Protest in Hama on Friday
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Friday's Syria Live Coverage: Russia Gives Up on Assad
1950 GMT: Al Jazeera English reports on the declaration of a no-fly zone over Aleppo by the Islamist insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra:
A cameraman for Syrian state TV, Haidar al-Smoudi, has reportedly been killed in the Kafarsouseh neighbourhood in Damascus.
1440 GMT: Claimed footage of the formation of a new Kurdish brigade in the Free Syrian Army, with six battalions from Kobani and Aleppo:
1200 GMT: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has pulled back from comments by President Vladimir Putin distancing Moscow from the Syrian regime, declaring: "Listen, no one is going to win this war. Assad is not going anywhere, no matter what anyone says, be it China or Russia."
Lavrov repeated that Russia had rejected requests from countries in the region to pressure Assad to go or offer him safe haven, and said his exit might lead to an upsurge in fighting:
Some regional powers suggested that we tell Assad we were ready to accommodate him. And we replied: "Why do we have to do it? If you have these plans, go to him yourselves directly."
On Thursday Putin said in a press conference, "[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."
Lavrov also said the regime's chemical weapons had been concentrated in one or two areas and were "under control" for the time being. He claimed the biggest threat was that the weapons could fall into the hands of militants.
1140 GMT: An army checkpoint on Baghdad Street in Damascus:
1130 GMT: Hassan Hassan writes in Foreign Policy magazine of the reasons for the influence of the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra in parts of northern Syria:
Jabhat al-Nusra currently controls most of the vital sectors in Deir Ezzor, including oil, gas, sugar, and flour....
Jabhat al-Nusra is also cultivating links with local communities. It maintains a relief program that works to win hearts and minds among the population, in tandem with its military operations. Its fighters also have a reputation for professionalism: While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) tends to accept volunteers regardless of their personal merits, Jabhat al-Nusra's cadres are perceived to be more disciplined and concerned with local communities' needs.
To offset the group, Hassan recommends:
It should be local governing councils that provide services to local residents -- not Jabhat al-Nusra. These councils have been set up based on societal consensus, made possible by coordinating with local leaders. In Abu Kamal, for example, local councils provide medicine and school needs for students, even selling oil to pay salaries for teachers -- as a result, many schools reopened in villages and towns this month. They also make sure scarce resources are used efficiently, bringing down the prices of foodstuff and fuel. Rebels working with the councils are getting better at responding to complaints and holding their members accountable for abuses: "We are not the state, we are just trying to help people in terms of organization and services," one FSA [Free Syrian Army] commander told me.
0630 GMT: An interesting "Appeal to the free people of Horan and Jabal Al-Arab", written in English, by the opposition Local Coordination Committees.
The appeal refers to murders and abductions in the areas in southern Syria, trying to assure readers that these have not been carried out by insurgents, despite any attempts by the Syrian Government to blame the opposition:
Everyone who participates in kidnapping, killing, and all tashbeeh [similar] acts are criminals who will be taken to justice, the “People Committees –loyalists militias ” formed by the regime to help in its war against the people represent the machine of crime and Tashbeeh and do not represent Jabal Al- Arab and its residents.
We call upon our beloved people in Horan, Jabal Al-Arab and the battalions of the FSA to protect our revolution by not falling for the regime’s schemes, and not to hold the whole community of Jabal Al-Arab responsible for the crimes of these individual mercenaries , those mercenaries are do not represent the people of Jabal Al-Arab.
The message warns against attempts to stoke sectarian flames and tries to turn blame on Assad's forces, "The regime’s mercenaries and Shabbiha are part of war’s machine used by the regime against its people and they only represent this criminal regime."
Yet, given that the message is in English, I wonder if the people of Hran and Jabal al-Arab are the primary audience for the Committees' declaration?
0610 GMT: The opposition Local Coordination Committees claim that 291 protests took place on Friday. Almost 90 of these were in the city of Hama, reportedly the focus of a gathering offensive by insurgents, but it was a sign in opposition-held Kafranbel in the northwest that grabbed the headline. Addressing the Pope, it declared in English, "Merry Christmas from Syria, the Land Where Assad Killed Santa Claus".
The number of protests is significantly down on the several hundred reported on Fridays earlier this year, but it still testifies to an attempt by those challenging the regime to show peaceful resistance. And Kafranbel's sign shows the knowledge of the international battle over who has the high ground in the conflict.
The Committees report that 169 people were killed on Friday, including 58 in Damascus and its suburbs, 39 in Hama Province, and 24 in Daraa Province.