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Monday
Dec102012

Syria Live Coverage: "A Political Process to End the Crisis is Still Possible"

See also Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Opposition Rejects Morsi's Referendum
Sunday's Egypt, Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Morsi Gives Back His Expanded Powers


2040 GMT: The US decision to place Al Nusra Front on the terrorist watch list will have complicated repercussions. Since we've started covering this conflict, we've been very impressed with both McClatchy and The Institute for the Study of War. As such, we're not surprised that experts from both organizations have, even before the decision was announced, condemned the move because it will complicate the realities on the ground in Syria and potentially isolate Washington from the Syrian rebels:

Some experts warned that declaring Nusra a foreign terrorist organization was likely to hurt the anti-Assad uprising by fueling tensions between the group and other opposition units. The designation could disrupt the coordination behind recent rebel advances and even risk clashes among rebel groups.

...

“I’m not saying they aren’t a terrorist group. But given the circumstances and given their cooperation with the opposition as a whole, designating them now would be disastrous,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War who recently returned from touring rebel-held areas to research Nusra and other Islamist groups.

We'll have our own analysis of Jabhat al Nusra soon, but we're already beginning to see the backlash. Earlier, 29 Islamist and Salafist groups had already signed the petition, "We are all Jabhat al Nusra," expressing their support for the ground. One Facebook page suggests that this number is now at more than 100.

Arwa Damon, who is in Aleppo, spoke to people about the move that was rumored to be in the works last week to place Al Nusra on the terrorist watch list:

Aaron Zelin, another Syria watcher, has also recorded this pushback:

The reality is that Al Nusra is a powerful group, and even among those Syrians who are uneasy with its beliefs, the civilians need food and other basics, while the much more moderate Free Syrian Army both need Al Nusra's support, and cannot afford to fight the group at this juncture.

We're asking a set of even more basic questions: Who is Jabhat al Nusra, where do they come from, who supports them, can they be reasoned with, and will there really be a second war between Al Nusra and the rest of the Syrian opposition?

We're working on these questions, but we'll leave you with yet another question, posed by Foreing Policy's David Kenner:

2023 GMT: At last count, 116 people have been killed so far today across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

55 martyrs were reported in Aleppo (10 of them were martyred in Sheikh Maqsood), 30 martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs, 12 martyrs in Daraa, 7 martyrs in Idlib, 5 martyrs in Homs, 3 martyrs in Deir Ezzor, 3 martyrs in Hama and 1 martyr in Raqqa.

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

According to the LCC, 10 people were killed in Sheikh Maqsood, a district of Aleppo, when rounds of heavy shelling hit the district. Shells and bombs now make up a large portion, often the majority, of the causes of death across the country, a sharp difference from just a year ago, before the shelling of Homs had entered its most deadly stage.

2009 GMT: Life in Aleppo is hard enough for a fully-independent person, but it is so much harder for the elderly, or those with physical or mental handicaps. Jenan Moussa reports from a shelter in Old Aleppo, where struggles for food and water are just the beginning:

1746 GMT: The US State Department has designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a "global terrorist organization", treating it as an alias of the previously-designated Al Qa'eda in Iraq.

Notice of the designation, signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 20 November, was published Monday in the Federal Register, and it will be announced Tuesday. It has been preceded by building campaign in the US media in recent weeks, culminating in a major story last weekend in The New York Times.

1706 GMT: Not far from the Kadam district, in Hajar al Aswad (map), sources suggest that heavy shelling and bombing has sowed mass destruction. Videos show smoke rising from the district, and the video below shows the damage from explosives that hit rooftops. The CFDPC posts a video gallery of both the damage from the shelling and the injured. According to their report, at least one person, a child, was killed, and many other children, as well as many adults, were injured.

