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Syria Live Coverage: The Humanitarian Crisis

Insurgents advance on the Deir Ez Zor military airport, the last major regime base in the northeast

See also EA Audio Feature: War in 2013 --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
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Wednesday's Syria Live Coverage: The Insurgents Close on Hama

2145 GMT: The situation near the palace may be unknown, but the CFDPC reports that shells (or rockets) have killed many tonight in Kafr Batna, to the east (map):

situation of chaos in the Kafar Batna suburb of Damascus which was shelled by regime forces with rocket launchers; there are reports of injuries also among the medical staff,

Bashar al Assad will likely live for more nights, but how many will have to die before his regime comes toppling down?

2028 GMT: This video was sent to us by Zilal, who has been speaking to people inside Damascus. It was taken from the south of the Presidential Palace in Damascus. The occasional gunshot or explosion, far in the distance, can be heard. More importantly, though, it reportedly shows the ambulances lined up on the road to the palace. Zilal describes the video:

This is Damascus tonight. [Zilal's sources] say that there are ambulances on the road leading to the presidential palace but we cannot see anything.

What we can see is that electricity is cut in many areas as you said before.

2022 GMT: The latest from Damascus - as far as we can tell, the surge of news earlier has quieted. We're unsure of how heavy the fighting is now in Mezzeh, but we have not heard any reports of fighting near the Republican Guard headquarters or the Presidential Palace for some time.

Power, it seems, is out almost everywhere.

It's not official yet, but it looks like the headlines may be over in Damascus.

It is likely that there will be many more nights like this one. The fact is that when this regime falls, it will likely start with a series of reports of fighting in these districts. Without light, electricity, or video, it will be hard to verify until the fighting is nearly done. The earliest stages of the fall of Tripoli, Libya, were very similar, where a few reports, strikingly similar to what we posted earlier, gave way to a deluge of reports that the city had already fallen to the rebels.

The reality is that the regime is weak enough that it could fall in a sudden attack. But as we've written before, the insurgency consists of both a nearly-traditional army and a "hidden" insurgency, and the full strength of the rebel forces in Damascus is probably not yet strong enough to win a military victory in the capital. At the earliest, at the rate things are going, it may not be for another 6 to 10 weeks that the rebels could be in a position to topple the whole city.

But an ambush of the palace could happen. A sudden defection, or even a military coup, are real possibilities. But even if it were to happen, it's not clear that Assad is even still at the palace, and it's unclear what would happen afterwards.

1925 GMT: Ahmad Fakhouri, a famous news anchor on Syrian state TV, has declared that he left the Syrian regime 9 months ago and lived in disguise in Damascus for half a year until he had smuggled out six members of his family. He then followed his family to Cairo where he now resides without employment.

During his time after leaving the Syrian Satellite Channel he used many disguises, fearing that intelligence forces would recognize him and succeeded so well that nobody but his own family could identify him. He used to believe that President Assad intended to make reforms but when he discovered his violent path, he decided to run away to a safer place, saying shouldn’t be necessary to repeat the reason behind him leaving his post as “everybody knows the criminal acts of Assad’s regime against Syrians.” He stated that most of his colleagues wish to follow in his footsteps and compared working at Syrian state media to working in a dictatorship where “nobody has the right to give his opinion”.

1919 GMT: An activist reports from the Old City in Damascus (map), about 5 kilometers (at least) from the nearest fighting that we've been describing:

It's about 9:20 at night in Syria. It's not unheard of to have artillery firing at this hour, but it is unusual. As for the lack of gunfire, if the central locations where the fighting is taking place are where we've been reporting, then we would not expect the sounds of gunfire to carry that far.

No updates about the fighting in Damascus from the LCC in the last 23 minutes...

1909 GMT: We're not sure how serious a threat to the regime this is, but we're getting a more comprehensive idea of the fighting in Damascus right now. According to the LCC, the Free syrian Army has launched a series of attacks in northern Darayya and southern Mezzeh, as well as the other fighting we've already noted. The LCC has a report that fierce fighting has broken out near the Al Akram mosque in Mezzeh (map). Other sources suggest a good deal of fighting has taken place in this area.

