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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Opposition Still Seeking Leadership

Claimed footage from insurgents of a captured regime airbase, including large missiles, near Damascus

See also Syria Audio Special: Regime's Leadership Defiant as Opposition's Disintegrates --- James Miller and Scott Lucas with Monocle 24

Syria Video and Transcript: President Assad's Interview with Russia Today
Thursday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: What Next for the Opposition?

2124 GMT: Syria. Even as the Red Cross is ramping up efforts to help refugees and victims of the Syrian conflict, and even though aid is flowing in, the Red Cross is not able to keep pace with the growing humanitarian crisis:

"We can’t cope with the worsening of the situation," Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said at a briefing in Geneva.

Although the aid group has fed more than a million people in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, trucked in water, and delivered medicine, crutches and other hospital supplies, Maurer said "blank spots" in aid remained. The United Nations has estimated that more than 2.5 million people need aid; more than 350,000 people have spilled out of the country and registered as refugees.

2117 GMT: Syria. The Carnegie Endowment provides this bio of George Sabra, "A leftist, pro-Arab, secular opposition figure," who was just named head of the foundering SNC:

Sabra was a co-founder of the Damascus Declaration opposition coalition in 2005, and in the same year, the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) changed its name to the Syrian Democratic People’s Party. He remained in Syria after the uprising began in March 2011 and was imprisoned in July for two months on charges of inciting dissent. In October he went into exile in order to escape rearrest and joined the Syrian National Council as the representative of the Democratic People’s Party. Sabra presented himself as a candidate when the term of Syrian National Council chairman Burhan Ghalioun ended in May 2012, but he lost the nomination to Abdul Basit Sida.

1950 GMT: Syria. Some late-breaking political news on the future of the Syrian National Council:

Sabra is seen as a strong leader, and one of the most secular who is associated with the top echelon of the Syrian National Council, but it's hard to see whether any of this will matter - the SNC is quickly becoming irrelevant.

However, this may be a clear signal to the Kurds that the Muslim Brotherhood, and the FSA brigades that support it, are moving forward - with our without their support.

1935 GMT: Syria. The Free Syrian Army units in al Raqqah are pressing the attack in Ain Issa, north of Raqqah city (map). Meanwhile, further to the east, it appears that the FSA is extending its actions in Hassakeh:

The bottom line - with fighting intensifying near Damascus, with the FSA having successfully secured much of Idlib province, with the regime on its back foot in Aleppo, and with the FSA on the advance in Deir Ez Zor (though it's a slow advance), the FSA is continually taking advantage of the regime's distractions elsewhere to expand the battlefield - and militarily, at least, it's a winning strategy. The question is whether they will alienate (or win over) the Kurds, and whether the humanitarian costs of these advances will outweigh the military gains.

Speaking of military wins, there is late-breaking news of a major FSA win in Tadamoun, in southwest Damascus (map):

Many videos from last night show the FSA advancing into the neighborhood with ground troops - and snipers:

1903 GMT: Syria. Last night, Scott Lucas also talked with Monocle's "Globalist" program. He points out that Assad, speaking to the world in English, timed this statement to come out during the opposition's talks in Doha. Scott also echoes that the "new leadership" is designed to confront the minority of insurgents who are radical, but it is unclear whether this group will actually gain any traction with elements inside Syria.

There's also a discussion about Turkey's role, and the potential for a no-fly zone in northern Syria.

See also Syria Audio Special: Regime's Leadership Defiant as Opposition's Disintegrates --- James Miller and Scott Lucas with Monocle 24

1847 GMT: Syria. The United States State Department has allotted an additional $34 in aid to help with the Syrian humanitarian crisis, raising the total amount of invested money to $165 million. The main targets of the new aid are as following:

  • Winterization: This additional funding from the United States will help meet winterization needs in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon and keep families warm during the coming winter by providing additional supplies such as blankets, heating stoves, and heavy-duty plastic sheeting to cover windows and other damaged areas of buildings housing those displaced by the Assad regime’s violence inside Syria.
  • Child Protection and Gender-based Violence Prevention: A portion of these funds will be used to support child protection issues, psychosocial support, and education, as well as measures to prevent gender-based violence.
  • Health: This additional funding will also support an immunization campaign that will protect up to one million children inside Syria from measles and other preventable diseases. In addition, we are increasing support for the logistical operation that allows life-saving aid to be delivered when and where possible in Syria.
  • Medical Transport: This funding will also support the transport of wounded Syrians from the Lebanon-Syria border so they can receive the medical attention they desperately need. By funding critical ambulatory services in Lebanon, the United States is helping fill a clear gap in existing humanitarian assistance.

