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Tuesday
Dec112012

Syria Live Coverage: So, Are "Al Qa'eda Terrorists" Winning the Civil War?

Insurgents celebrate the capture of the major military base near Shiekh Suleiman, west of Aleppo


See Also Syria Feature: Questions About the "Boy Beheads Two Regime Officers" Video
Yesterday's Syria Live Coverage: "A Political Process to End the Crisis is Still Possible"
Today's Separate Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Protests and the Opposition's Next Move

2032 GMT: Another video reportedly shows an eyewitness account from Aqrab:

Zilal translates the video into this basic narrative:

The man says that elements of regime forces did this. [The boy says "Jish," which means army, and the man clarifies that he means "Shabiha", which has become a catch-all term for pro-Assad armed forces]. Also the second injured boy is saying that "shabiha" were responsible. The man says that there are still 300 people in the hands of shabiha and that probably the shabiha will kill them to accuse the FSA of the crime.

And the child replies that these 300 people have already all been killed.

At the end of the video the man says that these two children, another little girl, and a woman are all under his protection and under the protection of FSA and he calls for the Red Cross to come in order to treat them and take their version of the events. Then he says the date and location (Houla, 11 December 2012).

Storyful's Felim McMahon sends me another eyewitness report, written in Arabic. Another source sends us this narrative, which we believe is just a translation:

The Free Syrian Army surrounding a building belonging to the shabiha in Aqrab village, in which the regime forces had taken women and children captive. They intended on using the civilians as human shields to protect themselves from an attack by the FSA. Afterwards, some of the leaders of the village, including Shaikh Ali al-Omar and Shaikh Saa'do Hamash and the retired Colonel Shaker Akkash, [were in] a group of eight people who went to negotiate the release of the women and children, and to ask the regime forces to turn themselves in, promising their safety. The leaders were kidnapped in an attempt to pressure the FSA, and thus the FSA retreated. Afterwards, the shabiha killed the leaders and threw hand grenades at the women and children who were trying to escape. They took advantage of the FSA's retreat by leaving the building and blowing it up, attempting to frame the FSA for this operation. They also fired missiles at the building, and an air raid on the area left it completely destroyed, killing the 200-250 civilians (including women and children) inside. Some of the wounded Alawites, women and children, were evacuated, and verified this report.

1937 GMT: A note on video we posted earlier (see update 1843) - there is no clear evidence that a car bomb ever went off. What there are, however, is a series of videos that do appear to show damage from bombings. The damage to the rooftops posted in many videos is also very evident.

We're working on identifying this explosive, but in one of the videos we've posted, a man finds a piece of metal, perhaps some part of an explosive, with what appear to be Chinese characters on it. Remember, this is found on a rooftop (click for full size).

We're not saying that we can definitively disprove any of the other theories floating around. However, at this point, all the evidence gathered so far suggests that, assuming these videos were take today in Aqrab, the culprit is airstrikes, not a carbomb.

There is still very little evidence, however, to support the large numbers of deaths we're hearing be reported. It's still very early, and unfortunately we may not have much more information until tomorrow.

1920 GMT: The National journalist Hassan Hassan translates an eyewitness report, purportedly from Hama:

This is a translation of a post by someone from Hama. Details about today's massacre in Syria, in which over 200 people were killed in a small village. *Link in comment. "Aqrab is a hamlet 40km west of Hama city. It has a population of 13,000, 3,000 of them are Alawites who live side by side despite the events. The Alawites in the village oppose the regime’s crimes.

In the early hours of the morning, the regime’s forces bombed and shelled Aqrab. Towards the end of shelling, the shelling focused on a neighbourhood where Alawites live. Several houses fell on their owners. The Alawites tried to flee the village to avoid the violence. The regime’s Shabbiha prevented them from leaving and shot at them after confrontation between the villagers and the Shabbiha.

The result was at least 200 people killed, including children and women. After that ended, the Free Syrian Army nearby took the injured and pull the dead from the rubbles and hosted some of the Alawite families in their villages. There is a fear that villages in Houla will face a massacre because they rescued people from Aqrab village."

1910 GMT: There is absolutely no shortage of claimed eyewitness testimony from Aqrab - the problem is finding the translators to sift through it all.

