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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Assad Regime Negotiating a Deal in Moscow?

See also Syria 1st-Hand: Aleppo --- Hunger, Disease, & Little Hope
Wednesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Insurgents Take Another Town in the North

2315 GMT: Bahrain. Claims are circulating that leading human rights activist Zainab AlKhwaja was released from prison on bail today.

Zainab's husband said he was collecting her from prison. He described her as the "apple of the eyes of the people of Bahrain".

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article written by Zainab behind bars. Her trial verdict was also postponed until 20 January.

2105 GMT: Syria. The death toll has increased to 180, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

97 martyrs in Damascus and suburbs including 50 in Brad at the highway of Damascus Daraa and 7 in Sidi Miqdad were field executed, 25 martyrs in Idlib including 4 in Sha'ar neighborhood, 11 in Deir Ezzor including 7 in Mayadin shelling, 14 in Homs including 2 were martyred in Hama, 8 in Hama, 4 in Daraa and two in Raqqa

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

The biggest claim, made by the LCC, is that 50 bodies were found in the Kisweh district in Damascus:

50 bodies of martyrs were found in a refrigerator truck on the road leading to Kisweh, the martyrs were all field executed by regime forces.

We have not seen video or independent corroboration of these numbers; however, we are now seeing more reports like this one as this conflict moves into its next chapter.

2015 GMT: Syria. Snap-analysis - don't hold your breath that Brahimi's mission will be successful. The UN envoy is making what may amount to a final effort to end this crisis. The fact that Brahimi is willing to talk about transitional governments, while speaking in Damascus, is a sign that he realizes that he is running out of time. However, this plan has few specifics, and many factors would need to fall into place simultaneously for any deal to work.

For starters, Assad and his inner circle would have to allow the establishment of a transitional government that was not comprised of regime hardliners. In order for there to be a halt to hostilities or rebel attacks, they would also likely demand a strong presence in such a government.. Not only is this unlikely to happen, but even if such a transitional government were established, the current regime would have to immediately cede power to the new transitional government. This would absolutely require the immediate cessation of all military campaigns, and would likely require a transitional military leadership as well. We've seen Assad's "cease fires" in the past, where Assad pledged to stop his military campaigns and withdraw his army from the streets, but instead said that the forces fighting "terrorists" would have to remain in operation. This would have to be something different, on a level we have not seen.

Furthermore, this ceasefire, and the establishment of a transitional government, would have an extremely narrow time period to win over the various rebels in the field. The rebels continue to make advances in nearly every corner of this country, and have recently stated that they would not abide by any ceasefire that did not include large prisoner transfers and other concessions. Any transitional government would have to meet these requirements and immediately stop hostilities. Making things more complicated, it is unclear if all rebel groups would stop their attacks. Any transitional truce would quickly break down if rebel attacks were retaliated against.

Lastly, the holding of free and fair elections would have to be swift, and those elections would have to be respected by the rebels. It's hard to tell whether Syria's civil society is even capable of accomplishing this in a fast matter, and if the oppositio did not overwhelmingly win these elections the results would likely be disputed.

In short, the rebels have no incentive to stop fighting or accept any sort of deal that they would consider less than a huge victory. While the Syrian people would likely be best served by a quick end to this crisis, at least in the short run, the rebels know that they cannot lose. Instead, they will carefully pick apart the remaining pockets of Assad resistance while they close in on the key cities. They aren't fighting like they are in a rush, a sign of their confidence. Brahimi, and indeed Assad, will have to recognize this reality in order for any deal to take hold.

1949 GMT: Syria. UN Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has told reporters in Damascus that he believes a transitional government should be established that would take full control of Syria, perhaps even within months. That government could then hold free elections:

“All the powers of government should be with this government,” Mr. Brahimi said in reference to the proposed transitional authority.

The envoy’s comments to reporters in Damascus were his most detailed since traveling to Syria on Sunday, where he met with Mr. Assad and Syrian opposition members in an effort to revive hopes of a political solution to the nearly two-year old crisis. But, even as Mr. Brahimi and other international diplomats warned on Thursday of the high cost Syrians would pay if the envoy’s efforts failed, there was no immediate sign of a new diplomatic formula that would be acceptable to both the government and its opponents.

“The situation is bad and worsening. The Syrian people are suffering unbearably,” Mr. Brahimi said. “We do not speak in a vacuum about theoretical things.”