1736 GMT: Syria. While there are more reports that the FSA has completely taken Ras al Ain, and there are even rumors that they killed the intelligence chief in the town, AFP picks up an important claim - that the attacks were launched initially from the Turkish side of the border:

A local resident, Saad, told AFP by telephone that rebels overran the border post before dawn from the Turkish side and then launched attacks on security posts in Ras al-Ain.

Syrian state television said rebels had crossed over from Turkey, that regime "troops killed dozens of terrorists who tried to attack Ras al-Ain" and the rebels then fled back across the border.

It's likely, then, that the Turkish forces either knew of the FSA operating on their side of the border and allowed the operation to move forward, or they outright supported the attack.

Thanks to @potifar66 for pointing this out.

1705 GMT: Syria. One thing to always keep in mind is that the peaceful protest movement founded the opposition to Bashar al Assad in Syria, and that movement may not be grabbing headlines but it is alive and growing, despite the terrible violence that threatens to destroy it.

Today is Friday, the day where protesters take to the streets after prayer services.

1653 GMT: Syria. Meanwhile, it appears that the FSA's actions in Ras al Ain were not authorized by a major Kurdish group:

If the FSA's actions were not approved by the Kurdish groups, this could explain the earlier report that Kurdish groups are now taking matters into their own hands and taking territory from Assad.

But it's not clear what exactly is going on, as some Kurds are clearly working with the FSA, some are resisting, and others are furious that the neutrality in Ras al Ain was broken:

1637 GMT: Syria. As I predicted yesterday while talking to Monocle 24, the Local Coordination Committees have resigned from the Syria National Council, and have posted the following statement on Facebook:

Several attempts have been made by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria to push the Syrian National Council and its leadership to adopt a serious and effective general reform plan so that the SNC can assume its role as a political representative of the great people of Syria. It is clear to us now that the Syrian National Council is not fit to assume such role, especially after the disappointing results its restructure attempts.

Therefore, the Local Coordination Committees hereby declares its withdrawal from the Syrian National Council.

This is a major blow to efforts to reorganize the Syrian opposition leadership into a group that better represents the people in Syria. The LCC is one of the few organizations that has large representation inside the country, and its resignation is a clear sign that the SNC is falling apart.

This is not unanticipated, however. The LCC has tried to play hardball with the SNC before, and after months of trying it has decided that the group is beyond saving.

The question is whether the Syrian National Initiative will reform with less representation from the SNC and more from other groups, including the LCC. Right now, it appears that the inclusion of the SNC in the new group has derailed any serious attempt to for an alternative to the failed leadership group.

1626 GMT: Bahrain. Multiple activists say a youth was severely injured when he was shot in the head by a police teargas canister. This is the least graphic picture we've found of the incident:

Meanwhile, larger and larger crowds are taking to the streets to remember the 16 year old who was killed during clashes with police today near Duraz:

A photographer has collected images of the events in Duraz for Demotix:

1618 GMT: Bahrain. Nightfall has brought more protests:

And more protests have reportedly brought more police crackdowns:

1531 GMT: Syria. More surprising news from Hassakah governorate, in northern Syria:

Al Darbisiyeh (map) is not too far from Ras al Ain (see previous updates). This could mark another shift in the conflict if the PYD is now actively taking control of towns in northern Hassakeh, but it's not yet clear how this relates to the FSA actions here.

This is unverified and breaking news, but something to watch closely.

1521 GMT: Bahrain. More chaos as police stop unarmed civilians from reaching Friday prayer services in Duraz:

1510 GMT: Bahrain. Former Bahraini Member of Parliament Matar Ebrahim Matar forwards us this video that he says he was able to verify was filmed right just before Friday sermons. Teargas is being used so liberally that one canister is shot right through the window of a car full of women. They bail out before the car even stopped because they could not breathe.

According to a source in the country, the people on foot in the video were trying to reach Duraz (where the 16 year old was killed, see previous update below).