For instance, Jalal Sleiman (see previous post) reportedly interviews a survivor in a video shared by the LCC. A mourning mother cries after a loss. A graphic video reportedly shows doctors working to patch up an injured child, injured by "shabiha" according to the narrator. A boy says shabiha are responsible for his injuries. In fact, a single Youtube channel provides many videos, but verifying and translating each one will be a project. Also, all reports, from many sources, prior to the massacre suggest that airstrikes, and no other cause, created the destruction.

But 125-200 dead? We've yet to see any dead. Was there a car bomb? How could airstrikes kill that many so quickly?

Rula Amin has a series of tweets that tell a confused tale from her own sources:

We'll note we have not seen those LCC reports yet, so perhaps Rula is speaking directly with a representative of the LCC. We'll also caution, however, that in the past, when journalists spoke with a single member of the LCC, sometimes their reports have not meshed with the overall narrative put forth by the organization.

The investigation goes on.

1843 GMT: A peculiar twist - Arqab (updates below) is a predominantly Alawite village by some, but not all, accounts. The dominant narrative we've seen today is that airstrikes and artillery shells were responsible for the deaths. Now, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group which we've been critical of in the past, says that 125 were killed in "explosions" in Aqrab, and it's unclear who is responsible:

"We cannot know whether the rebels were behind this attack, but if they were, this would be the largest-scale revenge attack against Alawites," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

"We call for the establishment of an independent commission of jurists who can investigate the attack. We want a Syria which is free and democratic, not one which is based on sectarian hatred," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

...

"The rebels took over a checkpoint near Aqrab just over a week ago," said Abdel Rahman.

Al Jazeera's Rula Amin says, ""It's a remote area and it's late in the night," indicating that she has no way of verifying the reports.

Meanwhile, we turn to a video, reportedly taken near the village on December 3rd. Zilal, who has been wonderfully helpful, translates the video:

Jalal Sleiman interviews a boy who fled Aqrab village in the Houla area in Homs province on 3-12-2012. He explains that regime forces surrounded the northern area and that warplanes dropped barrel bombs killing 8 people and wounding 50, and he says that there are clashes against FSA.

He says that there are about 500 of shabbiha in the village

Zilal says that the men walking across the background of the video are elements of the FSA heading towards Aqrab to help the win the fight inside the village. As the video plays, smoke can be seen in the distance.

In another video the same man interviews some children who say they fled the village because of the shelling.

The videos can't be independently verified, but so far all evidence suggests that the town has been under bombardment for some time, though there are now fighters from both sides in the town.

Also, the narrative in many videos posted this afternoon is that the rebels are helping the Alawites, including many children, who have been injured, but without independent corroboration these videos, hypothetically, could be staged.

Another day in Syria, and there's another confusing narrative. All we know for certain is that Aqrab is not a good place to live today.

1800 GMT: For several hours, reports have been coming in of some kind of "massacre" in Arqab, northwest of Houla in the countryside of Hama (map). For days it's been reported that the conditions there were growing worse. Videos posted on December 3rd show an interview of young men who were reportedly fleeing the town. One interview was taken while reportedly just after "barrel bombs" fell.

Now, the LCC reports there's been "a massacre in Alawite town as a result of missile and tanks shelling of a shelter in the town."

An incredible video that claims to show the widespread destruction after bombs fell:

Another claims to show a partial collapse of a building, reportedly the result of bombs. While the video plays, another impact can be heard in the distance.

The number of casualties may be incredibly high. Al Jazeera Arabic (which is not always the most reliable source) even says that 147 people have been killed in Homs today, most in the town of Aqrab. This number may be alarmist - though some estimates go as high as 200, but these are all unconfirmed rumors at this point.

Another Youtube channel has some videos from field hospitals, but there are only a few that have been uploaded so far.

We're working hard to verify these reports and to potentially identify the remains of the bomb shown in one of those videos.

1630 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, the death toll has risen by another 114 so far today:

55 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs "including 31 unidentified bodies in Damascus and Ein Tarma" ; 18 in Aleppo; 11 in Hama (including 6 in Mesyaf); 11 in Deir Ezzor; 11 in Idlib; 5 in Homs; and 1 in Lattakia.

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

Some of the "unidentified bodies," according to the LCC, include bodies "field executed," reportedly by Assad soldiers, in various areas.

1616 GMT: More videos from the rebel offensive in Idlib (see update 1527) - A T-55, a BMP-1 armored vehicle, and dozens of insurgents in Amud after liberating the village from Assad forces (map):

1552 GMT: Another rebel victory? The LCC reports that insurgents have captured several checkpoints east of Damascus:

The Free Syrian Army gains control over 2 checkpoints belonging to the regime's forces in Rankous and gains control of the technical school in Harasta. Regime forces are firing land missiles that are capable of carrying chemical warheads.

