around the capital, there are reports of renewed insurgent offensives in Idlib, Deir Ez Zor, and even Daraa province.

1522 GMT: Syria. Meanwhile, intense battles have rocked southern and eastern Damascus and its suburbs, as pitched battles between insurgents and the regime's forces are responded to by heavy shelling of civilian areas. In the eastern suburbs, in East Ghouta, the LCC reports that airstrikes have taken a heavy toll:

22 martyrs and tens of wounded in a massacre by the regime's forces as a result of the warplane shelling in Outaya village.

They add that 6 unidentified bodies, reportedly workers in the town's bakery, were also found.

A video reportedly showing smoke from a bomb dropped in Saqba:

In southern Damascus, the FSA is trying to move into Tadamoun. Videos like this one show smoke rising as airstrikes have repeatedly struck the district:

Another video shows large amounts of troops and armor moving in south Damascus, but it comes with a surprising (and unverified) claim - that the military is retreating from the district after days of heavy fighting in which they have failed to capture it. It is a claim being echoed on social media.

Regardless, Damascus has undergone several days of intensification, and it appears that the FSA has stubbornly taken some areas in southern Damascus and in the eastern suburbs, and they refuse to leave. Another video, apparently uploaded yesterday, claims to show the FSA having erected roadblocks and sandbag bunkers in one of the main streets.

This is not the fight that will topple the capital, but it's hard to imagine that the fighting has gone on for this many days without decisive action from the Assad military.

1455 GMT: Syria. The Syrian air forces are heavily bombarding Ma'arrat al Nouman today. This video (which matches other reports we've heard) was reportedly taken just moments after "barrel bombs" were dropped on the town:

The LCC posts this video reportedly showing explosions from aerial bombing on the village of Mhambal, in the mountains of Jisr al Shughour - the FSA's supply routes to the front lines:

But like many attacks by the Assad regime, there appears to have been a tactical reason for conducting such heavy strikes today. Sources suggest that over the last 24 hours, the FSA has renewed its attack on Assad positions near Ma'arrat al Nouman. This video claims to show one of those battles, and features an important game changer - the use of an armored vehicle, captured by the FSA, against a heavily fortified Assad military position:

1433 GMT: Syria. Following the lead of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League, France has now officially recognized the new Syrian opposition group.

A few notes - all of these statements have said the French statement said "a legitimate representative" as opposed to "the legitimate representative." [NOTE - GCC and Arab League statements did say "sole representative"] What this means is that the international community is not closing the door to negotiating with the Assad regime entirely. Rather, they are setting the new opposition leadership group at the negotiating table. It is from this group that the international community will hope to create a transitional government in some sort of brokered deal with the Assad regime.

This also allows the new Syrian National Coalition the voice to speak out against Assad's crimes - a voice which could lobby the UN or other bodies of countries for direct intervention.

However, all of this is important only if a negotiated peace is possible and/or the international community is ready to act. That has yet to be seen. In fact, with the opposition's armed insurgency on the advance and accountable to no one, there remains a possibility that there is a military defeat for the Assad regime before this new coalition has any chance to win their own victory.

It should be noted that there is also some confusion about the official French position here. The Defense minister was far more hesitant, contradicting the Foreign Minister:

In reaction to the new Syrian opposition coalition announced in Doha, the French minister of defense said on Tuesday that it was still too early to recognize this “newly formed” coalition, calling on all parties to spare no effort to unify all armed factions in Syria.

UK's William Hague has also spoken out in favor of the new opposition group, but has yet to recognize it as a representative of the Syrian people.

1423 GMT: Syria. A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency told journalists today that they are "temporarily withdrawing staff from the northeastern Hasakeh governorate", following recent fighting in the Turkish border area around the town of Ras al-Ain.

1415 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:

Opposition society AlWefaq has issued a statement concerning a reported siege against the village of Mhazza on the island of Sitra, following the deployment of national guard units there at the weekend.

According to AlWefaq, "around 58 houses and 12 places" were raided on Sunday, "most of which were in Mihazza".

Yesterday, leading human rights activist Zainab AlKhawaja visited Mihazza and tweeted the following account (some spellings adjusted):

For 6 days now, the village of Mihazza in Sitra has been under daily attacks by special forces, government thugs and the army. As I entered the village I was shocked that there wasn't one person in sight. At only 9pm the village streets were completely empty.

Driving around Mihazza its so dark and quiet you would think it was a village that had been abandoned. Almost every other house has a broken door, a sure sign that the regime had already terrorized its owners. Its chilling to see the spots where villagers usually hang out every night. This must be what it would have felt like to walk in AlEker when it was under siege, people of Mihazza seemed to be waiting for the next attack. It's not normal in Bahrain to knock on peoples doors and not get an answer, but in Mhazza these days people are living in a constant state of fear.

1305 GMT: Syria. Jon Wilks, the British Special Representative to the Syrian Opposition, has been tweeting from Cairo, where he is with Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Arab League foreign ministers summit on Syria.

UK willing to recognize the National Coalition if inclusive and Syrians support it. I think it is particularly important that Alawites are represented in the coalition. I have also encouraged the Kurdish National Council to join the National Coalition. It is a big opportunity for all Syrians.

Friday's London meeting will discuss non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. But the UK will maintain a clear distinction between humanitarian assistance, which should be impartial and non politicised, and opposition support. We are providing over £50 million of humanitarian assistance to all Syrians and £5 million to the opposition.

1140 GMT: Syria. The Syrian Red Crescent estimates that 2.5 million people are internally displaced within the country, doubling the previous figure of 1.2 million used by aid agencies.

"The figure they are using is 2.5 million. If anything, they believe it could be more, this is a very conservative estimate," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told a news briefing in Geneva. "So people are moving, really on the run, hiding. They are difficult to count and access."

The UN said on Friday that up to 4 million people inside Syria will need humanitarian aid by early next year when the country is in the grip of winter, up from 2.5 million whose needs are not fully met now.

The UNHCR has temporarily withdrawn about half of its 12 staff from north-eastern Hassaka Province due to fierce fighting and insecurity, Fleming said.

1135 GMT: Syria. A video tribute to the journalists who have lost their lives in the conflict since March 2011:

1130 GMT: Syria. Insurgents post footage of a satellite transmission station in East Ghouta, near Damascus, that they now control:

0700 GMT: Bahrain. Analyst Justin Gengler reports a warning from authorities that religious ceremonies may be challenged by security forces:

Claimed footage from Sitra of the deployment of the National Guard, escalating the regime's attempts to stop protests:

0530 GMT: Syria. While media attention on Monday focused on the political developments around the announcement of a new opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, the manoeuvres were matched --- and possibly overtaken --- by fighting throughout Syria.

Suburbs of Damascus, especially to the south, were rocked throughout the day and overnight by shelling. Fierce clashes in Tadamon and Darayya appeared to centre on major military bases, especially the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division, but residential neighboyrhoods were also attacked by regime forces.

In Deir Ez Zor in the east, reports of fighting raised the possibility of a new Free Syrian Army offensive. The battle was especially intense near the Hamdan airport, where the FSA shot down a helicopter. Without the airfield, the regime would be hampered in attempts to hold Al Bukamal and Deir Ez Zor.

Fighting is also escalating in Daraa province, and clashes continue near insurgent-held Ras al Ain in the north.

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