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Thursday's Syria Live Coverage: Insurgents Take More Bases as Damascus Hit by Bombs
2121 GMT: Today is Friday, and while the world is focused on battles and meetings and organizations and diplomatic recognitions, on Friday there is always another story. Every Friday since March 2011, protesters have taken to the streets in Syria. Even in towns where bombs fall and bullets fly, somewhere close by it is possible to find an anti-government protest somewhere in Syria.
Also, every Friday has a theme, agreed upon by activists ahead of time by voting on Facebook. Today's theme does not translate well into English, but according to Zilal, it means roughly "the sign of victory over the palace" or "The Fingers of Victory over the palace." The meaning is clear --- the opposition believes it is winning, and is close to grabbing control from President Assad.
There were interesting twists this week. In Aleppo, some of the protests were more focused on the insurgency than the regime (one activist we spoke to said this was because the fall of the regime is taken for granted now). AFP reports:
"Free Army, go to the front lines," protesters in Aleppo's eastern district of Shaar shouted, criticizing FSA fighters who stay behind in rebel strongholds.
Civilians, particularly in northern Syria, have made accusations that some rebels take part in intimidation, extortion and vandalism in "liberated" areas of the country.
"[Members] of the Free [Syrian] Army are thieves, we want an Islamic army," the demonstrators chanted angrily as they marched through the streets.
What we did see were protests that demanded the revolution get back to its roots - helping the Syrian people improve their lot in life. But we didn't interpret this the way the AFP did - we saw it more as a criticism of the immorality of some of the fighters by people who are tired of having war in their backyards. Zilal explains:
Today there were protests in Anadan town and in the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo during which protesters demanded to "purify" the FSA from elements that joined just to loot. They say what they think each time.
This video clearly shows protesters chanting, "the people demand the purification/cleansing of the revolution."
A large protest in Al Bab, Aleppo:
More protests in Aleppo:
Qalamoun, rural Damascus:
The people of Kafranbel bury one of their martyrs and share biting words of criticism for those countries, namely the US, whom they believe has not done enough to help the Syrian people defeat Assad:
1936 GMT: Journalist Felim McMahon shares some interesting information about our last post. He notes that he's found a video that was uploaded five hours earlier than our last video, perhaps taken from State media journalists (he notes it aired on Iranian linked Al Alaam TV). It shows Assad troops manning a checkpoint near the road, and it also shows the gunfire echoing over the same stretch of highway leading to the airport:
We should have noted, by the way, that these videos were both taken hours earlier, as it is now night in Syria. However, there are fresh reports of fighting near the airport. We likely won't know until dawn, however, what the result is.
Regardless, the airport is likely to be fought over for days - or longer - as both the Assad military and the opposition have marked it as a priority.
1916 GMT: Communications from the common person are hard to come by with the internet down. One of our sources, Zilal, says she's had difficulty getting news from the Damascus area tonight. However, there are many reports of fierce battles to the south, near the Damascus international airport. The FSA continues to try to take the road that leads to the airport, effectively shutting it off from the outside. It's unclear if they are militarily in a position to succeed, because the Assad regime is dedicating large amounts of firepower towards protecting the road. Still, videos showed FSA moving down parts of the road with little resistance, so it's clear that the regime is struggling.
This video was taken near the road to the airport - you can hear some gunfire:
So much of our data, so many of our sources, point towards extreme regime military weakness. However, we accept that this data is incomplete. For this reason, it's good to know that the most ardent supporters of the regime are also under the impression that the Assad regime is in a state of collapse:
"Dramatic" collapse in Syria army, units decimated, military hospitals unable to treat wounded. From a pro-regime site syriatruth.org/news/tabid/93/…— Liz Sly (@LizSly) November 30, 2012
"Young Islamists from different parts of the city left Tripoli this morning [Friday] and were killed in an ambush in Tal Kalakh by regime forces," an Islamist leader in the city told AFP.
"According to our information, they were summarily executed and not killed in combat," he said.
A security source reported that shots were fired on Friday night from the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh district toward the neighbouring Shiite district of Jabal Mohsen.
He added that the army had been heavily deployed along the aptly-named Syria street dividing the districts, whose traditional rivalry has sharpened over the uprising in Syria.
48 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 18 in Aleppo; 17 in Daraa most of them in Tafas; 8 in Homs; 7 in Deir Ezzor; 7 in Idlb; and 1 in Hama.
Despite the earlier trends, the death toll is mostly increasing in Damascus where the violence has only intensified as the day has drawn on. 13 of those killed reportedly died in the southern districts of Babilla and Beit Sahm.
