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Syria Live Coverage: Russia Gives Up on Assad

The message from protesters in Kafranbel today

See also Syria Analysis: Why Assad's Use of SCUD Missiles is Really Important
Iraq (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Security Forces Raid Minister of Finance's Home and Offices
Thursday's Syria Live Coverage: The Humanitarian Crisis

1531 GMT: 71 people have been killed so far today across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

24 people in Hama, 20 people in Damascus and its countryside, 10 martyrs in Idlib, 8 martyrs in Aleppo (including 5 martyrs in Marja) 6 martyrs in Homs... and a martyr in the Deir ez-Zor.

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.

1523 GMT: The UK Foreign Office has issued an ominous warning, the most strongly-worded travel advisory yet:

1513 GMT: The Guardian, who notes our own coverage today, has also posted analysis by a military think tank in the UK which suggests that Assad's use of SCUD missiles is also a deterrent to ward off Western intervention (full quote and audio here):

Missiles are a useful way of reminding the outside world ‘look we still have potentially several hundred of these ballistic missiles and if they can land very near the Turkish border they can also land within Turkey itself’.

Assad may be gambling that this is a useful signal of deterrent against foreign intervention ... it only takes one [missile] to get through and hit a populated area, or an air base, for their to be very serious political consequences particularly in this context if it has chemical armed warheads.

I still don’t see any strong reason for Assad to use such weapons, but the capability does exist. And it is only sensible for Turkey and other countries to prepare for that contingency.

This is certainly a possibility. After all, ballistic missiles, especially ones carrying chemical weapons, may be the only deterrent Assad has left. It's also noteworthy that the border towns have been targeted, something that did not escape the Turkish government's attention, as I pointed out in our separate article:

On Friday, there was news of another possible SCUD attack. A micro-blogger posted a video, reportedly leaked by members of the military, showing a new launch. The Turkish government said that at least four SCUD missiles had been fired from Damascus towards Aleppo Province and NATO Secretary General Anders FoghRasmussen confirmed that the regime has used SCUD missiles against opposition=held territory.

These border towns have routinely been hit by air and artillery strikes, particularly as they are the gateways for major supply routes.

1331 GMT: Every week, Syrian activists vote on a Facebook page to determine what the theme of Friday's protests will be. Today's theme roughly translates to "Victory has started from Aleppo Gates" or as another translates it, "Aleppo, Victory is near. Literal : victory is written on your doors YA Aleppo". There will be many protests, but we're struck by a few videos we've seen already.

Like this one, reportedly held today in Kafer Zita, a town that was captured by the Free Syrian Army earlier in the week:

And this video, in Hama city where the fighting is ongoing but where the activists can almost taste their victory:

This video reportedly shows one of the protests in Douma, Damascus, a dangerous activity as the suburb is routinely bombed and shelled, to say nothing of the tanks and guns that have claimed so many lives:

And then there is this protest in Binnish, Idlib, a hard-hit and defiant town where Jabhat al Nusra is often praised:

And then there is Kafranbel, where the Friday posters are famous across the world. Today's theme is obvious, and encouraging.

These are just a small sample of videos we've seen so far.

1310 GMT: We've posted a separate analysis documenting the evidence that Assad used SCUD missiles on Thursday. But the heart of the analysis is that Assad's use of SCUDs, while concerning (and likely a war crime) tells us more about Assad's weakness, and his dedication to fighting until the end.

See also Syria Analysis: Why Assad's Use of SCUD Missiles is Really Important

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

1213 GMT: AFP contributes yet another report of Aleppo "struggling with a bread shortage...[and] shortfalls of fuel for electricity and heating and key medical supplies":

The few who can afford them use private generators, but the vast majority in rebel-held areas of Aleppo have no electricity, and bakeries cannot satisfy the demand for bread, with prices shooting up.

Traditional pieces of round flat bread, typically sold in packs of eight, now cost more than three times as much at bakeries that receive subsidised flour as before a rebel offensive in Aleppo in the summer.

At bakeries that procure flour privately, prices are higher still, far beyond the reach of most in the city.

Prices for gasoline, heating fuel and firewood have also skyrocketed.

0944 GMT: The parents of journalist Austin Tice, abducted in August, have written an open letter to his captors:

We urge you, whoever you are: Let Austin come home for Christmas. Let us hug him, laugh and cry with him, love him in person. Let us be a whole family again.

0940 GMT: The Local Coordinating Committees report that 117 people were killed on Thursday, including 42 in Damascus and its suburbs, 23 in Daraa Province, 18 in Hama Province, and 14 in Aleppo Province.

0720 GMT: A student talks to Syria Deeply about life at Aleppo University:

It’s very bad. It’s open but there are a small number of students. Army forces are spread everywhere and the students have no room to breathe. If one of the students is a wanted person – on the government’s blacklist –-- they can take him easily. The dorms in the university are now used to house refugees.

They fear the fighting in Aleppo. Most of the roads are blocked and there are very few homes and neighborhoods [safe enough] to stay in.

0710 GMT: C.J. Chivers of The New York Times opens his article, "Syria Unleashes Cluster Bombs on Town, Punishing Civilians", about an attack on Marea, a town in the north near the Turkish border:

The plane came in from the southeast late in the afternoon, releasing its weapons in a single pass. Within seconds, scores of finned bomblets struck and exploded on the homes and narrow streets of this small Syrian town.

After the screams and the desperate gathering of the victims, the staff at the local Freedom Hospital counted 4 dead and 23 wounded. All were civilians, doctors and residents said.

Many forms of violence and hardship have befallen Syria’s people as the country’s civil war has escalated this year. But the Syrian government’s attack here on Dec. 12 pointed to one of the war’s irrefutable patterns: the deliberate targeting of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s military, in this case with a weapon that is impossible to use precisely.

0620 GMT: Only a week ago the Russian Foreign Ministry was loudly denying 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”. Bogdanov had not spoken to any media for days, the Ministry said --- and if he had, he didn't say this....and if he said this, it was only in a "discussion", not in a declaration for the record.

On Thursday, however, President Vladimir Putin was going even farther in his assessment of Assad's future:

 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....

[We are] 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.

So what happened to shift Moscow's position so quickly?

The answer lies in developments early this month. Putin paid a visit to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was told, in no uncertain terms, that Ankara saw the end of Assad. Moreover, Turkey was not going to do anything to delay that scenario, nor were its American and European allies.

Publicly, Putin did not refer to this message, but he was shrewd enough to realise it was backed up by the reality of the insurgents' advance, with seizure of territory and bases across the north and even near Damascus. So a few days later, his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was suddenly in Dublin having a talk with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the seriousness of the situation and what might be arranged after Assad.

While flutters this week --- Russia is rotating its warships in the Mediterranean; could this be for an evacuation of its nationals? --- have not turned into climactic action, Putin was in effect handing Assad his notice. The question is no longer whether Assad survives in power --- it is whether there is any "transition" or simply the de facto seizure of power by a collection of political and military insurgents.

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