The FSA has had a strong presence in Darayya for months, and has been essentially fighting for control for weeks. It does make sense that if there was a run on the Palace, FSA elements would launch strikes from the Darayya area, near this latest report. However, the idea that the rebels could also attack from deeper within Mezzeh, and from the area just north of the palace, is significant, indicating a coordinated effort to rush the palace.

Such an attack is also not unprecedented. Weeks ago, when there was a car bombing in the Mezzeh 86 district, firefights broke out immediately afterwards. This indicates that there are rebel forces actually living inside the district, ready to strike once an attack is launched from the outside.

How strong are these hidden forces? This remains to be seen. This could be a "flash in the pan," so to speak. But there remains a possibility that this is a significant development.

1850 GMT: We'll continue to watch Damascus, but there is other significant news. Many sources are reporting that the Assad regime launched a series of SCUD missiles from one of their airports near Damascus against rebel-held territory near Aleppo. First, there is this CBS news report:

Compare this to a report from the New York Times that says officials in the US government have restated that Assad is using Scuds, and their own source suggest there was just an attack:

Contacts inside Syria said that one Scud attack took place on Thursday near Maara, a town in a rebel-held area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The missile appeared to have missed its target, and the initial accounts were that nobody was hurt. American officials, who have been monitoring Mr. Assad’s military actions via aerial surveillance and other methods, did not corroborate those details but disclosed that the Scud firings, which they first reported last week, had resumed.

“We know they’ve been firing Scuds and continue to fire them,” said a Defense Department official.

Then activist Edward Dark had this report 13 hours ago:

And an activist sends this video, which reportedly shows a massive hole in Maara (away from the town, so probably no casualties, which matches the NYT report) - the claim is that a SCUD made this:

A military source who we've consulted says that this kind of damage could absolutely be cause by a SCUD, though it's not the only suspect:

A scud-B carries a 985KG warhead. That's about 2000lbs. That's about the size of the hole.

Now, aircraft can also carry a 2000lb bomb...

Note, we think the NYT was referenceing "Mare'" sometimes spelled "Mareh" or "Marea" (map) and not Maara (map), based on their description. The video claims to show Mareh

Thanks to lopforum and Mr. Green for bringing some of these sources to our attention.

1845 GMT: The LCC reports gunfire in Wadi Al-Masharea, the area just meters north of the Presidential Palace. They have posted a claimed video, but it is only good for audio. The LCC says it confirms all its news before it is posted, but this video we cannot independently verify:

Just to the south of the palace there have been several reports like this:

As for the power, it has been cycling off and on in many districts across Damascus for at least an hour.

One only need look at the map below to understand how important all these claims are. As of yet, it is very hard to say what is going on in Damascus, but if confirmed this is a significant story.

View Syria - 2012 December 20 - EA wolrdview in a larger map

1829 GMT: A breaking series of claims from Damascus:

The LCC reports fierce fighting, as well as heavy bombardment, across many parts of Damascus - but no specific mention of the report coming from Zaid. We'll watch this closely, however, as LCC reports tend to be delayed.

1710 GMT: AP posts this raw footage of two tanks being destroyed near Damascus by some sort of roadside bomb, mine, or IED:

1612 GMT: The LCC posts this video of fighting in Morek (map), on the northeastern edge of a set of towns captured by insurgents in the last few days.

The Guardian adds a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights:

The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels were trying to take checkpoints in Morek, one of which they had already seized, and described the town as a critical position for the Syrian army.

"The town of Morek lies on the Damascus-Aleppo road ... it has eight checkpoints and two security and military headquarters. If the rebels were able to control the town they would completely sever the supply lines between Hama and Damascus to Idlib province," the group said in an email.

The LCC adds that there is also heavy fighting in Saqelabieh, on the southwestern edge of the captured towns (map).

Generally speaking, many of the captured towns have been heavily shelled by Assad artillery. There are even reports that some of that shelling has hit neighborhoods of Hama city.

