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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Brahimi's Futile Mission to Moscow?

Today's protest in Kafranbel in northern Syria, with some pointed messages for United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi

See also Syria 1st-Hand: Why Insurgents Are Fighting Each Other in Aleppo
Wednesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Assad Regime Negotiating a Deal in Moscow?

2124 GMT: Syria. A message from Kafranbel:

It may be hard to make out, but the "Pac Man" is really the opposition flag, gobbling up AK-47s on its way to eating Assad. The "ghosts" chasing Pac Man are the flags of Russia, China, Iran, and (perhaps) the US (it's hard to see, but it's red and blue).

2110 GMT: Iraq. Across much of Iraq, large protests have been held today against government policies and behaviors that some Sunni Muslims view as sectarian in nature. In Fallujah alone there may have been tens of thousands in the streets. AP reports:

Tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis angry over perceived second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government massed along a major western highway and elsewhere in the country Friday for the largest protests yet in a week of demonstrations...

The biggest of Friday's demonstrations took place on a main road to Jordan and Syria that runs through the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the Sunni-dominated desert province of Anbar, west of Baghdad.

Several thousand protesters took to the streets in Fallujah, holding aloft placards declaring the day a "Friday of honor." Some carried old Iraqi flags used during the era of former dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated government was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago.

At least one group of protesters turned their anger against Iran, waving Iranian flag with a skull on it:

2102 GMT: Saudi Arabia The media account of the Revolution of the Eastern Province shares a video of tonights protest in Qatif. The demonstration was to condemn the death of Ahmad Matar, shot dead when Saudi security forces opened fire on protesters last night (see 1116 GMT entry):

1844 GMT: Turkey. Human Rights Watch released a statement today condemning last year's airstrike that killed 34 civilians in Turkey, and also criticizing the Turkish government for failing to complete a proper inquiry into the incident:

“One year on, no one has been held account for ordering the F-16 jets to drop the bombs that killed the 34 villagers” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher for Turkey at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government, parliament, and Diyarbakır prosecutor have so far failed the families of the victims in their search for justice.”

The attack, on December 28, 2011 at around 9:30 p.m., hit a group of 37 villagers from Ortasu (Roboski, in Kurdish) and Gülyazı (Bujeh, in Kurdish), two villages on the Turkish side of the border, as they crossed back into Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan. Thirty-four were killed, 17 of them children.

The group was smuggling diesel fuel, tea, and sugar, carried on mules, a centuries-old practice in a region with few employment opportunities. The aerial bombardment took place after unmanned drones provided intelligence in the form of video images of the large group walking with mules in the mountainous region. The government has stated this and the drone footage has been made available to those investigating the incident.

According to HRW, the government did convene an investigative panel, but that panel has yet to release any findings.

1824 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report that 101 people have been killed so far today, across the country:

29 were reported in Aleppo; including 16 in a massacre in Sfeira, 28 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 15 in Daraa, 10 in Homs, 5 in Deir Ezzor, 4 in Hama, 4 in Idlib, 3 in Raqqa, 2 in Swaida, 1 in Lattakia.

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

On average, over 100 people have been killed almost every day for months. Sometimes the number is even higher. The VDC, which documents the names and locations of those who have died, now says 38949 have been killed so far. As the VDC heavily documents each case, it's fair to say that this is the most conservative estimate.

Syrian Tracker, which also documents deaths, injuries, arrests, and other events in Syria, says that as of December 15th, 45295 people had been killed during the crisis.

1800 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees, the town of Busr al Hariri, in Daraa province (map), has been captured by the Free Syrian Army:

The Free Syrian Army liberated the town and forced the regime's army out of all checkpoints, they also freed the detainees that were locked up in the clinical center.

Videos posted today claim to show FSA units clashing with Assad security, as well as intense shelling and bombing campaigns against the town. One video even claimed to show an Assad military convoy headed to the town.

Yesterday we reported on how the towns to the north of Damascus were being ceded to the opposition. With the rebel momentum building in the north of the country, and many battles constantly being fought outside the capital, Assad cannot afford a rebel stronghold in Daraa province, to the south of Damascus. If the fighting in Daraa is a sideplot, it could prove to be an incredibly important one if more towns fall to the rebels. If Assad devotes large amounts of resources into ensuring that this does not happen, it could detract from his efforts to defend Damascus and all points north.