Mercs (police - activists call them mercenaries because many of them are foreign born and are paid to attack Bahraini citizens who protest) closed all roads leading to Duraz and chased any one who tried to go there on foot.

A source also shares this video, which we have not yet verified. The description is below:

Video of mercenaries brutally torturing a man in a grave yard today in BaniJamra.

1453 GMT: Bahrain. Things are intensely messy in Bahrain today, as a permit has been issues to have a pro-government rally, but opposition rallies have been banned, and violence has intensified. A source in Bahrain reports that another person has been killed by police:

Another martyr killed today - a 16 year old - mercenaries were chasing him and forced him to run across a highway when a car hit him and he passed away.

Bahrain rights groups have already released a statement:

The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) express their grave concern regarding the news of the death of 16 year old Ali Radhi. Security forces enforced a siege around a central mosque in the village of Duraz today to prevent people from Friday prayers. When security forces blocked the streets, people headed to Duraz on foot in an attempt to reach the mosque.


According to eyewitnesses, Ali Abbas Radhi-16 years old- and a few friends were walking towards Duraz when they were chased by riot police. Ali Abbas Radhi reportedly ran into the highway to get away from the riot police when he was hit by a civilian car which caused his death. The BYSHR and BCHR hold the Ministry of Interior responsible for the death of Ali Abbas Radhi.

Middle: Ali Abbas Radhi. Left: Ali Abbas Radhi in the hospital. Right: Ali Abbas Radhi after being hit.

1440 GMT: Syria. Chaos is Ras al Ain - from what we understand, this video shows an FSA captured tank engaging in what we believe is a battle with an Assad tank (or tanks).

That tank is not all the FSA captured. It appears that this battle caught the regime off guard, and they were able to capture several military checkpoints, and all the ammunition and equipment stored within them. This video was taken yesterday:

1423 GMT: Syria. Yesterday's fighting in Ras al Ain, northwest of Hassakah and on the border with Turkey (map) may have a far larger impact than just the military significance of the battle itself. Hassakah has never been completely insulated from the violence that has plagued the country, but compared to most other regions, Hassakeh is a peaceful spot. Many refugees from the rest of Syria have fled here, mainly because the FSA has not yet launched a major campaign to take the region from Assad. Furthermore, the Kurdish forces have a strong presence here, and have a tenuous understanding with the Assad regime.

It's too early to tell how, exactly, this changes this equation. But we already know that the humanitarian impact of this battle has been staggering as internally displaced refugees now flood over the borders to escape the fighting.

This has two significant impacts in and of itself. First, Turkey (and Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq) are legitimately struggling to care for all of these refugees, potentially sparking a second crisis outside Syria. They will likely have problems absorbing this large spike in refugees. Secondly, Turkey has already stated that it is prepared to intervene if the refugee crisis grows. There are already signs that it may militarily respond to this fighting. Our Turkish correspondent, Ali Yenidunya, reports that Turkish soldiers are deploying to the border, dangerously close to the fighting. This picture was posted by Hurriyet News:

1414 GMT: Syria. Another car bomb reported in Damascus:

1405 GMT: Syria. James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking to Monocle 24 Radio about the crisis in Syria. The subject - Bashar al Assad remains defiant at the same time that the opposition's leadership was falling apart in Doha and has never been less united. At the same time, new evidence (revealed with analysis by me soon) suggests that the insurgents continue to hammer the Assad military in Damascus.

With a political solution not likely, and the chances for a strong transitional government also looking bleak, it is possible that the armed insurgency could topple the regime before a transitional government is in place. However, we've still got a long road before this happens, even if it is becoming clear that the writing is on the wall.

See also Syria Audio Special: Regime's Leadership Defiant as Opposition's Disintegrates --- James Miller with Monocle 24

1315 GMT: Syria. Speaking to Matthew Weaver of The Guardian, Erika Feller, assistant commissioner for refugees at the United Nations, has said the number of refugees allowed to cross into Turkey is being staggered because there is no more capacity to cope with the increasing numbers.

Feller said, "I do believe the European Union should do more.../It’s coping capacities are being stretched to the limit, therefore [Ankara] would appreciate greater solidarity in the form of international aid and assistance coming directly to Turkey. It hasn’t been particularly heartened by the response to Turkey to date."

The number of refugees in Turkey is now 120,000, according to Turkish officials. The UN's John Ging has warned that the total of 400,000 Syrians now outside the country could grow to 700,000 if there is no political resolution (see 0942).

