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Wednesday
Nov282012

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Insurgents Challenge the Regime in the Air

Aftermath of this morning's explosions in Jaramana in south Damascus, which reportedly killed up to 40 people


2146 GMT: Syria. Markito0171, who curates and maps Syrian Youtube videos, adds clarification that there were reports that one of the bases south of Aleppo fell yesterday, and the other today.

2122 GMT: Syria. The Free Syrian Army has captured yet another anti-aircraft base near Aleppo, this time near Assan, south of the city (map).

Another source suggests that this base is the headquarters of the 608 regime, though that is unclear. Still, there are plenty of videos that have been posted in the last few hours:

Another major victory? There's also a trend. The FSA is targeting relatively small anti-aircraft bases, capturing equipment that can be used against the Assad regime, but also looking for ways to confront the Assad airforce. Furthermore, there is a suspicion that they may have received encouragement to specifically target anti-aircraft bases, as this removes a threat to any foreign aircraft that could potentially engage in a no-fly zone.

And now there are more rumors - this base is south of the international airport in Aleppo, but there are reports that part of the base has been overrun by insurgents - we're looking into the claims now.

1934 GMT: Syria. Al Jazeera reports that, according to their sources there, "Deir Ez Zor is burning."

The LCC reports that rockets, coming from the Deir Ez Zor military airport, have hit Mohassen in large numbers.

Yesterday, we posted video of Jabhat al Nusra's victory in Mayadin. Though there were reportedly other units engaged in the fight, the Al Nusra Front and its subsidiaries appear to have taken the lead. Guardian's Martin Chulov summarizes:

Jabhat al-Nusra members were solely responsible for the raid on the Mayedin base in eastern Syria over the weekend and are believed to have played roles in the sacking of several northern airfields. A video posted on Tuesday shows members of the group returning to their headquarters with weapons they had looted, including a tank.

The gathering strength of the jihadist group, as well as the more potent weaponry now available, is likely to pose a series of challenges to the Assad regime, as it attempts to hold on to Syria's two leading cities.

The bottom line analysis is that the media, and partially as a result the governments of the world, have miscalculated. The Assad regime is weaker than they anticipated, and the insurgents, many of whom are now flocking from Iraq, are stronger. While the world fretted about Islamic jihadis in Syria when there were hardly any present in the opposition, they delayed action until now - and now there are thousands. I've summarized some of my thoughts (pure editorial) here , but it's safe to say that the world is now scrambling to react after months of miscalculation.

1926 GMT: Syria. The LCC has drastically raised the death toll for today, though most of the new dead are from this morning's bombings in Damascus. LCC now reports 141 deaths nationwide:

96 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (77 of them were martyred in explosion in Jaramana); 13 in Aleppo; 12 in Daraa; 8 in Idlib; 6 in Homs; 3 in Hama; 2 in Deir Ezzor; 1 in Gollan; and 1 in Swaida.

1901 GMT: Syria. We're still looking for videos, but the LCC is making a bold claim on their Facebook page:

Today the Free Syrian Army downed 4 warplanes, 2 in Aleppo and 2 in Idlib, a helicopter in Damascus Suburbs, and treated a pilot who was injured when his plane was downed.

Beyond the single downed jet fighter, however, we have seen no visual evidence for the other claims. Also, yesterday, the LCC reported a jet fighter was shot down in eastern Damascus, and several other Arab media outlets, including Al Jazeera Arabic, reported that 2 additional helicopters were shot down besides the one incident that we documented yesterday.

Obviously the rate at which the opposition is shooting Assad aircraft out of the sky is increasing, but undocumented claims seem to be escalating faster than the documented ones.

Videos may surface soon.

1829 GMT: Syria. 100 people have been killed so far today across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

61 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (35 of them were martyred in explosion in Jaramana); 13 in Aleppo; 7 in Idlib; 6 in Homs; 6 in Daraa; 3 in Hama; 2 in Deir Ezzor; 1 in Gollan; and 1 in Swaida.

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

1653 GMT: Syria. An important claim:

Peter Bouckaert, Emergency Director of Human Rights Watch, tells us that the system shown in this video is a complete SA-16 MANPADS system - meaning that missiles could have been fired, and the gripstock used for multiple missiles. As we know from many videos that multiple SA-16s have been raided from nearby bases, and we know that the helicopter shot down in this area yesterday appears to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile (SAM), we now know that the FSA is capable of knocking Assad's aircraft out of the sky with a far more advanced weapon than they have used before.

1642 GMT: Syria. The opposition's new leadership, uner the organization of the National Coalition, has met in Cairo today for their first meeting, and the goal is to establish a transitional government that can take the lead now and after Assad falls:

"The objective is to name the prime minister for a transitional government, or at least have a list of candidates ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting," said Suhair al-Atassi, one of the coalition's two vice-presidents.

