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Monday
Nov192012

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: On "Quiet" Sunday, 78 People Are Killed

Islamist insurgents in Aleppo Province reject the new opposition National Coalition (see 0945 GMT)

See also Syria Analysis with Videos: The Insurgent Advances Across the Country
Israel-Palestine Live Coverage: 30 Killed in Gaza's Bloodiest Day
Sunday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Insurgents Take a Military Airport in the North


2240 GMT: Syria. The LCC has posted an EXTREMELY GRAPHIC video, reportedly showing 13 bodies "massacred," shot in the head in Bahdalieh, a suburb south of Damascus (map).

We cannot verify the video, except to say that, with graphic closeups of the brains shot over the pavement, it looks real. The hands of the bodies appear to be bound, and all the bodies (men) were wearing civilian clothing. At one point a man holds a sign that reads today's date.

The only problem - a different video, which sounds like it was taken by teenagers, was posted two days ago, and shows only five bodies. Here is the description:

GRAPHIC - Five more Syrian Sunni Arab victims of Assad's reign of terror in Damascus: Al-Bahdalieh, Nov 17th, '12 (Graphic)

Five males are found on waste ground in Al-Bahdalieh, having been stopped by an Alawite gang.

There are commonalities between the two videos. The video shot on the 17th appears to show the men to the far left of the frame (note the shirt colors and the red bag near the bodies - at the 23 second mark in the liveleaks video and the 51 second mark of the Youtube video). The Youtube video explains that the 8 new bodies (on the right) were in addition to the ones on the left, which were old:

Published on Nov 19, 2012 - Eight bodies were executed on the ground by firing squad in the Bahdalieh added to a group of bodies that are found almost daily in the region...

The original video with the child narrator was taken 2 days ago (dated the 17th) - but making things more complicated, a large group of bodies is also features on a video uploaded 6 days ago (reportedly taken on the 12th). This is definitely the same place because there is an audio cue (the saw sound in the background in the videos).

How many people are shot here and dumped on the ground? Are the bodies not buried out of fear of the perpetrators?

Meanwhile, a total of 13 people have died in Darayya today, according to the LCC.

2126 GMT: Syria. The FSA leaves the 46 regiment base in northwest Aleppo province with two major spoils of war:

Brown Moses has also been talking of the significance of this base capture. His take - that the capture of this base will now free up many FSA units (well armed FSA units) to fight elsewhere, perhaps in southern Idlib and perhaps in Aleppo city.

Brown Moses has gathered together many videos from the base, and has tried to catalog all the weapons captured by the FSA.

2047 GMT: Syria. Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons reports on the significance of "base 46," the home of the 46th regiment that fell to the FSA yesterday (see separate feature):

2029 GMT: Syria. Earlier today we received reports that Irbeen (map), an important suburb just northeast of Damascus, was heavily bombarded. There were also reports that this was due to the presence of a large amount of insurgents from the Al Farouk Brigade, one of the most feared unit in the Syrian insurgency. Now, the CFPDC is also carrying the report that Al Farouk advanced into Irbeen yesterday and fought pitched battles with the Assad security forces. They also posted these two videos:

With Farouk al Sham advancing to the northeast, Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades advancing near Hajar al Aswad, and the Al Islam brigades advancing in East Ghouta, the capital is besieged on three sides (at least).

2012 GMT: Syria. 100 people have been killed by the Assad regime today, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

41 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 15 in Aleppo; 12 in Idlib including an entire family; 11 in Lattakia; 6 in Daraa; 5 in Deir Ezzor; 3 in Hama; 3 in Gollan; 2 in Hasakeh; and 2 in Homs.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

The take-away is that the losses in Damascus and its suburbs make up nearly half that number, the result of an intensified effort by the regime to halt the progress (and erode the popular support) of the insurgents.

1959 GMT: Syria. Clarification from Reuters about their story that a major regime headquarters had fallen to the FSA outside Damascus:

Two units of the Islamist rebel groups Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades said in a statement that they had overrun the base of the Air Defence Battalion near Hajar al-Aswad after four days of fighting.

In other words, their own sources has confirmed what we reported earlier. However, it's not clear from either Reuters nor our own sources whether these victories were any larger than we initially thought.

This does not diminish the narrative that the Assad military is in serious trouble. It does mean that even though the regime's military may be collapsing, it still has a lot of territory to lose before is completely implodes.

There are other signs, however, that the regime is extremely weak. For weeks, the Assad regime has been pounding the suburbs of Damascus from the skies, and in the last 48 hours those efforts have only intensified. The headlines today are that the airstrikes against Damascus were the heaviest in the last 40 days:

"Fighter jets hit what looked like specific rebel targets yesterday. Today the multiple rockets launchers are just making huge, random destruction," said Rami al-Sayyed of the Syrian Media Centre, an opposition activists' organisation monitoring Assad's crackdown on the 20-month revolt.