1800 GMT: Turkey. Eight Turkish F-16 fighter jets have bombed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq in the latest operations in a week-long offensive.

No casualties were reported. The jets safely returned to their bases after completing their mission successfully.

The Turkish military is trying to disrupt preparations by the PKK to remain in the area through the winter.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remarked Thursday morning that the PKK had announced 2012 as its “final year” and turned the statement against the organisation:

Now they have seen that this is not the final year. You will not acquire anything. You cannot have any finales in this country. You either live in this nation as human beings or find yourselves other countries to live in. Or you continue to stay in your caves, where you can be sure we'll find you. There is no other way out of this.

1704 GMT: Syria. Today's death toll has risen to 80, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

21 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 15 martyrs in Aleppo (4 of them in Shaar neighborhood), 16 martyrs in Idlib (7 of them in Jesr Al-Shoghour), 8 martyrs in Deir Ezzor (7 of them due to shelling in Mayadeen), 8 martyrs in Hama, 8 martyrs in Homs, 2 martyrs in daraa and 2 martyrs in Raqqa.

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

1603 GMT: Syria. For weeks we've been reporting that the suburbs between Homs and Damascus have been increasingly independent. Last week we reported that the Free Syrian Army and other brigades won several battles near Rankous (map), and had finally captured the border post there. Today, a series of videos, reportedly filmed near both Rankous and near Qalamoun (map) suggest that Assad tanks and troops are completely withdrawing from these rural towns, or at the very least re-positioning somewhere more central.

This video claims to show the tanks withdrawing from Kalamoun on the back of trucks. Another video, taken from the opposite side of the highway, shows a large convoy of Assad forces moving out of the town:

The Kalamoun coordination committee posts this video of Assad forces moving out of Rankous:

1531 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, 67 people have been killed so far today nationwide:

16 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 15 martyrs in Aleppo (4 of them in Shaar neighborhood), 15 martyrs in Idlib (7 of them in Jesr Al-Shoghour), 7 martyrs in Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor, 5 martyrs in Hama, 5 martyrs in Homs, 2 martyrs in Daraa and 2 martyrs in Raqqa.

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.

1525 GMT: Syria. With the conflict coming to a head, many have speculated that President Bashar al Assad and his closest regime members may try to flee to Lattakia or Tartous, two coastal cities with larger percentages of Alawites in the population, and the ancestral home of the Assad clan. This remains a possibility, but that makes reports of violence from the region even more important. For months the Syrian rebels have pushed west and south from their strongholds in Idlib province into the mountains of Lattakia. Now, they have pushed well into territory that would have served as the outer ring of defenses for these important ports. To see how far the opposition has stretched into Lattakia, one only need to follow the falling bombs.

Today, there are reports that Assad is bombing several mountain towns, including Wadi Sheikhan (literally, the valley of Sheikhan, here on the map), only 30 kilometers from Lattakia. A video posted by the LCC reportedly shows a "barrel bomb" dropped what appears to be a residential neighborhood.

Even more central, however, the LCC reports that the Rabea villages on the outskirts of the city are also being shelled. We have not independently confirmed this news, and we're still looking for visual evidence to see how intense the violence is.

1454 GMT: Syria. The Syrian rebels have laid siege to the Minakh military airport (also spelled Minnigh, or Menneg, here on the map) north of Aleppo, one of the few remaining air bases in the countryside of Syria's largest city. Rebels have fired tanks, mortars, heavy machine guns, and sniper fire at the outpost. According to at least one video which claims to show the base, helicopters can be seen on the tarmac.

This video claims to show a rebel tank firing at the position:

A rebel mortar, reportedly firing on the air base today:

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for holding down the coverage for several days.

1334 GMT: Syria. State news agency SANA reports that four people have been killed and 10 injured by a car bomb in Damascus Province.

1312 GMT: Kuwait. Human Rights Watch alleges:

Kuwait security forces have on several occasions used what appears to be excessive force to disperse largely peaceful protesters at a series of demonstrations over participation in the country’s political process since October 2012. Some demonstrators have been wounded, and the security forces have arrested many more.

In several statements the Interior Ministry justified the use of force on the grounds that protesters had blocked traffic, thrown stones at the police, and attacked them. However, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 protest organizers, participants, rights activists, and witnesses, who said that demonstrations they took part in or witnessed were largely peaceful. They said that masked riot police used tear gas and sound bombs without warning to disperse demonstrations and beat protesters while arresting them for participating in “unauthorized protests".

