2107 GMT: Bahrain Government authorities claim they have arrested a "domestic terror cell" responsible for planting "fake bombs in several crowded areas throughout Bahrain". They don't specify what a "fake bomb" actually is, but do say that they found one when they raided the house of one of the suspects.
Yesterday, newly appointed Bahrain Government Spokesperson Sameera Rajab told pro-regime newspaper Gulf Daily News that reports of an imminent terrorist attack were baseless and being spread "to create panic and chaos".
2103 GMT: Syria. For over an hour we've been looking at, analyzing, and searching for additional videos after several different sources posted images from the air-defense base that was captured by the FSA yesterday southwest of Damascus, near Hajar al Aswad and Buwaydah (map, see yesterday's entries).
Another blogger uploads this video, which may have been taken outside the same base (note the anti-aircraft missiles held by the soldiers in the front):
We're working to verify these videos and ensure that they all show the same base, but this matches the Reuters headline that a significant Assad headquarters fell to insurgents yesterday.
Note, there were more rumors of FSA ambushes to the south, but there were also reports that the civilian populace nearby was heavily shelled today.
1935 GMT: Syria.
The mortar shell seems to have hit a mobile clinic bus, the bus has lots of shrapnel and bullet holes in it. #Damascus— NMSyria (@NMSyria) November 20, 2012
We've skimmed the video - there is nothing dramatic in it, and no sounds of gunfire. Security forces (and plain clothed men - shabiha?) pick up the sharpnel near a bus and several cars that were damaged. It's unclear if all the holes are shrapnel holes, or there were bullet holes as well.
This looks, generally, like the right location, though we haven't seen any night pictures that exactly match the building where we think the explosion went off.
It's likely that immediately after the explosion there was gunfire, but it did not last long. The security response would have been very quick.
A mortar shell hit near Almadfa Park followed by heavy gunfire. Regime security forces maintain a heavy presence and are thoroughly searching what is known as one of the wealthiest districts of Syria which many government officials call home.
Another Twitter account, claiming to be from Damascus, adds this - which throws water on an already damp theory that this explosion was a misfired regime rocket:
It is possible that a rocket was launched, but it was likely a retaliation for either this attack or the one that hit Mezzeh earlier tonight.
Residents in central Damascus have never reported anything quite like this. Even though this looks like a relatively small incursion, it was deep inside regime lines, and should shake up a lot of people, both inside the regime and the civilians who live nearby.
Damascus: Abou Roummaneh: Many wounded were reported as a result of a mortar shell that landed near Madfaa Garden at the heart of the capital; this was accompanied by heavy gunfire and an immediate regime security deployment.
We're watching this closely. This may not be that significant of an event, or it could be an attempt to topple the regime in the middle of the night. Stay tuned...
1854 GMT: Syria. More information on the explosion in central Damascus (see previous):
Tall building in background is the Four Seasons hotel. #PT— NMSyria (@NMSyria) November 20, 2012
The Four Seasons is extremely central (map). Note the gunfire (you can't see the impact of the rocket or mortar).
Right now there are two theories. The first, matches reports that a rocket was fired, not a mortar, and left from the regime's bases in Qassion mountain. The line, in red, could mean that that this was a rocket was perhaps targeting FSA positions to the south, near Hajar al Aswad, and the rocket malfunctioned.
The second scenario, marked in Green, shows the FSA possibly firing a mortar round from somewhere southwest of Damascus towards sensitive areas of the regime.
View Syria - 2012 November 20 - EA Worldview in a larger map
But in the 1st scenario, where is the gunfire coming from? In the second scenario, it is possible that this is a coordinated attack on regime positions inside the capital (deep inside).
1819 GMT: Syria. A report that "stray regime rockets," not mortar shells, have hit central Damascus:
Looking at Abu Roumaneh on the map, it is close to not only major government offices, but also the Ministry of Information which was reportedly hit by opposition mortar shells earlier today, and the Tishreen Stadium, which was by some accounts the target of that mortar attack because it is reportedly used by regime artillery and rocket batteries.
