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Syria Live Coverage: Protests, Bombs, and A Victory That "Cannot Be Ruled Out"

An insurgent in Aleppo tries to rescue a woman lying shot in the street

1715 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 66 people have been killed so far across Syria:

35 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (including 4 martyrs due to shelling in Hajar Aswad and 4 martyrs due to gunfire at funeral of yesterday's convoy in Barza), 11 in Idlib, 7 in Daraa, 5 in Homs, 3 in Hama, 3 in Aleppo and 2 in Deir Ezzor.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) is an activist network operating both inside and outside of Syria. They claim to use stringent verification processes to ensure that a member of the LCC can vouch for any information posted either on their Facebook page or their website. The LCC also populates a database of those killed in the Syrian conflict, which can be seen at the website for the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria.

The LCC's casualty figures are a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

1621 GMT: Every week, Syrian activists vote on a Facebook page to select the theme for the week's protests. This week, the theme roughly translates to "The only terrorism in Syria is Assad's terrorism." On one hand, this message condemns the US designation of Jabhat al Nusra as a terrorist organization when, according to the opposition, whether one likes Al Nusra or not, all they have done, in the eyes of the opposition, is attack the Assad regime. What's really interesting, however, is that this was not the initial theme that was winning votes. According to a source, many supporters nominated the theme, "No to American intervention; We are all Jabhat al-Nusra," and it was gathering support, but the "Website admins watered it down" and removed the message.

Still, one need not look to far to find plenty of "we are all Jabhat al Nusra" signs. But the message behind these signs is far more complex than it appears on the surface. For starters, the main reason why Jabhat al Nusra was placed on the terrorist watch list is because of their affiliation with Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, the direct links between most members of al Nusra and AQI have not been established, and this link would be completely lost on the Syrian populace. As far as the opposition is concerned, the Free Syrian Army has done nothing but fight back against Assad's killing of civilians, and they have been labeled "terrorists" by the Assad regime, and Russia and China. Now, the US, has branded one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria as "terrorists" when their only crime is to fight against Assad. Furthermore, the perception is that there is a profound hypocrisy in the US, as the west has failed to provide weapons or air support to the Syrian opposition (or even humanitarian support, at least not effectively, as so many in Syria are struggling for basic necessities).

Today's protest in Kafer Takharim, a town that for over a month last winter was the only "liberated" town in Syria, and one that is now firmly in FSA control:

In Jobar, Damascus, the people show their support for Jabhat al Nusra and proclaim they want an Islamic Caliphate:

A jubilant anti-Assad crown in the Al Sukkari district of Aleppo:

With shelling nearby, and the possibility of fresh explosions ever present, the people of Babilla, Damascus, gather in an alley and chant that Assad is the only terrorist in Syria:

The Kurds have a somewhat different message, it seems:

Interestingly, in the always vocal Kafranbel, this weeks message is not aimed primarily at the United States, but at Russia and China. The catch - instead of condemning the Russian and Chinese governments' support of Assad, they are almost supporting a popular uprising in those countries, just as the Syrians have rebelled against Assad:

1439 GMT: There is finally more information about the "massacre" in Aqrab (see separate feature). Alex Thomson, journalist for Britain's Channel 4, who has been critical of the Syrian rebels in the past after his claims that they tried to kill him, says he has reached the town, and while he cannot be sure of what really happened, the version of the story he presents is a very different one from the one that has been circulated by the press thus far:

We do not say what follows is the truth. But we can say it is the first independently observed story of Aqrab from the first outside journalist to reach this area.

We interviewed three key eye-witnesses in three separate locations. They could not have known either of our sudden arrival, nor did they know the identities of the other two eye-witnesses.

What is striking is that their accounts entirely corroborate each other, to the last detail. And their accounts are further backed up by at least a dozen conversations with other Alawites who had fled from Aqrab.

Thomson says that the FSA took hostages, Alawite villagers that it was trying to relocate to Houla to act as "human shields." The FSA captured 500 villagers, locked them all in a single building, and was negotiating with the prisoners to relocate them. The negotiations with the prisoners broke down, a firefight began, and some prisoners were taken to a nearby village.

The narrative that Thomson gives is essentially the photographic negative of the version that the FSA gave. With a few differences, the initial claim was that the Alawites were taken prisoner by Shabiha, and the FSA tried to negotiate their freedom.

As of now, it's not possible to reconcile the two narratives. Both rely on eyewitness testimony. Nobody, it seems, has actually witnessed a "massacre," however, and there is no video of the bodies uploaded by either side. The reality is that all we know for sure is that there are two conflicting and unsubstantiated claims. We also know that there has been intense bombing of the village, at least since the FSA moved into the village on December 2-3rd.