1643 GMT: Dramatic video from the Kadam district in southwest Damascus (map) matches reports we've seen that many regime tanks moved into the district today and clashed with members of the Free Syrian Army. This video shows two of the tanks, one of which is firing its machinegun at an unknown target:

Another video claims to show the devastation caused today by "shelling," though it's unclear if that means tank or artillery shells:

1620 GMT: 27 EU foreign Ministers, including the UK's William Hague, met to discuss Syria, and other issues today:

Hague said foreign ministers would be briefed by Mouaz al-Khatib, a moderate cleric who heads the new, Western-backed opposition coalition in Syria. Hard-line Islamist groups in the country have not joined the new coalition, and al-Khatib is expected to inform the EU ministers about attempts to unify the Syrian opposition as the coalition seeks greater diplomatic recognition.

...

[ Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt] said it was important for EU foreign ministers to send a message of strong support to the opposition, and also to Lakdhar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, who Bildt said has been making "good progress."

Bildt said Syria's chemical weapons would be discussed, as well. "In a situation of chaos, it is exceedingly dangerous if these things start floating around in the region," he said. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said many member states have been urging the EU to move forward with bringing war crimes charges against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

As part of that meeting, Hague and other leaders were also holding talks with members of the syrian opposition leadership. So far, this is the only feedback we've heard from that aspect of the meeting:

1559 GMT: A group of 30 civilian and military opposition members met in Turkey to name Brigadier Selim Idris, a former Assad army officer, as the new head of the joint military command. The take-away from most media organizations is that some of the most prominent military defectors have been excluded, and that the "Islamists" with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood appear to be dominating this entire process:

Its composition, estimated to be two-thirds from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, reflects the growing strength of Islamist fighters on the ground and resembles that of the civilian opposition leadership coalition created under Western and Arab auspices in Qatar last month.

Absent from the group is Colonel Riad al-Asaad, founder of the Syrian Free Army and Brigadier Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior officer known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Asaad and Sheikh were not part of the 263-man meeting in Antalia. Also excluded was general Hussein Haj Ali, the highest ranking officer to defect from the military since the uprising erupted in March last year.

The general narrative misses a few key points. The first is that this organization also excludes the most radical elements of the Syrian uprising, especially ones associated with Jabhat al Nusra and the other groups that are especially strong in the far eastern districts of Syria. Instead, they tend to favor the strongest military units in the west, groups which have ties to Islamic conservatism but have rejected the jihadi elements.

The second point that this narrative misses is that the US may be the big loser here - Riad al Assad has strong ties with Turkey, and has long been favored by the US administration as the clear military leader. The only problem is that this sentiment has never been echoed inside Syria. This is further evidence that while the US is working to build ties with the civilian leadership, it's control over the military leadership in Syria is severely lacking.

1514 GMT: A few recent videos illustrate how Assad's airforce is now his main weapon of terror. The first was posted yesterday, reportedly in Bab al Dreib, Homs:

This video was reportedly taken today over East Ghouta, just east of Damascus. As the plane flies through the frame it drops a rather-large bomb, then countermeasures (to avoid being shot down by anti-aircraft missiles). The explosion is extremely large:

1448 GMT: Many recent reports have come out about the terrible humanitarian situation in Aleppo. In particular, the costs of food are rising exponentially by the week, a situation made worse that many people are living off of savings because their businesses have either been destroyed or can no longer operate.

But Aleppo is not the only place where bread lines are long, food prices are high, supplies are in short supply, and the bombs keep falling.

1419 GMT: A significant victory, and a problematic one, for the insurgents west of Aleppo. According to many sources, the Regime 111 base, near Sheikh Suleiman (map) was captured yesterday by Syrian insurgents. The base is over 2 square kilometers, and is actually larger than the town of Daret Ti'zzah, to the west:


View Syria - 10 December 2012 - EA Worldview in a larger map

This base was the only large military outpost west of Aleppo still in possession of the Assad regime. With its capture, and the capture of the 46 regiment base a few weeks ago, the insurgents essentially control all areas to the southwest, west, and north of Aleppo, and are now closing in on some of the key bases just east of the city.