1305 GMT: Bahrain. Back from a break to find the claim of activists, including Maryam AlKhawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, that a protester named Ali Radhi was killed today amid police attempts to restrict marches and gatherings: "Confirmed info from several eyewitnesses: Ali Radhi was chased by riot police, He went onto the highway to run away, was hit by a civilian car. We hold the MOI [Ministry of Interior] responsible for his death."

A photo of Radhi's body has been posted on-line.

0959 GMT: Syria. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said that an estimated 8000 Syrian refugees fled to Turkey overnight.

The influx brings the total number of Syrian refugees to 120,000.

Meanwhile, Turkish State news agency Anadolu says a group of 71 Syrian soldiers and their families have crossed the borders. Two generals and 11 colonels are among the defectors.

0948 GMT: Syria. Erika Solomon of Reuters profiles the ongoing siege by insurgents of the town of Harem in the northwest:

Crouching in a tent among the pine trees, two rain-soaked men trace a map in the dirt. A cigarette stub, a rock and a tuna can mark targets amid a scatter of X-marks and arrows.

They might almost be football coaches making a gameplan, but in Syria these men are making war.

Fighters run in from the deluge, yelling for ammunition and transport for the wounded. Thunder rumbles in the distance and blends into bursts of mortar fire....

"Basel, listen!" shouted Abu Osama, one of the two leaders at the rain-sodden command post, to fellow rebel commander, Basel Eissa, as they hammer out a coordinated plan for their brigades. "This revolution has been disorganised and random for over a year now. It's time to start focusing our strategies.

"All I hear from the fighters is 'Storm the city! Storm the city!' - before we've secured any territory. I'm sick of this slogan. Hold them back until our units have bombed the targets."

0942 GMT: Syria. John Ging, operations director for the United Nations' humanitarian office, has warned that the number of Syrians needing humanitarian aid could rise sharply from 2.5 million now to 4 million by early next year.

Ging said the UN is projecting that a failure to end the fighting will lead to an increase in the number of Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries, from almost 400,000 at present to around 700,000 in early 2013.

“People need to be aware of just how desperate the situation is inside Syria for the people there, how unbearable it is, and how they are suffering and falling into ever deeper despair and humanitarian need,” Ging said. “It’s just getting a lot worse very rapidly for the ordinary people.”

Ging expressed concern that the UN and other aid organizations are only able to reach 1.5 million of the 2.5 million people in need of assistance inside Syria, in part because of a lack of funding.

0925 GMT: Saudi Arabia. Protest last night in Qatif in Eastern Province:

0851 GMT: Bahrain. Activists are reporting that police blocked the roads to Duraz, the site of Friday Prayers led by Sheikh Isa Qassim. Tear gas has reportedly been fired.

Worshippers inside the mosque:

0845 GMT: Syria. Syrian Kurds displaced by fighting between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces in Ras al-Ain in the north:

0715 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees claim 123 people were killed by security forces on Thursday, including 47 in Damascus and its suburbs, 25 in Aleppo Province, and 18 in Idlib Province.

0545 GMT: Syria. The talks of the "Syrian National Initiative" continued on Thursday, with US-backed figures claiming that they were still on course to forge a new opposition leadership.

Leading dissident Riad Seif, who had talks in Turkey and Arab capitals earlier this week and who reportedly is backed by Washington to lead the organisation, said he was "optimistic" an agreement could be reached for "a political leadership that would satisfy the Syrians and be recognised by the international community."

However, the Syrian National Council, whose position would be supplanted by the new group, is hesitating about participation. Seif said the SNC, which would get 22 of 60 executive seats, had deferred a decision until Friday.

Meanwhile, the SNC --- whether to contribute to the Initiative or to rival it --- has been promoting its own elections. On Thursday, it chose a 40-member body to select an 11-seat executive and President today. The move already sparked criticism, however, as there were no women among the 40 names.

The SNC is hesitant since it would reportedly be given only 22 of 60 seats in the new group, to make room for activists from inside Syria. 

An Al Jazeera correspondent offered a summary far from Seif's optimism, "[This] initiative calls for a coherent representative structure that would also represent those fighting inside Syria. Western diplomats are telling Al Jazeera that this is not going to happen any time soon."

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