Opposition activists said rockets and bombs hit Hajar al-Aswad, al-Tadamun, and al-Qadam, from where the population has largely fled after the areas fell under the control of the rebel Free Syrian Army. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Rebels also said that Assad has begun pulling back some troops from the provinces to protect the capital.

If the bombardment was so heavy, and was designed to stop the insurgents, then why have the bases near Damascus fallen?

There's a possible explanation. With each base that has fallen, the FSA has captured large amounts of anti-aircraft weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. Perhaps the airforce is afraid to directly attack the insurgents, and is instead content to hammer the civilians whom the FSA claims to protect?

Either way, the last sentence is key - Assad is collapsing his forces towards the capital, but is still on his back foot in Damascus.

1952 GMT: Syria. Confirmation - the LCC now posts the same video that we did, claiming heavy fighting inside Hama.

1939 GMT: Syria. More headlines - we've seen several videos today showing FSA units massing on the outskirts of Hama. This one is particularly interesting because it may show FSA units setting up a roadside ambush:

We can't know that this is the same location (or verify the video, especially since it's night), but there are rumors, and this video, of heavy fighting in several areas of Hama, including in downtown (which we believe this shows).

Hama is not are area that the FSA has been able to secure a strong presence in. Instead, many FSA fighters from Hama are found fighting elsewhere, particularly Idlib province to the north.

With the FSA on the advance in every corner of the country, there are more battles like this one being reported in Daraa and Hama provinces. It's hard to say how large this particular battle is, but it may prove to be significant by morning.

Or, it could just be another night of violence in a country that is never allowed to sleep.

1931 GMT: Syria. Reuters notes that the FSA victory may be more significant than we originally thought (and we thought this was major news):

In fact, the SAM site that some activists suggested fell today is at the edge of one of the largest bases in Syria, just outside of the capital. However, if this report is true then this air-defense base may be the tip of the iceberg.

We've been sitting on a headline for days now, but it appears to us that the Assad military is in a state of collapse. We'll have to wait and see if it lasts.

1913 GMT: Syria. Yet another military base has reportedly fallen to the FSA outside Damascus:

It's possible that this is the base that was reportedly captured yesterday. Either way, more anti-aircraft equipment has changed hands outside Damascus.

1850 GMT: Syria. Arguably the most important group besides NATO, the European Union has officially recognized the Syrian opposition:

A statement from the bloc's 27 ministers welcomed the November 11 formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and said: "The EU considers them legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people."

Note - the statement does not call the SNC the legitimate representatives, suggesting that there is still room to neogiate, formally, with the Assad regime.

1836 GMT: Syria. Yesterday the FSA captured a military base in Aleppo province belonging to Assad's 46th regiment (see separate feature). More video is emerging from the base. Multiple sources say that these are mines, anti-tank mines in particular, that were found in this small bunker on the base:

1820 GMT: Syria. Yesterday the FSA took at least partial control of an air defense base in southwest Damascus, in Hajar al Aswad. It's unclear whether they held the base (we're guessing they did not). However, all day we've been chasing a report that the Syrian insurgents have captured another major army base in Eastern Ghouta (map), east of Damascus. We now have many sources that report the story, including sources close to the Al Islam brigade reportedly responsible for much of the fighting.

This video gives an idea of the scale of the victory. The FSA is clearly in charge of the front gate, and can be seen freely moving between some of the Assad military vehicles and heavy equipment.

This video claims to show an FSA brigade storming a building that was reportedly headquarters for the shabiha in East Ghouta. We'd caution that while Ugarit is a trusted source, we've seen similar videos, but many of these buildings look similar on the inside, and we do not believe we've seen this video before:

This means that for at least the 4th time in 6 weeks, the FSA has captured a major military base east of the capital and raided it for weapons and supplies. The prevailing theory for the FSA successes in the rest of the country is that Assad has been moving forces away from the other fronts and towards the capital. This makes FSA victories like this one even more clear demonstrations of how weak the regime really has become.