This video, reportedly taken today, claims to show an FSA vehicle, painted with the independent flag, firing its anti-aircraft weapon in Harasta (map):

This video, taken yesterday, reportedly shows a slightly less sophisticated, but effective, weapon being used in Harasta:

And this video, again, reportedly taken yesterday, claims to show a multiple-launch rocket launcher, perhaps a type 63, being used by the Free Syrian Army in Harasta:

These videos are not the remote mountains of Idlib, nor the deserts of Deir Ez Zor. Harasta is a significant suburb, and if the insurgents are now using this kind of firepower this close to the capital, it could be a sign that not only Assad's ground forces are weak, but that his airforce is far weaker than it has been in the past as well.

1527 GMT: Today, many brigades of the Free Syrian Army, and other independent brigades, have launched a massive offensive operation in the mountains of Jisr al Shughour. Today, the rebels captured the village of Amud (map) in a sudden and decisive battle, and they appear to have captured at least half a dozen armored vehicles in the process.

An extremely helpful source, Zilal, has helped us translate some of the large body of videos. According to Zilal, an announcement of the battle made on Youtube earlier lists the following brigades as having participated in the assault. Note that they are a mix of Free Syrian Army, independent groups, and even hardline groups like Jabhat al Nusra.

Brigades of the revolutionary council of Jesr al-Shoughour area, Jubhet al-Nusra, Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, Al-Iman Brigades, Al-Tawheed Battalion, Ahfad al-Sahaba Brigade, Assi Martyrs Brigade, Martyrs of the Coast Brigade, and others.

According to sources, the insurgents appear to be marching north, across the ridge, using captured armored vehicles, heavy machineguns, snipers, infantry, and other equipment to dislodge Assad forces and secure the high ground.

In a separate page, we've already collected videos of the captured tanks and armored fighting vehicles. By our count, it's possible that 3-5 tanks, and up to a half dozen armored vehicles, have already reportedly been captured.

Groups of insurgents shell the Assad positions below with what appears to be an anti-aircraft gun:

Infantry and snipers move into the town on foot:

Insurgents swarm a disabled BMP, apparently destroyed in the fighting:

As you can see from the map below, the insurgents appear to be trying to link their territory to the southwest, near Jisr al Shughour, to their territory in the north, like the town of Kafer Takharim. With this ridge secured, the FSA and other units will then be able to focus on Idlib city and some of the nearby towns, effectively the last Assad foothold in Idlib province.


View Syria - 2012 December 11 - EA Worldview in a larger map

1406 GMT: Though the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, still claims that there is a threat that Assad could use chemical weapons if cornered, he seemed to downplay the urgency of previous reports, saying that the preparations for their use have "slowed."

Speaking to reporters flying with him from Washington to Kuwait, Panetta suggested the threat was no longer escalating, although he was not specific about any Syrian military preparations.

"At this point the intelligence has really kind of leveled off," he said. "We haven't seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way."

This will likely raise suspicions that the initial discussions of chemical weapons use, coming from US intelligence and government sources, was just designed to give NATO incentive to deploy Patriot missiles to Turkey.

1359 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 46 people have been killed so far today across the country:

15 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 11 in Aleppo, 9 in Hama (including 6 in Mesyaf), 5 in Idlib, 3 in Deir Ezzor, 2 in Homs and 1 in Lattakia.

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

Also, note that the numbers of dead away from Damascus and Aleppo, particularly in Hama, appears to be higher. Over the last few days, the fighting in Hama has intensified. While the main arms of the Free Syrian Army have not reached south from Idlib province yet, violence is increasing again here, and so too are tensions. According to some opposition sources, 5 or 6 bodies were found in the woods near Masayaf, some with signs of torture, and at least one of them a woman.

However, there's still plenty of clashes near Damascus. Today there are reports of fierce battles in and around Darayya, the largest suburb west of the capital.

1330 GMT: According to Now Lebanon, while the Al Nusra Front played a major role in the capture of the Sheikh Suleiman base west of Aleppo (see update 0730), one unit of the Free Syrian Army also joined the assault, and several other Islamist units were involved:

An AFP journalist who covered the clashes around Sheikh Suleiman said many fighters were from other Arab countries and Central Asia.