Atassi is only one of three female members of the coalition, in which the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies account for around 40 to 45 percent.

...

"We have ideological differences with the coalition, but it will achieve its mission if it brings us outside military help," said Abu Nidal Mustafa, from Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist rebel unit in Damascus.

1633 GMT: Syria. Yesterday we posted a video that appeared to show an Assad jet fighter throwing off flares after it dropped a bomb on Darayya, flares which are used as countermeasures for anti-aircraft weapons.

That interpretation may have been wrong. Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, believes that what we could be seeing is the use of ZAB incendiary cluster bombs. ZABs consist of small bomblets, each of which ignites after leaving the launcher (thus the "flares" may be the trails of the bomblets). Both HRW and Brown Moses have posted other analysis of evidence that the Syrian military is using ZABs against civilians.

Bouckaert has also shared with me video of yesterday's bombing of an olive press factory in Idlib province. According to him, the remains of the bomb seen in some of the videos looks like PTAB 2.5M bomblets from a RBK clusterbomb. The video is graphic in nature.

1605 GMT: Syria. Yesterday, we saw a video that we thought was a car bomb in Qaboun, Damascus, but we could find no report about a car bomb. Now, the CFDPC provides a narrative that makes more sense:

Clashes resumed in the neighborhood, and FSA could destroy a Zil vehicle [armored personnel carrier] full of ammunition that is for regime forces, while Assad's snipers targeted civilians amid heavy shelling that claimed the lives of 4 martyrs.

1509 GMT: Saudi Arabia. Finally, video of King Abdullah speaking to some advisers after recovering from surgery:

1500 GMT: Syria. The western suburbs of Damascus have been a focal point of some of the most extreme shelling today. The LCC reports that Darayya and Moudamyah, just west of the capital, have been hit with bombs, shells, and rockets. More concerning, activists are increasingly describing "poisonous" gases released by some of the bombs. They describe weapons that burn, releasing noxious fumes while on the ground. This sounds as if they are describing white phosphorous, but without a clear video it's hard to tell. Regardless, it is clear that the suburbs have been hammered again, as the regime tries to assert control over towns that are just kilometers away from the most sensitive headquarters of the Assad regime.

In Darayya, this livestream just ended moments ago (and another has begun) showing that the gunfire and explosions has not stopped because of sundown.

1449 GMT: Syria. Yestreday we posted some incredibly gripping video from Tafas, north of Daraa, where regime tanks moved into the city and the gunfire and explosions rocked the town for hours on end (one video we posted was over 50 minutes long!). Today, videos like the one below show the FSA attacking regime forces inside the town. Though the insurgency in Daraa does not resemble that which is so powerful in Deir Ez Zor, or even the insurgency in Idlib and Aleppo, it is a growing force, and battles such as this one are far more common in the last month than they have ever been.

Another video shows smoke rising from the town, reportedly the result of the regime's shelling - though potentially the result of tank shells.

1440 GMT: Saudi Arabia. The King lives (see entry 1405):

In the footage shown on state tv, Saudi King Abdullah could b... on Twitpic

1417 GMT: Syria. The Syrian government is constantly publishing its own narrative of the conflict. Every day there are "terrorists" killed, Al Qaeda operatives captured, and civilians killed by nefarious characters acting against the state. It's not that the Syrian government has an alternative version of events, it's that the claims made by the government and the ones made by the opposition are so far apart that it's often hard to even determine whether they are referencing the same events.

This said, we pay particular attention when the two narratives align. Al Jazeera's Rula Amin now says that both the government and the opposition are preparing for the "Battle for Damascus."

The government has claimed that the armed opposition has begun recruiting between 20 and 30,000 fighters for a possible operation in Damascus. Our correspondent said so far, the opposition has not denied the government's claim.

Until now, opposition fighters had embarked on "hit-and-run style" attacks in the capital, but if the reports of additional forces are true, Amin said that tactic could quickly change.

1405 GMT: Saudi Arabia. After days of speculation that he may be clinically dead, or in a coma, King Abdullah has reportedly made an appearance:

Details when we have them.

1328 GMT: Palestine. Germany will either abstain or vote against the Palestinian bid for Observer State recogntion at the United Nations.

"We are assessing the situation and want as much agreement as possible with our European partners...But it is certain that Germany will not vote for such a resolution," spokesman Steffen Seibert told a news conference.

France is supporting the resolution, while Britain is likely to abstain.

1321 GMT: Palestine. EA's Scott Lucas reports:

Yet another shift in Britain's position on the Palestinian bid for Observer State recognition at the UN, with London now on the verge of abstention.

Reports on Tuesday indicated that Britain had agreed to support the bid in exchange for Palestinian guarantees that there would be no move for accession to the International Criminal Court. However, Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs today that London would not support the motion, which is expected to pass the General Assembly easily.