See also Syria Analysis with Videos: The Insurgent Advances Across the Country

1612 GMT: Syria. Earlier, statements from both the Al Nusra Front and the Tawid Brigade suggested that neither would recognize the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition. However, many activists doubt the validity of the claims, which are now being denied by some FSA-linked social media accounts. Hama Echo tweets a summary of a conversation he said he had with the joint command:

A journalist from Al Jazeera English suggests that these were rogue members of the Taweed brigade who made this statement:

1502 GMT: Syria. Yesterday, the Syrian insurgents made significant progress in Aleppo, Idlib, Damascus, and Deir Ez Zor, capturing several key bases, and their equipment, and cutting deep into Assad's capability to wage his war. We've posted videos and analysis in a separate entry:

See also Syria Analysis with Videos: The Insurgent Advances Across the Country

Now, we've found more evidence that some of the weapons captured by the FSA in Aleppo province are more significant than we were originally aware of.

This video, sent to us by blogger Brown Moses, shows more weapons captured by the FSA on the base of the regime's 46th regiment in western Aleppo. What's significant? Sticking out of one of the crates is an SA-16 anti-aircraft missile launcher. Even more importantly, it's stacked on top of many other similar looking crates, possibly indicating that the FSA may have captured a stockpile of weapons that could seriously endanger Assad's air power in the area:

Brown Moses is updating an entry of his own where he is cataloging the weapons captured by the FSA. So far, he's seen tanks, artillery, and ammunition of significant importance:

I've seen one D-30 Howitzer hooked up to a T-55 in the newer videos, plus D-30 ammo in other videos.

1450 GMT: Syria. Apparently, the language of the Italian statement (see below) is far more complicated than originally reported:

Monti made the comments Monday at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, saying "Italy recognizes the coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people." He stressed that the Foreign Ministry is still deciding on any further steps.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with the practice of the premier's office, said Italy was giving the Syrian National Council "political" recognition, not diplomatic.

1427 GMT: Syria. Now Italy makes a significant diplomatic move:

"The sole representative" is the key word - this shuts the door on the Assad regime, effectively making Assad the insurgent and the Syrian opposition the government that belongs in Damascus. This allows the Syrian opposition to negotiate diplomatically with the international community, and it allows it to be in charge of distributing aid - both humanitarian, and military.

At the end of the day, it's also the first step that would need to be taken in order for international powers to intervene militarily to remove the Assad regime. Still, without the UK, the US, or most of Europe and NATO, these are small steps in that direction.

1400 GMT: Turkey/Syria. Today there are rumors and reports of escalation between the Syrian insurgents, under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, and the Kurdish PKK/PYD forces in northern Syria. Firat News reports:

Two armed groups affiliated to Free Syrian Army have once again attacked the people in the city of Serêkaniyê in West Kurdistan on Monday, killing City Council President Abid Xelil and one young demonstrator. The groups were pushed out of the city following an intervention by People’s Defense Units (YPG) forces. Clashes are reported to be continuing in some areas.

According to reports received, armed groups tried to prevent the march organized in the city by High Kurdish Council which was established last July.

Two armed groups, named El Sam and Nasra, opened fire to City Council President Abid Xelil and a group of Kurdish security forces who asked them to give way to the march. Abid Xelil and a youngster died, three members of Kurdish security forces were wounded in the attack which was immediately responded by YPG forces.

If "Nasra" is the "Al Nusra Front," which we're not sure it is, it's significant that Al Nusra today refused to sign on to the leadership of the new Syrian National Coalition (see updates below).

This story is given even more significance when paired with unconfirmed reports such as the one below:

It is now possible that the Turkish forces and the Syrian insurgents are working together against the PKK and PYD. IF this is true, it could be a precondition of Turkey's military support against the Syrian regime.

We'll watch this situation carefully to see if rumors resemble reality.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started this morning.

1344 GMT: Syria. More on today's statement by 13 Islamist groups rejecting the opposition "umbrella" National Coalition (see 0945 GMT)....

The groups, mainly based in Aleppo Province, declared, "We are the representatives of the fighting formations in Aleppo and we declare our rejection of the conspiratorial project, the so-called national alliance. We have unanimously agreed to urgently establish an Islamic state and to reject any foreign project.”

Coalition head Moaz al-Khatib, speaking in Cairo after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, said, “We will listen to our brothers who have not joined this alliance. We will keep in contact with them for more cooperation in the interest of the Syrian people."

The Free Syrian Army reiterated support for the Coalition:

1132 GMT: Jordan. Brian Whitaker summarises the latest developments after last week's protests over rising fuel prices included calls for the downfall of the monarchy....

King Abdullah of Jordan paid tribute to his security forces yesterday while visiting injured officers in hospital: "They are our brothers and our sons, who displayed the highest level of professionalism, responsibility and wisdom in dealing with the recent events," he said.

Fifty-eight police officers were reportedly injured during last week's riots which also led to the death of one activist.

In what appears to be a government fightback on the public relations front, Petra --- the official news agency -- says "tribal chiefs and community leaders" (who are not named) also visited injured security personnel in hospital....