"We control the whole base, all the zone is under our control. The whole region west of Aleppo up to the Turkish border has now been liberated. But no chemical weapons were found, or anti-aircraft missiles," said a rebel chief, Abu Jalal.

He headed the only unit of the mainstream rebel FSA which took part in the operation.

However, the most interesting claim is that the base was largely abandoned by the Assad army immediately before it fell, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and several other sources.

About 140 Syrian troops fled to another, nearby base as the rebels advanced, Abdul-Rahman said, adding that opposition fighters captured seven government troops and killed two soldiers in the fighting.

While some sources put the amount of Assad deaths higher (as high as 35) this is still low for the relative size and importance of the base. This is also a trend that's in line with other recent battles in not only the north but also in the east, and even in some of the battles near Damascus.

Why are the numbers of Assad troops so low? The first answer is that many of the troops have been pulled out to protect Damascus. However, this can't account for all of this trend. The second answer appears to be widespread desertions and the relatively low morale of the most forwardly deployed regime troops. Unlike battles held just a month or two ago, there are less dramatic clashes and more prolonged sieges, sieges which are ending with the surrender, or retreat, of the Assad forces.

This has consequences. Even if Assad is deliberately making the decision to cast off some of these bases to protect the core cities, it's a decision that is already having tremendous consequences, as emboldened and better armed insurgents can concentrate on smaller and smaller amounts of territories while using their victories as recruiting tools to grow their own ranks and propaganda tools to thin Assad's ranks even further.

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

1222 GMT: Activist Ausama Monajed claims the Kurdish National Council has agreed to join the "umbrella" opposition National Coalition.The agreement follows the Coalition's designation of 15% of its officials as Kurds, including a deputy leader.

1024 GMT: US officials are saying that Washington will recognise the opposition National Coalition, formed last month, as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people" at Wednesday's Friends of Syria an conference in Morocco.

The move appears to follow American moves for a "proper" opposition and insurgency representing the Syrian people, with today's blacklisting of Jabhat al-Nusra as a "global terrorist organisation".

The US is expected to pledge additional humanitarian and nonlethal logistical support, but not military assistance, at Wednesday's gathering.

Arab States, Turkey, Britain, and France have already recognised the Coalition.

1020 GMT: Kim Sengupta, of The Independent of London, claims that foreign support for insurgents may go beyond training to secure chemical weapons stocks --- reported in Monday's Live Coverage --- and even a no-fly zone, "A plan to provide military training to the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime and support them with air and naval power is being drawn up by an international coalition."

Sengupta continues:

The head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir David Richards, hosted a confidential meeting in London a few weeks ago attended by the military chiefs of France, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, and a three-star American general, in which the strategy was discussed at length. Other UK government departments and their counterparts in allied states in the mission have also been holding extensive meetings on the issue.

The commanders’ conference was held at the request of the Prime Minister....

One key concern is the onset of winter, with 2.5 million people inside Syria needing help and 1.5 million internally displaced by the fighting, according to the UN....

There is also a growing belief among the Western backers of the opposition that intervention in some form is necessary now to influence the future political shape of Syria. Jihadist groups among the rebels, some like Jabhat al-Nusra linked to al-Qa’ida, have steadily gained in power and influence because of their access to weapons and money coming from the Gulf states putting more secular groups at a severe disadvantage.

0730 GMT: Monday was marked by the intersection of two headline stories. As the US was declaring Jabhat al-Nusra a "global terrorist organization", the insurgent group was celebrating a major victory with the capture of the Regime 111 base, near Sheikh Suleiman (map).

This was not just "a" base: more than two square kilometres, the military facility was the last significant regime outpost west of Aleppo. As EA's James Miller noted yesterday:

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 weaponryon the remaining Assad bases inside and around Aleppo.

And the political situation is far more complicated than declaring Jabhat al-Nusra "Al Qa'eda" and wishing it away. Last night, a series of observers were making the telling point that the Islamist organisation has significant backing --- and that the US declaration may bolster, rather than reduce, that. CNN's Arwa Damon noted, "Even majority of people who don't support Nusra Front respect them as fighting force, many credit them with rebel gains in Aleppo." Analyst Aaron Zelin wrote, "What's crazy is that even before the designation has gone official, we are already seeing backlash on the ground against it."

An activist neatly put together the political, military, and humanitarian situation: "People are beginning to starve in Syria. Nusrah Front gives them food. US sits on hands. Implication, draw thyself."

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