1552 GMT: An ugly video from Ras al Ain, in northern Syria. The insurgents, claiming to be from Jabhat al Nusra, have taken prisoners. One man, at the start of the video, is complaining, and he is then shot in the arm. The prisoners continue to be loud, at at one point a fighter appears to fire between them, in some sort of AK-47 version of the knife game "Five Finger Fillet." It does not appear that any are killed, but it's not clear:
1535 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 62 people have been killed so far today (as of an hour ago, this number does not include our latest update below):
18 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 17 in Daraa most of them in Tafas; 13 in Aleppo; 6 in Homs; 5 in Idlb; and 3 in Deir Ezzor.
Journalist and Syria Analyst Michael Weiss and I have been discussing this number. Considering the amount of violence, the number is not that high on the whole. However, in Damascus the conflict is focused around several areas that have been embattled for days - many residents have likely fled. Elsewhere, the numbers have been declining for some time because Assad's artillery and air forces have been focused on a smaller number of targets - in Damascus, Aleppo, and near Ma'arrat al Nouman in Idlib province. Some of this is also luck - sometimes explosions hit a full apartment building and kill 20, or other times they hit the one next door which may be empty.
However, particularly concerning is the high number in Tafas. this small town north of Daraa (map) has been the site of heavy fighting for days. Several days ago a large tank convoy besieged the town, and since then the Free Syrian Army has launched a counterattack to take the town back.
There are a few videos from the town today. One video claims to show the military (and "shabiha") withdrawing from the town, though this has not been confirmed. This one claims to show the damage in the center of the town:
According to an opposition Facebook page, 11 people were killed there - all by shelling or fire.
1459 GMT: In the past, when the regime was angriest at a town or village, the ugliest chapters of the Syrian conflict were written. Assad troops or their allies have committed many massacres - in nearly every area in the country - typically after a surge in protests, or a wave of insurgent military victories.
Now there are reports, coming from the LCC, that a massacre has been committed near Mayadin as Assad soldiers are pulling back in the area:
The regime committed a massacre in Al-Riz village, resulting in 7 martyrs thus far and may wounded after aerial shelling.
The LCC reports to verify all claims they publish, but we have not independently verified this report. Stay tuned.
1446 GMT: Despite the fact that the government has reopened the road to the Damascus International Airport, The Guardian finds this video which claims to show insurgents looting a government building stationed on the road:
Note - none of the material in the video is definitively military property - most of it appears to be in boxes.
1436 GMT: There have been more intense air raids and shelling campaigns against western Damascus and its suburbs. This livestream, which ended two hours ago (again, the internet shutdown isn't working) shows smoke rising from every corner of Darayya (map), as distant explosions and sounds of gunfire echo through the streets - note, the gunfire did not even stop for prayers:
1425 GMT: After more clashes last night near the Damascus International Airport, it Egypt and the United Arab Emirates will probably not be flying to and from Damascus any time soon. The Guardian reports:
"Airlines are not operating to Damascus today," said a Dubai-based airline official. EgyptAir and Emirates suspended flights to Syria on Thursday.
A Damascus-based diplomat said he believed the escalation in fighting around the capital was part of a government offensive which aimed to seal off the state-controlled centre of the city from rebel-held rural areas to the south and east.
"We want to liberate the airport because of reports we see and our own information we have that shows civilian airplanes are being flown in here with weapons for the regime. It is our right to stop this," rebel spokesman Musaab Abu Qitada said.
However, the airport is not closed. According to SyrianAir, they are running flights out of the airport:
“Today after the road was secured, we sent a new telegram to inform them [airlines] that security was restored,” the source added. “For the moment, we have not had any arrivals, but the airport is operating normally.”
The director of SyrianAir, Ghida Abdul Latif, said a flight to the Saudi city of Jeddah via Aleppo had departed on Friday as had two domestic flights bound for Latakia on the coast. Flights to Cairo and Khartoum were scheduled for later on Friday.
The SyrianAir director blamed Thursday’s interruption on a “technical problem on runway 23, which was quickly repaired”.
1412 GMT: Yesterday the big news was the shutting down of Syria's internet. Today, it has been down for more than 20 hours, and it will not likely be turned on for some time (perhaps not until this conflict is over). However, yesterday activists, sources, and our own analysis suggested that the internet slowdown would not stop the opposition from communicating. To be clear, all sense of normalcy in Syria is now gone. All internet commerce will have stopped, and Damascus, the business hub of the country since the war reached Aleppo, is now completely cut off from the outside world. Also, the average citizen in Syria will have no internet connection. However, it is perfectly clear that the opposition is not the average citizen. Opposition groups, like the LCCs, have been working with the United States since the start (or before) to prepare for this contingency, and Syrian activists have learned methods to communicate despite government interference from Iran's Green Movement, Egypt's revolution, and other online activism.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. My email inbox is full of videos, eyewitness reports, and even streaming video from Syria. If the government thought they would stop the opposition from communicating, they were wrong. It will likely be tougher than normal to get information now, but it is clear that the mission to silence the opposition has failed.