Hague continued to indicate that Britain could back Palestinian Statehood with an assurance on the ICC, but he indicated that he was not confident this was forthcoming.

1315 GMT: Yemen/Saudi Arabia. Khalid al-Anzi, the Saudi diplomat to Yemen, and his bodyguard have reportedly been assassinated in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Reuters reports:

'Gunmen opened fire at the Saudi diplomat's car in a neighbourhood in southern Sana'a, killing him and his Yemeni bodyguard,' a Yemeni security official said. He said the diplomat was the assistant military attache at the Saudi embassy.

A spokesman for the Saudi foreign ministry in Riyadh confirmed the killing of the diplomat, and said the ministry would issue a statement shortly.

1304 GMT: Syria. Potentially lost in all the drama - the death toll today is already extremely high, significantly elevated for this early hour, especially near Damascus. The LCC reports that 65 people are already confirmed to have been killed:

43 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs including 35 due to an explosion in Jaramanah; 9 in Aleppo; 5 in Daraa; 3 in Homs; 2 in Hama; 2 in Idlib; and 1 in [Suwaydah].

First, see our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

Second, note the report from Jaramanah. The AFP puts the number killed in today's explosions at 54 (and possibly rising). Why is the LCC number so much lower?

The answer is that the LCC has their own verification method - according to the LCC, they speak with multiple witnesses of known credibility, and often use reports from medics or clerics to verify their reports. As their spokesperson reminded me last night, "the LCC does not publish info unless it has been confirmed." This is an illustration of why we are more likely to trust the LCC.

It's also an illustration of something else. If the LCC is to be believed, and their verification process was followed in this case, it could mean that even the medics or clerics in the pro-regime neighborhood are communicating with the opposition organization.

1256 GMT: Syria. Another video reportedly shows the jet fighter crashing, but it starts too late to see what brought it down. What we do know - it looks like it is in pieces, and on fire, so it is not likely engine failure that brought the jet down. A missile could certainly do this kind of damage, though it's not the only possibility.

1246 GMT: Syria. The day started with an email inbox full of reports that yet another Assad aircraft has been shot down. According to sources, a MiG 23 was brought down (by causes unknown) just west of Daret Izzah, west of Aleppo (map). Just yesterday, the FSA brought down a helicopter east of this town.

This video reportedly shows the wreckage of the jet.

Two more videos claim to show the FSA giving medical treatment to one of the pilots.

With evidence that a shoulder fired missile may have brought down yesterday's helicopter, and plenty of evidence (evidence collected by Damien Spleeters and sent to us by blogger Bjorn Jespersen) that there are many of these weapons in the area, we'll want to look for whether this jet was hit by a missile or knocked down by anti-aircraft fire (or mechanical failure, perhaps).

Regardless, it is another sign that the Assad airforce is increasingly vulnerable, an airforce that is not only the most effective tool the Assad regime has at its disposal, but arguably one of the few effective tools he has left.

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

1110 GMT: Turkey. NATO experts have begun surveying possible locations for Patriot missiles on the Syrian border, according to the Turkish State news agency Anatolia.

Last week Turkey asked NATO partners to deploy the surface-to-air missiles after a series of cross-border shellings. NATO has yet to formally respond to the request.

1103 GMT: Iraq. Industry sources have said oil exports from Kurdistan region have fallen "significantly".

The reason for the reduction is not clear. The autonomous region is locked in a long-running row with Baghdad over payment to oil companies operating in Kurdistan and, more broadly, control of oil deals and contested territory.

0937 GMT: Syria. The Ministry of Interior says 34 people were killed in this morning's explosions in the Jaramana section of Damascus.

Insurgents are blaming the Assad regime and pro-regime "shabiha" militia for the bombs:

0927 GMT: Syria. There are reports of up to 40 people killed in the explosions in Jaramana in south Damascus this morning. The "Jaramana News Network" gives the names of 29 dead and posts photographs:

0857 GMT: Israel. As the diplomatic tide shifts toward acceptance of Palestine as an Observer State by the United Nations General Assembly (see 0757 GMT), Haaretz reports:

[The Netanyahu Government has] realised in the past two days that the Palestinian move in the United Nations is unavoidable, as is the humiliating and painful diplomatic defeat that Israel is about to suffer. Now [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and their cabinet colleagues have to find their way home - both diplomatically and politically.

After long weeks of Israel viewing the Palestinian bid in the United Nations as a grave threat, the Prime Minister's Office and Foreign Ministry now have to back down. Sources associated with Netanyahu and Lieberman are trying to belittle the event in the United Nations and describe it as merely a technical and procedural vote or as a symbolic Palestinian victory devoid of diplomatic significance.

The new Israeli policy involves lowering its media profile. The haughty assertion that Israel will punish the Palestinians the day after the UN vote has disappeared. Lieberman's impassioned threats to bring down the Palestinian Authority have also been put in storage.