View Syria - 2012 November 20 - EA Worldview in a larger map
We also can't shake the feeling that this breaking report from the pro-Assad SANA state media is related to all this:
Dar al Baath (map) is in the Mezzeh district (map), but close to the line with Darayya, where extremely heavy fighting has intensified fro days.
Regime rockets? It's possible, and we have no hard evidence either way yet. However, the pattern suggests that insurgent mortars, not regime rockets, are the primary suspects here.
1753 GMT: Syria. Some late-breaking and unverified news:
reports of a huge explosion in Abu Roumaneh in Central Damascus a little bit ago. Abu Roumaneh is as central as it gets. #Syria— farooos (@farGar) November 20, 2012
We're looking into it now - the rumor that it is a mortar explosion is particularly interesting.
1729 GMT: Kuwait EA's John Horne reports:
On Sunday, four Twitter users were ordered to be detained for 10 days, charged with insulting the Emir of Kuwait online. Citing the Kuwait Human Rights News Center, AFP reports that the four individuals were arrested on Wednesday and held in police custody before the public prosecution issued detention order. A further three Twitter users, including a woman, were also arrested last Wednesday. The three were later released on $3,550 bail.
1723 GMT: Syria/Egypt UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Cairo today for talks on the latest developments in Syria. Brahimi will reportedly meet with Egyptian government and Arab League officials, along with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He is also expected to meet with Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and other Syrian opposition figures.
Brahimi arrives to Egypt from the Gulf where he had meetings in Kuwait and UAE.
1649 GMT: Bahrain Human rights activists from Bahrain, along with members of opposition political societies, have been meeting in The Hague. BBC journalist Anna Holligan reports that at a press conference, the activists "accuse UK and US of being complicit in human rights abuses by failing to hold [the] Bahraini government to account for [its] actions". Holligan adds that the activists called for "diplomatic sanctions against leaders" and "recommended travel bans and freezing of assets".
1640 GMT: Syria. A new statement from the Al-Taweed Brigade in Aleppo (Arabic):
Liwaa al-Tawhid released statement saying they support National Coalition as long as it doesn't marginalise themyoutube.com/watch?v=-VB95o…— Basma بسمة (@Basma_) November 20, 2012
Yesterday there was a statement put out by Al-Taweed that neither their brigade nor the Al Nusra Front would accept the leadership of the new National Coalition. However, activists threw cold water on this theory and claimed that it was made by a small group of people claiming to represent the group. Perhaps there was division inside the Taweed Brigade yesterday, and those differences have been ironed out.
Either way, a unified front is particularly important in Aleppo right now, where the hard-line IIslamists have been cooperating with the other Syrian opposition groups, but the relationship has been tense.
1632 GMT: Egypt. EA's John Horne reports:
There has been a second day of clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo, following the demonstration held yesterday to commemorate last years so-called Mohamed Mahmoud Street massacre which left 40 activists dead. Ahram Online reports on todays violence which:
Stones were being exchanged on Sheikh Rihan Street, parallel to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, at around midday on Tuesday.
Children, some of them wearing school uniforms, were standing on the wall separating protesters and CSF. They were throwing stones and making obscene gestures to the officers.
It remains unclear why the clashes erupted. The interior ministry, which admitted tear gas canisters were launched at protesters, said fighting began when "lurkers" threw stones and Molotov cocktails at security officers on Qasr El-Aini Street.
1621 GMT: Syria. More reports of intense shelling of Darayya - the Shaam News Network uploads this video, reportedly showing several explosions in the city:
Shots fired from Syria on Tuesday hit an IDF jeep traveling near the Tel Hazeka outpost in the central Golan Heights region. The vehicle was damaged by what is thought to be stray gunfire from the continued fighting in Syria, but there were no reports of injury. The soldiers did not return fire.
According to the report shots were fired across the border 4 times last week alone.
1540 GMT: Egypt EA's John Horne reports:
The International Monetary Fund team in Cairo has reached a preliminary, staff-level agreement with the Egyptian government for a $4.8 billion loan. The team has been in negotiations. The proposal will be presented to the IMF Executive Board for approval on 19 December.