Furthermore, large amounts of equipment, including anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, and artillery pieces, were stored on the base, and with this base captured the insurgents will now be able to focus this weaponry, and their previously captured equipment, on the remaining Assad bases inside and around Aleppo.

So why is this insurgent victory "problematic?" According to the videos we've seen so far, Jabhat al Nusra was responsible for capturing the base. Al Nusra is a hardline Islamist group with direct ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Some videos show the magnitude of the base, as well as the equipment captured:

1352 GMT: NPR's Deborah Amos travels to Khirbat al Jouz, a town near the Turkish border that was captured by the Free Syrian Army. Since it was captured, many refugees have flocked to the town, where residents are trying to create a "normal" life. In order to do so they are working to establish a secular and independent democracy, even one with a police force.

1343 GMT: Over the last 20+ months we've seen some terribly disgusting videos from Syria, but this is a different kind of horror. Yesterday, Zaid Benjamin, a journalist covering Syria, posted an incredibly disturbing video of the beheading of two men in Homs. The men were, according to the description, "Alawite officers" who were involved in the Houla massacre. The video was reportedly taken on Sunday.

The perpetrators are unclear. All Benjamin has said thus far is that the video was given to him by a "commander in Homs," though it's unclear if that means an FSA commander, a commander of a particular unit, or a commander in the Assad regime. It's also unclear whether the person giving Zaid Benjamin the video was part of the incident.

It's a bloody video, but unfortunately we've seen more stomach-churning scenes. The true horror, however, is that one of the people swinging the weapon used to cut the head off of one of the men looks like a young boy, perhaps between the ages of 10 and 14 years old.

We've sent an inquiry to Zaid Benjamin, so hopefully we'll have more details soon.

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

1225 GMT: Claimed footage of insurgents capturing an SA-8 Gecko mobile air defense missile system in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta:

1025 GMT: CNN adds to reports, quoting "a senior US official and several senior diplomats", that the US and European allies are using defense contractors to train insurgents on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.

The training, taking place in Jordan and Turkey, includes monitoring and securing of stockpiles and handling of weapons sites and materials. Some of the contractors are on the ground in Syria working with the insurgents to monitor sites, according to one of the officials.

0915 GMT: State news agency SANA, paralleling a report from activists that 20 people were "burned near the Air Force Intelligence branch" in Aleppo Province, claims, "A unit of the Armed Forces on Sunday carried out a qualitative operation against terrorists near the Feed Foundation in Aliramon in Aleppo city, killing 20 terrorists."

SANA also asserted that regime forces killed 29 members of the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra "near Chicken Restaurant in Bustan al-Basha in Aleppo city".

0655 GMT: The Local Coordination Committees report 116 people killed on Sunday, including four women and ten children. Forty-one died in Damascus and its suburbs, 32 in Aleppo Province, and 22 in Idlib Province.

The summary includes the cryptic note that 20 of those killed in Aleppo Province were "burned near the Air Force Intelligence branch".

0640 GMT: Russian and US diplomats have continued the talks launched by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Irish capital Dublin on Thursday.

Yesterday Lakhdar Brahimi, who was at the Dublin discussion, met Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, and William Burns, US Undersecretary of State, in Geneva. Afterwards, he said:

[The meeting] explored avenues to move forward a peaceful process and mobilise greater international action in favour of a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

All three parties reaffirmed their common assessment that the situation in Syria was bad and getting worse. They stressed that a political process to end the crisis in Syria was necessary and still possible.

The details of that process are unclear, however. Brahimi said only that all agreed the settlement should be based on the final statement issued after an international meeting in Geneva on 30 June under his predecessor, Kofi Annan.

Earlier in the day, Lavrov had pulled back from specuation that his meeting with Clinton indicated Moscow was now willing to back President Assad's departure from power: "We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad. All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favour."

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