1530 GMT: The UN's theme, and our own, is the humanitarian crisis, both inside and outside of Syria. The UN carries a tale of a family that risked everything in order to get cancer treatment for their father, but eventually needed to flee to northern Iraq in order to escape the violence and find the medicine needed to survive:

"I had to travel for 12 hours from Al Hassakeh to Damascus every couple of weeks in order to get chemotherapy treatment. I had to drive in the middle of shelling and bombarding. I took the risk to survive," Ahmed said.

Still pale and gaunt and holding a large package of medicine at his sister's house in Erbil, Ahmed explained that the violence in Syria eventually made it impossible to get the life-saving cancer treatment he needed. There is a huge and growing lack of medicine in local hospitals throughout much of the country and doctors are sometimes unable to reach hospitals.

"My life was in danger, I could not find medicine anymore and I was about to die. I had to leave Syria to save my life," Ahmed said. "When I arrived here in Erbil, I registered with the UNHCR. This registration enabled me to get residency in [Iraq] Kurdistan. UNHCR staff referred me to Nana Kelly hospital in Erbil, where I get free medical treatment."

Ahmed said he was satisfied with the treatment and chemotherapy he was receiving. "It even includes vitamins. I've gained five kilos in the last five months. I can see my hair growing again. I have been born again. I am very thankful to UNHCR."

1448 GMT: Another prominent defection - According to Al Arabiyah, famous State TV broadcaster Ahmed Fakhouri has defected. There is a video (Arabic) that claims to show him calling into Al Arabiyah to speak about his defection. Al Bawaba is also carrying the report that Fakhouri has left the regime and fled to Turkey.

Ahmed Fakhouri

Fakhouri is the face of the Assad regime for many inside Syria, as he has faithfully broadcast the "party line" since the start of this crisis. If true, this could shake the public's faith in the Assad regime even further. Of course, Fakhouri also has many enemies inside the opposition that has reviled his reporting:

1417 GMT: Much of the world is waiting for the Assad regime to fall to begin rebuilding Syria, but that rebuilding process, however humble, has already begun. According to an opposition Facebook page, over the last 5 days, the Free Syrian Student Committee, a collection of High School and University students, has held their first meetings in Jabal Zawiyah, a rebel stronghold in northwest Idlib province. A conference organizer describes the goals of the new student union:

"The conference for us is a step forward in the direction of the organization of student mobility and unification, and keeps an outstretched hand and an open heart to all who wish to participate in it.

"The conference was organized because the official student union has deviated entirely from the mission of the defense of students and has become a cheap tool for the security services (of the regime)."

According to the Syrian Left Coalition, 300 students attended, as did members of various educational and medical institutions.

But I said Syria's rebuilding process is humble - the meetings were held in a cave, under the protection of the Free Syrian Army.

1403 GMT: A Damascus-based Palestinian official, Khaled Abdul-Majid, has told The Associated Press that Cairo-based colleagues are mediating to get both insurgents and regime forces out of the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in southern Damascus, which has seen fierce clashes for more than two weeks.

There are unconfirmed reports that some of the refugees who fled the camp are now returning. Earlier this week, claims circulated that up to 100,000 of the camp's 150,000 residents had left.

1356 GMT: According to Al Jazeera, the Free Syrian Army has captured their first town on the Lebanese border:

The media centre in Qalamoun posted pictures of members of the free army at the bordering in Rankous town in western Damascus.

The Free Syrian Army has already taken control over most border crossings with Turkey and some crossings with Iraq and Jordan.

It is first time that it controlled a border crossing with Lebanon.

Rankous (map) is north of Damascus, about halfway between the capital and Homs. The significance is that while the countryside north of Hama has fallen to the rebels, the countryside south of Homs is falling as well (in a slower and less dramatic fashion). Hama and Homs are increasingly isolated as a result. It does not seem that the Syrian government wants to spend military resources to recapture this territory, either. Northeast of here, in the roadside town of Yabroud (map), the city has essentially (though not totally) been free from Assad control for some weeks, but there has been no widespread military assault yet to retake the town. Instead, the Assad military appears content to launch airstrikes that have killed dozens of civilians, a reminder that they will never really be independent from Assad until Assad is no more.

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

1330 GMT: The detained Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), has been awarded the 2012 Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders, Le Monde, and TV5 Monde.