Many in Egypt are very concerned about the possible terms of an agreement, particularly the fears that it will result in a weaking of labour laws and privatisation of public services. There are likely to be further protests opposing the loan in coming days. In a statement announcing the agreement, the head of the IMF's team, Andreas Bauer, said:
An important objective of the authorities is to ensure a fair and competitive business environment with a level playing field among investors. Accordingly, the authorities intend to enhance the transparency of registration and licensing procedures, facilitate the resolution of investment disputes, and support small and medium-size enterprises. Fair and unencumbered access of businesses to economic opportunities is important for a socially balanced private sector growth and job creation.
1529 GMT: Syria. There are concerns that a new type of ammunition is being used against insurgents (and civilians) in Idlib province:
Multiple sources report that this shell (or possibly a bomb dropped by the airforce, it's unclear), created secondary explosions. Some have even reported that the smoke is poisonous. More likely, this looks like the fires set by the explosion are burning for long periods of time after the shells fall, possibly because an incendiary is being used inside smaller shells (an incendiary cluster bomb?).
Either way, the pattern is that the areas around the front lines are getting bombed and shelled with greater frequency as the Assad military becomes frustrated at their lack of progress.
1520 GMT: Syria. One of the chief concerns for many Western onlookers has been the fate of Christians in the warn-torn country. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, working with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and others, have carefully debunked some of those rumors over the last few months. In the newest installment, Al-Tamimi does a complete (and well-cited) evidence review and comes to this conclusion:
The evidence surveyed here does not, as of yet, suggest the existence of an organized campaign of militant Islamic persecution of Christians throughout Syria, especially along the lines of what has happened in Iraq since 2003. Indeed, one should not overlook the fact that Christians have been playing active roles in the opposition. At the same time, disinformation exists about this phenomenon too. Have there been incidents of anti-Christian violence in Syria? Undoubtedly, but one should always be alert to those pro-Assad propaganda outlets which are willing to exploit, for their own ends, what they see as Western concerns about the status of Christians in the country. In addition, analysts should be more nuanced, looking at which Christians might be more inclined to support the regime, and examining the reasons for such support. At the same time, one must avoid complacency: the ever-growing infiltration of Syria by foreign jihadists (e.g. from Jordan to the south) poses an increasing threat to the survival of the various Christian communities of Syria.
Al-Tamimi's work is particularly relevant because of an interesting development. Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit priest who defected from the Assad regime, has returned to Syria, and according to some activists has traveled to Idlib, the stronghold of the opposition:
1447 GMT: Syria. According to the latest tally by the Local Coordination Committees, 40 people have already been killed today by Assad forces, and almost none of them are where one would expect the deaths to be:
20 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (10 of them were martyred in Daraya), 8 martyrs in Aleppo, 7 martyrs in Lattakia, 3 martyrs in Idlib, 1 martys in Raqqa and 1 martyrs in Hasaka.
Second, ignoring for a moment that half of today's deaths are in Damascus, what's amazing is that the deaths in Lattakia (a regime "stronghold"), Al Raqqah, and Hassakah, nearly outnumber the deaths in Aleppo and Idlib (with no reported deaths in Homs, Hama, or Daraa). In other words, even though these numbers are small and just a single sample, the quietest areas of the conflict, thus far, are starting to look like the new front lines.
Beyond this - Damascus is a mess. We've covered the fighting in Darayya, but other areas have also been hard hit. Take this livestream, for instance, reportedly shot in Douma, northeast of the capital, today:
Or this incredible video which reportedly shows a shell fall on a cemetery at approximately the same time as a funeral procession was occurring in Dumair, northwest of Damascus:
@jmiller_ea Some firefights, very heavy on the explosions, cannot tell if tank or artillery. Broadcaster cites MiGs also, so aerial attacks.— Mr. Green (@Guardian_Mario) November 20, 2012
The CFDPC, a network of activists who report on Damascus and its suburbs, provide a video gallery and this summary:
Since early morning regime forces began to shell with artillery the eastern areas while MIG fighter jets shelled residential areas in the middle of Daraya. Regime forces continue in their attempt to storm the area from several sides with tanks, armored vehicles and hundreds of soldiers.
Martyrs of Daraya Brigade, with the help of other brigades of FSA, managed to reject the assault of regime forces for the 4th consecutive day.