Petra also says it has been sent statements from more than a dozen tribes across the kingdom "in which they denounced the riots and the targeting of security forces".

Another of Petra's news items says that in Naour, 30km southwest of Amman, representatives of the local community "shared lunch with the district’s police station personnel and 15 other stations and gendarmerie personnel at various posts". The organisers said that the initiative is "a small fraction of our debt to public security personnel', who are undergoing 'so much to protect us and our properties".

The Jordan Times also reports complaints from shopkeepers in Amman's upmarket district of Jabal Hussein, blaming demonstrators for lost business.

Store owners and employees were forced to ask customers to leave their stores immediately as they rushed to close their shops, fearing that they would be damaged during last week’s demonstrations over the lifting of fuel subsidies.

Noting that their sales have been on the decline over the past few weeks and they hardly make profits, owners of shops in Jabal Hussein said the demonstrations in the area only worsened the situation.

Meanwhile the Associated Press reports that 89 people have been charged with "inciting violent revolt" and could face up to 15 years in jail. A further 39 are still being questioned.

Reuters has a slightly different version. Citing judicial officials, it says 130 demonstrators, many of them in their teens, are being detained for 15 days and could be charged with "threatening to undermine the regime, illegal gathering, and creating civil strife" – charges that Reuters says could result in up to five years' jail.

Reuters says convictions in such cases are rare, adding that "dozens of protesters arrested for insulting [King] Abdullah during smaller Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations were pardoned".

Musa Abdallat, a human rights lawyer quoted by Reuters, says: "They have been arrested to put pressure on them to retreat from their stances. Putting them in prison for their political views only leads to more frustration."

1022 GMT: Syria. Insurgents moving house-to-house after last week's capture of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border, looking for pro-regime "shabiha":

1018 GMT: Bahrain. Religious leaders Elias Al Marzooq and Shaikh Hassan Al Aali have been questioned by police amid Ministry of Interior warnings against anti-regime speeches.

The two men were released but have had their cases referred to the Public Prosecution.

who took part in anti-government chanting during Ashoora events had also been summoned for questioning.

"Several incidents have occurred during Ashoora events in Bahrain that mix religion and politics and aim to incite the crowd," Assistant Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs Colonel Rashid Bu Hammoud said.

The Ministry warned yesterday, "While freedom of religion is celebrated in Bahrain, it is not an iron curtain behind which politically explosive activities can be used to incite people towards violence."

1015 GMT: Syria. German Minister of Defence Thomas de Maiziere has confirmed that Turkey will ask today for NATO missiles to be placed on the Syrian border to defend against mortar rounds.

De Maiziere said the US, the Netherlands, and Germany --- the three NATO members with the Patriot missile system --- will evaluate the request "in an open way and with solidarity".

The Dutch Minister of Defense minister said the Netherlands was waiting for a Turkish request.

1005 GMT: Turkey. Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin said today that Ankara will hold talks with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

On Sunday, more than 700 Kurdish prisoners ended a 68-day hunger strike in response to an appeal from detained PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, reportedly following his discussions with Turkish intelligence agency officials.

Ergin did not say when talks might take place. In recent years, Turkish officials have had secret discussions with senior PKK representatives in Oslo.

More than 40,000 people have died in the 28-year conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK.

0945 GMT: Syria. Leading Islamist insurgent groups in Aleppo Province, including the Al-Nusra Front and Liwa al-Tawhid, have rejected the newly-formed opposition National Coalition.

In a video posted on the Internet (see top of entry), the groups said, ""We, the fighting squads of Aleppo city and province, unanimously reject the conspiratorial project of the National Coalition and announce our consensus to establish an Islamic state."

0745 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report that 78 people were killed by security forces on Sunday, including 26 in Damascus and its suburbs and 15 in Aleppo Province.

Although the LCC claimed 68 clashes between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces, news from the battlefront slowed after insurgents captured the Hamdan airport in Deir Ez Zor Province on Friday.

The diplomatic front also offered little on Sunday. Many of the international actors, having expended weeks of effort behind the re-structuring of the opposition and the declaration of a National Coalition, are now occupied with the Gaza crisis, with Friday's meeting in London producing no firm resolutions.

Iran used the space on Sunday to make its move, proclaiming a gathering of almost 200 Syrians from the regime and the opposition in a "national dialogue" in Tehran. In the end, however, the meeting was a platform for Iranian posturing, rather than any movement among the Syrian groups.

Attention may shift to Brussels today, where European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss the crisis. Speculation has centred on whether the ministers will authorise a limited supply of arms to insurgents --- France has already indicated it will support the measure.

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