Syrian troops withdrew from Omar oil field, one of the last regime positions east of Deir Ezzor city near the Iraqi border, a watchdog said Friday, adding that rebels now control the country's major fields.
"Government troops pulled back on Thursday from the Omar oil field north of the town of Mayadeen after having lost the Conoco gas reserve on November 27," the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The insurgents took control of an oil field for the first time on November 4 when they overran Al-Ward, the most important in the province, the Observatory said.
After also losing control of Al-Jofra field also in November, the army now controls not more than five fields, all located to the west of Deir Ezzor city, the watchdog said.
This is significant for three reasons. First, the regime has now lost the majority of their oil fields, to say nothing of the trade routes they were using to smuggle the oil out. The financial implications are obvious, but if this conflict drags on the regime will also need the oil to power generators, power plants, tanks and other vehicles.
The second reason - the insurgents have already started to sell oil through Iraq and, by some accounts, Turkey. This influx of money will help fuel the revolution, as well as potentially provide revenue to buy more weapons. Speaking of weapons, many of the weapons in the east have already been purchased from Iraq, supplementing the weapons captured from the regime. This is not all about weapons, though. The insurgents, and the people under their care, need food, medicine, and other supplies - to say nothing of fuel for their own generators as winter threatens those affected by this crisis.
The last reason why this is important is that it is yet more confirmation of the regime's incredibly weak military standing in the east. The oil fields, and the Deir Ez Zor airport, are the remaining key locations in regime possession in this province, so if these oil fields have been abandoned it means that Assad's remaining forces know they are in a tactically unwinnable situation.
This was also one of the few locations south of Deir Ez Zor city that remained in regime hands. It seems the stage is now set for the insurgent forces to strike further north.
Once Deir Ez Zor falls, the insurgency will have uncontested access to hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of square kilometers of territory. With no significant threat to the east, the insurgents will be able to move to other locations. Their most likely path would bring them northwest, down the road that travels through Al Raqqag and on to Aleppo. If this road falls to insurgents, the Hassakaha governorate would be completely cut off from the rest of Syria, allowing the insurgents to quickly take that area as well.
James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.
1250 GMT: The United Nations refugee agency has said conditions in Homs are desperate, with an assessment team finding half the city's hospitals shut down and "severe shortages of basic supplies ranging from medicine to blankets, winter clothes and children's shoes".
Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said there are 250,000 people displaced in and around the city with thousands in unheated communal shelters and many children unable to attend school.
Fleming said the agency delivered nine trucks of quilts, blankets, mattresses and other supplies and more will be sent soon.
Fleming also said that Syrians have been shot at as they fled to Jordan.
Two airlines based in the Gulf --- Air Arabia and flydubai --- normally operate flights to Damascus on a Friday.
Syria's Ministry of Information said on Thursday that the airport road was safe after security forces cleared it of "terrorists".
0930 GMT: Several US host companies have said they are taking down the websites of agencies linked to the Assad regime, such as State news agency SANA, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the General Authority for Development, and the local government of Hama.
An executive order by President Obama prohibits US companies from providing Web hosting and other services to Syria without obtaining a license from the Treasury. On Thursday, State Department officials confirmed that providing the services was a violation of US sanctions: “Our policies are designed to assist ordinary citizens who are exercising their fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association.
0600 GMT: In a development which some --- including EA's James Miller in our analysis --- saw as a sign of regime desperation and others feared as an overture to an expansion of violence, the Internet was suddenly cut off on Thursday.
The country effectively disappeared from the Web at 12:26 local time (1026 GMT). Mobile phone services were also widely disrupted.
Officials insisted that the Government was not responsible, blaming either "terrorist" activity or technical malfunction, but examination of the cutoff pointed to a deliberate move by the regime.
The blackout followed news of insurgents closing on the capital. Fighting near Damascus International Airport forced the suspension of all flights, with some international carriers saying they were stoppoing flights indefinitely. Opposition fighters also advanced in Deir Ez Zor province, taking more regime armour and equipment, while Assad's warplanes attacked in and near Aleppo, killing at least 20 people and injuring 80 others with barrel bombs.