1413 GMT: Syria. According to State Television, Syrian rebels fired mortar shells, two of which hit the roof of the Information Ministry in Damascus. Furthermore, Reuters reports that the Syrian military is getting bogged down in their attempts to establish control over an important suburb just west of Damascus:
Fierce fighting has since erupted in Daraya, which is on the southwestern edge of Damascus. The rebels in the area have deployed near the main southern highway leading out of the capital city, opposition activists said.
Elite Republican Guard troops backed by tanks were trying to storm Daraya but met with fierce resistance from rebels there, who have regrouped after a big army offensive on the area killed an estimated 1,100 people six weeks ago.
Just southeast of Darayya, near Hajar al Aswad, is where the FSA sacked the air-defense base yesterday. It is noteworthy that battles of this nature are not happening hundreds of miles away, but on the doorstep of the regime.
"Her majesty's government has decided to recognize the national coalition of Syrian revolution and opposition forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," Hague told parliament.
The statement could not be more clear. The UK now joins the rest of the EU, the Arab League, and the GCC in this sentiment.
Add this to news that Turkey has secured an order of Patriot Missiles from NATO, and it could mean that the west is, at the very least, dramatically increasing diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and, at most, potentially preparing for the possibility of a no-flyz zone over northern Syria.
James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.
The fighters attacked Sheikh Suleiman, 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the Turkish border and 30 kilometres (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo. The battle is ongoing.
"The fighters have taken three artillery pieces and have entered most of the base. Fighter jets are flying over the area to try and force them out," said Abu Mujahed al-Halabi of the opposition Sham News Network.An insurgent source said the fighters took large stocks of explosives from the site and will soon withdraw to avoid retaliatory airstrikes.
Turkey has been talking to NATO allies about security on its 900-kilometre (560-mile) frontier with Syria after recent episodes in which Syrian mortar rounds landed inside Turkey and Ankara's forces responded with artillery.
"The countries who supply NATO with Patriot systems are known, we have reached an agreement with those countries. The official application will be completed as soon as possible," Davutoğlu said. "Intensive work is underway and the talks have reached the final stage."
"Assad is gone! I am very happy. Until now, we didn't even have ID cards," says Abdi Karim, 56, with a tired but big smile.
Karim is a fighter in the People's Defence Units (YPG, in Kurdish) in Derik, in what he considers Syria's Kurdistan in the northeast of the country, near the borders with Turkey and Iraq.
The YPG is an armed militia that has been publicly active in this region for at least the last four months. Recently, the YPG and residents of Derik (known as al Malkia in Arabic) forced the last of the regime's troops and police to leave the town.
"We have the rifles to protect the people here, just to protect," Karim said pointing at his old AK-47 and talking in the building, where president Bashar al-Assad's intelligence services once had their base in Derik.
In Derik, on November 12, celebratory shots were heard and crowds were cheering and chanting in the streets after the last of Assad's forces left town. A truck blasted Kurdish music and people on top delivered speeches in the Kurdish language, which they say had been forbidden for decades in the region.
0715 GMT: Syria. James Miller summarizes why his conclusions were so strong yesterday:
Each day provides new evidence, in the form of YouTube videos and activist reports posted to social media pages, of what is happening in Syria. Sometimes, eyewitness reports are quickly verified by YouTube videos, foreign journalists, or other forms of triangulation. Often, however, the video evidence is light, inconclusive, or non-existent. Obviously, sometimes this is because the rumors are just that. Sometimes, however, there are activities performed by both the Assad regime and the insurgency that are just poorly documented. In isolation, this is not a big deal, as each individual incident is so sadly inconsequential in a country where more than 40,000 people have died. Collectively, however, these badly-documented incidents have hidden several trends.
EA is always cautious with what it posts, relying on claims and trends that have the strongest evidence. However, at several points in this conflict there have been collections of bad data that suggested that EA, and the media at large, was missing a trend. For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.
For more than a week, however, that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.
Two trends are clear - The Assad regime is retreating, pulling many units towards the capital and leaving its garrisons to fend for themselves - and they are fending poorly. Meanwhile, the FSA continues to ratchet up pressure on the capital, and despite the fact that Damascus is now the highest priority of the Assad military, those advances are accelerating.