Haaretz then describes the "measured and careful" Israeli response:

Israel will stop ignoring the Palestinians' infringement of agreements between the sides and will irritate PA President Mahmoud Abbas by insisting on enacting every clause of every one of the agreements. For example, in the coming months Israel will deduct a debt of NIS 700 million to the Israel Electric Corporation and other debts amounting to several hundred million shekels from tax revenues that it collects for the Palestinians. The significance of such a move, which Israel is allowed to make under the Oslo Accords, would be that for two or three months Israel will withhold the tax monies it normally transfers to the Palestinians every month.

Further reactionary steps will be finalized in the future. If the day after the vote the Palestinians will make do with celebrations in Ramallah and a renewal of negotiations with Israel, as they have declared, then no more punitive steps will be taken. But if Abbas opts to prosecute Israelis in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the reaction will be harsh. "We will wait for a Palestinian move against Israel and then we will have legitimacy to react forcefully," the senior diplomatic source said.

0853 GMT: Iraq. A chart from AFP records 100 killed and 455 wounded by violence so far this month.

0849 GMT: Kuwait. Prominent lawyer and parliamentary candidate Khaled Al-Shatti has been given a one-year sentence on charges that he insulted Sunni Islam.

Al-Shatti, who is Shia, has filed an appeal.

Mansour Haider, the publisher of the news website on which Shatti's comments appeared, was also handed a one-year term.

Shatti's remarks in March 2011 allegedly criticised former Saudi religious leader Abdul Aziz bin Baz and Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.

0845 GMT: Syria. Sections of Homs are reportedly under heavy bombardment by regime forces this morning --- an activist films the scene:

Further video is available from this morning's LiveStream,

0840 GMT: Syria. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations General Assembly has condemned “gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” by Syrian authorities and Government-controlled militias, demanding an immediate halt to the violations and attacks against civilians.

The resolution urged the regime to immediately release all detainees and called for a prompt independent international investigation into abuses, with a view of bringing to justice those responsibles.

The resolution passed 130-12 with 35 abstentions. Russia, China, and Iran were among the objectors.

The resolution did not mention insurgents but did express “grave concern at the escalation of violence” in the country.

0821 GMT: Syria. State media and activists are now reporting more than 20 people killed in this morning's bombings in Jaramana in south Damascus (Photo: Reuters/SANA).

0757 GMT: Palestine. Palestine's United Nations observer has said that its leaders will not seek accession to the International Criminal Court if Palestine wins United Nations recognition as an Observer State.

On Tuesday, Britain switched to support of the Palestinian bid, to be considered by the General Assembly on Thursday, if Palestine agreed not to join the ICC or the International Court of Human Rights. Accession would open the way for the Palestinians to bring charges against Israel for alleged violations of international law, such as the construction of settlements on Palestinian territory.

The Palestinian observer, Riyad Mansour, said that, while accession would not be sought, a call for action against Israel in the ICC would remain an option: "We're not in the business of trying to prolong this conflict and settle scores. But we are not fools nor dummies. If they don't move in that direction ... then all of us should be considering all other possible options in order to bring them into compliance."

In April, the ICC rejected a Palestinian request to examine alleged crimes in Gaza and the West Bank because the Palestinian territories were not a full United Nations member.

0750 GMT: Syria. Both State media and activists are reporting explosions in Jaramana in south Damascus.

0740 GMT: UAE. Human Rights Watch has denounced a new federal decree on cybercrimes for "clos[ing] off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech, saying it "poses a serious threat to the liberty of peaceful activists and ordinary citizens alike".

The decree, issued on 12 November, s provide a legal basis to prosecute and detain people who use information technology to criticise senior officials, argue for political reform, or organsze unlicensed demonstrations.

0710 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 131 people killed on Tuesday, including 48 in Damascus and its suburbs, 28 in Idlib Province, 17 in Homs Province, and 15 in Aleppo Province.

0620 GMT: Syria. For weeks we have been noting the advance of the insurgency in the north and near Damascus, and Tuesday added dramatically to that narrative. Mainstream media jumped on the story --- broken by EA's James Miller --- that for the first time, opposition fighters shot down a regime helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, but there were also significant gains for the insurgents in the seizure of an airbase near Damascus and advances in Deir Ez Zor Province.

Other rumours, including the closure of Damascus International Airport and the reinforcement of the Presidential Palace, proved to be more hope and fear than reality; however, Miller's conclusion again summarised the trend of the conflict:

The regime is not days away from falling. Likely it's not even weeks. But the Free Syrian Army's military arm is growing, its arsenal is improving, and President Assad is extremely vulnerable. He is no longer immune from the sudden fall that brought down Qaddafi's regime in Libya, and tonight is likely the first of many more tense nights to come.

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