1346 GMT: The Strategic Research and Communication Centre, an activist news organization, posts the following summary, with accompanying videos, of yesterday's events in Syria:

The rebels continued to make major advances after taking over new territories and military sites in the suburbs of Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib as regime forces intensified their bombardments on the suburbs of Damascus leaving dozens of people dead and wounded.

The rebels continued pushing forward toward taking control of the infantry academy in the Aleppo suburb of Msalamiya the thing which forced its director to flee and his deputy along with dozens of soldiers to defect to their side. They also took control of the 1003rd air defense base in the village of Shaala as well as the nearby 1141st air defense base in the town Khanaser in the eastern suburbs of Aleppo.

The rebel fighters have damaged a civil airplane after landing in the Deir Azzour military airport as it was unloading its cargo; meanwhile, clouds of smoke were billowing from the airport following a heavy mortar and rocket shelling by the rebels.

Clashes also broke out near the Damascus airport where the rebels seized control of the Insha’at military base in the village of Shabaa and destroyed two military tanks while thwarting the regime’s attempt infiltrate the town of Aqraba. They also seize control of the Damascus suburb of Bibila after pushing the regime forces out of it.

We have not independently verified all these claims, but it is increasingly clear that the insurgents are advancing, and quickly, in Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir Ez Zor, working to secure smaller towns, villages, and Assad bases so as to further isolate and tighten the siege of the last remaining Assad strongholds in the North and East.

As of today, the Syrian rebels have had a nearly unchecked series of victories for more than 80 straight days in these regions.

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

1255 GMT: Syria. Alex Thomson (@alextomo) of Britain’s Channel 4 News has tweeted an update that ties in with James Miller’s analysis yesterday about the alleged massacre in the town of Aqrab: :

Aqrab still sealed off - shots were fired at us from Aqrab as we approached #syria

0925 GMT: Syria. Luke Harding of The Guardian reports on the food and energy crisis in Aleppo:

This week, as desperation rises, the first food demonstrations have broken out in rural areas; some have resorted to trying to bake bread at home, with Syria returning to its Ottoman past. The FSA, in effect the government now in much of Syria's countryside, admits that there is little it can do.

In opposition areas, some food is still available. And, to a superficial degree, life is normal. There are markets selling vegetables, restaurants even. But the prices for most Syrians have become fantastical, as if fixed by a demented and mocking god.

Fuel oil, or mazout, which was used by Syrians to heat their homes cheaply before the fighting began, has gone up 1,000% from 20 Syrian pounds (17p) a litre to 200. A cylinder of cooking gas costs 3,800 Syrian pounds (£33) – a fortune to most people, especially at a time that spiralling inflation has wiped out savings.

0855 GMT: The Russian Foreign Ministry, via its website and Twitter, has vehemently denied the reported comments of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, including statements that President Assad is losing control and that an insurgent victory is possible.

The Ministry denied that Bogdanov had spoken to the media in recent days. It said that the quote of "an imminent victory [by insurgents] over Damascus" came from Russia’s Public Chamber and that it was only repeating the claims of the opposition.

The Ministry tried to get back to Moscow's position that it is seeking a political resolution, without demanding that President Assad step down, based on an international meeting in Geneva in June: "Bogdanov has confirmed Russia’s view that a political settlement based on the Action Group for Syria’s final communiqué is the only option."

0745 GMT: US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has signed the orders despatching six Patriot missile batteries --- two from the US, two from Germany, and two from the Netherlands --- and 400 military personnel to Turkey.

The Patriots will be placed on the Syrian border and are expected to be operational by the end of January.

0623 GMT: Brown Moses posts video which appears to show the Amr bin ma'ad Yakrib al-Zubaydi Brigade, an Islamist unit in the Free Syrian Army, setting a Shia mosque alight in Zarzur in Idlib Province:

0613 GMT: The Local Coordination Committees claim that 138 people were killed on Thursday, including 69 in Damascus and its suburbs, 29 martyrs in Aleppo Province, 20 martyrs in Idlib Province.

The LCC also includes, among its report of 120 clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian military, this provocative claim: The Free Syrian Army was able to destroy more than five tanks in different areas and destroy an MiG on the runway of the Deir Ezzor Airport."

0600 GMT: As it is Friday, we will be looking for the signs and images of anti-regime protests across the country, but Thursday was marked by more deadly bombs --- one taking 16 lives in Qatana, southwest of Damascus, and another killing eight in Jdeidet al-Fadl in Damascus Province --- and a political detonation in the comments of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

Most media outlets headlined Bogdanov's "The regime and government in Syria is losing control of more and more. Unfortunately, a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out." 

Not so widely noted was the Deputy Foreign Minister's refusal to distance Moscow from Assad --- despite recent reports that Russia was ready to accept transition that would begin with the President's deparature. Instead, he made a forlorn call for a political settlement to avoid what he saw as a tragedy that would dwarf even the loss of life to date:

The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people. If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable.

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