Is it a state of collapse? Perhaps it's too early to say, and we're not predicting a sudden collapse even if that were true. Regardless, it is my conclusion that we have been too cautious in estimating the strengths of the insurgency, and this is saying something because we have been consistently more hawkish (and I would argue more accurate) than many media outlets who assess the strength of the Syrian insurgents.
In the last four days, the Free Syrian Army has won clear victories in Aleppo province, capturing the 12 kilometer long base belonging to the regime's 46th regiment, and capturing many pieces of important weaponry in the process. There are many reports that the FSA siege of the Wadi al Daif base near Ma'arrat al Nouman has intensified, and the insurgents have destroyed more key equipment there in recent days. There are also reports that the FSA is pushing further northeast on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. Meanwhile, all the FSA forces that have been sieging the 46th regiment's base will be free to push south towards Idlib and east towards Aleppo. The trend is clear - eventually, without a complete reversal of fate, the FSA will have a united front from Lattakia to Aleppo city. The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months, and without fresh supplies and reinforcements for the Assad military, and in light of significant surges in troops and equipment in the ranks of the insurgents, this trend is unlikely to reverse.
In 4-5 days the FSA has captured Al Bukamal, the Hamdan air base outside of it, and anotehr major airbase near Deir Ez Zor. It is clear that the FSA has broken the stalemate in the east, and with Assad forces focused on the west, the insurgents may pick up momentum. Either way, they have also captured lots of equipment, while knocking out several of Assad's largest and most feared air bases.
In Damascus, in 2 days the FSA has captured at least 2 major bases, and possibly a third (one to the east, 1-2 in the southwest). The FSA is also pushing deeper into the suburbs on both sides of the city. Beyond this, the FSA has captured at least 3 other major air defense bases to the east of the city in the last two months. While the insurgents have not tried to hold these bases, they have been raided for equipment. It is also possible that the FSA has now captured so much anti-aircraft weaponry in the region that the regime's airforce is afraid to directly attack the insurgents. This is a hypothesis, but one that we're uncertain of. Regardless, the stepped-up efforts to focus on Damascus have not resulted in a weakened insurgency.
Things to watch for - there were reports of large battles inside Hama and inside al Hassakah, two other regions that are now in play. Whether these are skirmishes, or the start of larger campaigns, is not known. Similarly, in Lattakia, the FSA continues to push deeper into the mountains, slowly working its way towards the coast, and in Daraa there are now daily reports of battles between the regime and insurgents. The FSA is not yet in a position to directly establish control of either region, but these battles will distract the Assad regime and eat away at the Assad military. Furthermore, if the FSA is not taken seriously in both places, it is possible to have a relatively small force of insurgents capture territory, which would significantly broaden the fronts.
The trends are extremely clear - the Assad regime is foundering militarily. But it still has considerably strength, in pure numbers, bases, tanks and territory, that it will have to shed before it completely collapses.
0550 GMT: Syria. As I was editing and posting James Miller's analysis of the military situation yesterday, he and I discussed the conclusion. I had slightly toned down his portrayal of the scale of insurgent victories over the last 72 hours, so he asked, "My conclusion on the syria piece too strong? It's my understanding that the regime has lost huge amounts of territory." I replied, "Maybe not but let's give this a few days to see if these advances 'bed down'."
Within hours, my caution may have been obsolete. In a series of notable developments yesterday afternoon and evening, the Free Syrian Army and other units took regime positions, including airbases. They did so not only in the north, where we had been expecting the advance, but also around Damascus. Opposition fighters advanced to the northeast of the capital, took position in al-Hajar al-Aswas to the south, and made progress in East Ghouta to the east.
Miller summarised, "It's not clear from either Reuters nor our own sources whether these victories were any larger than we initially thought," but he came back to our conversation earlier in the day with this observation:
This does not diminish the narrative that the Assad military is in serious trouble. Even though the regime's military may be collapsing, it still has a lot of territory to lose before it implodes.
Is this the start of both a military and a political endgame? I suspect EA staff will continue the discussion today, with my own position that we are somewhere in the middle --- beyond any hope that the regime can re-establish control, but still not at the point where the departure of President Assad and his inner circle is imminent.