Darwish, given the award for his "courage and commitment to information", was arrested by Air Force Intelligence in Damascus in February. His current whereabouts are unknown, and Syrian authorities refuse to bring him before a judge or to let him see his family or lawyers.

Sources say that Darwish has been tortured while in detention and that his life is in danger, especially because he suffers from a serious condition that requires medical attention.

1310 GMT: In a lengthy press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared:

We’re not concerned about Assad’s regime. We’re interested in stability in the region. We don’t have any special economic ties with Syria. Assad hasn’t visited Moscow a lot during his ten-year term. We’re advocating solutions that will prevent the civil war. Our proposition is about how people will live further. But the development will depend on the Syrian people themselves.

Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry had to deny the reported comments of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov that an insurgent victory was possible, as President Assad’s forces were “losing more and more control and territory”.

The President reiterated that Russia was “advocating the solution which would prevent the collapse of the region and the continuous civil war....not retaining al-Assad and his regime at any price".

Could Putin's remarks be a renewed signal that Moscow is distancing itself from the regime, with both the denial of an investment in Assad's future and of a specific Russian interest in Syria?

1120 GMT: Al Jazeera footage of opposition fighters in Halfaya in Hama Province, taken by insurgents on Tuesday:

1008 GMT: A report by the United Nations Human Rights Council warns that the civil war is rapidly becoming an “overtly sectarian” and ethnic conflict: "Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides."

The report says the actions of both sides are "increasingly in breach of international law":

Government forces and supporting militias [are] attacking Sunni civilians, and [there are] reports of anti-Government armed groups attacking Alawites and other pro-Government minority communities, including Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Druze. Some minority communities, including Christians, Kurds and Turkmen, have also been caught up in the conflict, and in some cases forced to take up arms for their own defence or to take sides.

The report also cites the increasing presence of foreign fighters, some of whom are "radicalised", and the escalating humanitarian crisis.

1000 GMT: Opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh has declared, "Russia, along with Iran, provides Bashar al-Assad's regime with weapons and ammunition, and supports it politically, therefore the citizens of these countries present legitimate targets for militants in Syria."

The opposition National Coalition immmediately distanced itself from the comments, "We reject all statements that promote the targeting of civilian Russians and reaffirm that these statements contradict the goals of the coalition and principles and morals of the revolution and Syrian people."

0920 GMT: The Local Coordination Committees report that 161 people were killed on Wednesday, including 67 in Damascus and suburbs and 50 in Aleppo Province --- 40 of them in a car explosion in the Marjeh neighbourhood of Aleppo city.

0810 GMT: Reuters has the scare headline of the day, "Al Qaeda Grows Powerful in Syria as Endgame Nears", followed by this sensationalist lead paragraph:

Having seen its star wane in Iraq, al Qaeda has staged a comeback in neighbouring Syria, posing a dilemma for the opposition fighting to remove President Bashar al-Assad and making the West balk at military backing for the revolt.

Why sensationalist? Because the article makes the simplistic declaration that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist insurgent group which has been prominent in the fight in the north, is "Al Qa'eda's affiliate".

While Jabhat al-Nusra should be assessed for its actions and alleged abuses --- some of which are summarised in the article --- there is nothing in the article to explain that supposed equation of the group and the Al Qa'eda of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

0610 GMT: After days of headlines, news of the insurgent advances --- from their move into Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus to the surge in Hama Province, to the doorstep of Hama city --- eased on Wednesday. While fighting continued, with the opposition also making gains in Deir Ez Zor Province in the northeast, the spotlight turned to the humanitarian situation.

United Nations officials appealed for $1.5 billion for aid to Syrians in the "dramatically deteriorating" environment. Inside the country, $519.6 million would help 4 million people, including 2 million displaced from their homes, and $1 billion would be devoted to up to 1 million Syrian refugees in five countries.

Those numbers point to a worsening of the situation, with the UN estimating that the total of registered refugees --- currently 525,000 --- will double in forthcoming months.

What the UN did not explain was how the aid would reach those suffering inside Syria, given the fighting and instability in many areas. So, for example, there was no discussion of how the situation in Aleppo, where months of fighting and now stalemate have left residents in an increasingly desperate search for food and other essentials, could be alleviated.

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