1306 GMT: UAE. State media reports that security forces have arrested members of a cell of militants from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, planning to carry out attacks in both countries and in other states.

“The security authorities in the U.A.E., in coordination with the related security parties in Saudi Arabia, announced the arrest of an organized cell from the deviant group [often an euphemism for Al Qa'eda] that was planning to carry out actions against national security of both countries and some brotherly states,” the Emirates News Agency said, without elaborating.

1256 GMT: Iraq. The to-and-fro in the conflict between Kurdistan and the central government continues with news of a tentative agreement over troop deployments in northern Iraq.

Acting Minister of Defense Sadoon al-Dulaimi said both sides, after talks in Baghdad, have submitted a road map to a joint committee for final approval, with a delegation from Baghdad travelling to Erbil in Kurdistan on Sunday to sign the final deal.

In November, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deployed forces in disputed territories, and the Kurdish Regional Government countered by sending in thousands of its own Peshmarga troops.

The news followed an increase in tension on the economic front, with Kurdistan declaring that it had suspended oil exports over a payments dispute with Baghdad.

1137 GMT: Syria. As Russian officials meet a Syrian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad, Moscow's Foreign Ministry has put out a lengthy "holding" statement.

The Ministry avoided blame of either side --- except for implicit condemnation of insurgents for "trying to drag Palestinians (in Syria) into the conflict" --- while criticising outside intervention. It declared:

There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. The only way is to begin dialogue and talks to initiate political process. We will maintain active contacts with Damascus and all sectors of the Syrian opposition, as well as external players.

The Ministry also downplayed any threat from chemical weapons, "The use of WMDs is inadmissible and has been rejected by the international community, Syrian representative said in the UN."

0937 GMT: Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry has confirmed that United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will fly to Moscow on Saturday for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"We plan to discuss a range of issues linked to a political and diplomatic settlement in Syria, including Brahimi's efforts aimed at ending the violence and the launch of a comprehensive national dialogue," spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad is heading a Syrian delegation which is in discussions today with Russian colleagues.

Lukashevich denied a US-Russian initiative to end the political cirsis, "There was not and is not such a plan and it is not being discussed."

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Lavrov flew to Dublin for a suddenly-called meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, followed by a discussion with Brahimi. Talks ensued between American and Russian officials.

0553 GMT: Bahrain. The Information Affairs Authority has issued a general response to detained activist Zainab AlKhawaja's opinion piece in The New York Times on Christmas Day.

The response does not respond directly about AlKhawaja's situation or her specific claims of the denial of rights and political reforms. Instead, it re-asserts, "Since the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) report [in November 2011], Bahrain has been entirely committed to progressing by prioritizing human rights concerns....The Government’s persistent willingness to address grievances and adhere to international treaties must be acknowledged."

0548 GMT: Syria. Claimed footage has been posted of the surrender of scores of regime troops after insurgents captured the town of Harem in the north, just over a mile from the Turkish border.

0545 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees claim 164 people were killed on Wednesday.

The Committees assert that 42 people were slain in a single incident, the shelling of Qahtaniya farm near Raqqa in Idlib Province.

0525 GMT: Syria. An interesting conjunction of two stories on Wednesday, following this week's meeting between United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and President Assad in Damascus....

First, Syrian and Russian officials said Assad is sending Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad to Moscow to meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Then Lavrov's deputy Mikhail Bogdanov said Brahimi will visit the Russian capital on Monday.

Another version from Russian media and a Lebanese source offered an even quicker timeline. Syria's Muqdad has already left for Moscow, with discussions today and Brahimi will arrive in Russia on Saturday.

Neither Syrian nor Russian officials would offer further information; however, a "Lebanese official close to Damascus" said Muqdad had been sent to seek Russian advice on a possible agreement, adding optimistically, "There is a new mood now and something good is happening."

So is there a political deal being discussed next week? And does it involve anything more than the re-statement of June's proposal, put forward by then-UN envoy Kofi Annan after an international meeting in Geneva, for a transitional government --- but one in which Assad would not have to give up power immediately?

That initiative was rejected by the insurgency and the Syrian opposition outside the country. So far there has been no reaction from anyone to yesterday's development around Assad and Moscow.

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