1746 GMT: Syria. Claimed footage of young men challenging and then running from security forces in Raqqa today:

1616 GMT: Syria. Some dark rumours today from Homs --- the LCC reports that 8 people, all from one family, have been "field executed" by Assad forces in the Deir Baalba district. However, this is not the only source of the report. We'v heard other reports, similar to the one posted below:

1608 GMT: Syria. Jabhat al Nusra released a statement today on a 23-minute long Youtube video (Arabic) that condemned the United States for both placing Al Nusra on the terrorist watch list and also for failing to take decisive action against Assad. The message was clear - they believe that the US is actually working to keep Assad in power longer. Al Jazeera provides some translation:

"The continued US and international support for prolonging the regime's lifespan by giving extensions (for a political transition), sending observers and trying to negotiate peace is clear to everyone," the group's leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, said in a voice recording posted online.

"The United States is expressing its failure in the region by putting the Al-Nusra Front on its terror list (merely) for helping the (Syrian) people," he added.

1600 GMT: Bahrain EA's John Horne reports:

On Monday, a video was uploaded to YouTube capturing a policeman in Aali twice slapping a young man, Haider, who was carrying his young son. The video quickly went viral. By Wednesday, it had received over 333,000 views. That figure is now currently at more than 462,000. The Interior Ministry released a rare statement saying that the policeman has been arrested.

France24 has spoken to the administrator of the YouTube channel which uploaded the video. He told them that Haider was going to "visit his aunt" who lived in a nearby neighbourhood. He continues:

What you don’t see in the video is that a policeman first stopped Haider’s car and asked him to step out of the car. Haider agrees, but refuses to leave his child alone in the car. The tension is palpable, which is why the eyewitness decided to film the scene from his window.

The Interior Ministry declared that it had arrested and tried the policeman in court. Personally, I don’t believe this. I think these declarations are simply meant to calm public opinion. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the authorities release photos, videos, or other proof of this arrest? And why would this alleged trial take place behind closed doors?

1543 GMT: Syria. Last week we wrote about a massive expansion of rebel-held territory in Hama. While significant gain for rebel forces, there was no accompanying decisive military victory, as the regime did not contest much of the territory. It's unclear whether they did not have the resources, or their forces simply fled or deserted.

However, it seems that the regime is not giving up all of northern Hama province without a fight. Khan Sheikhoun (map), in north-central Hama, is on a key highway that leads between Idlib province to Hama city. That town has been heavily bombarded for several days, and today this video has been posted which claims to show an Assad military convoy near the outskirts of the town:

However, the rebels not only took a large amount of territory, but they also have large amounts of popular support north of Hama. This video reportedly shows a funeral for one of the fallen in Khan Sheikhoun. According to multiple sources, the funeral turned into a very large anti-regime protest. If Assad wants this town, and the others surrounding it, back under his control, it will not be a simple matter:

1523 GMT: Syria. A truly gruesome video has been circulated by Syrian activists today. Uploaded 14 hours ago to Youtube, it claims to show "prominent shabiha," pro-regime paramilitary, mangling the bodies of two men in a courtyard, reportedly in Aleppo. There are no landmarks to establish where exactly this took place, nor are there any obvious indications of who any of these men are, either the living or the dead. At one point, the ear it cut from one of the dead men, his head is bashed on the ground, and is hit by a board. The other dead man may have had his genitals mutilated with a knife.

A man in camouflage with a camera/phone can be seen looking on, or perhaps even filming. Several other plain-clothed men look on. At one point, one of the onlookers makes a sound that suggests he is about to vomit.

Horrible claims like this are becoming all too common, and each one is typically posted with alternative narratives by different sides. The only thing that is clear is that the mistreatment of the dead, and the living, is now normative for far too many.

1430 GMT: Syria. Every Friday for more than 20 months there have been large protests in most cities and towns across Syria. And every Friday protest has had a theme, voted on by the opposition on a Facebook page, perhaps the only democracy that exists in Syria so far.

Following bread lines, and deaths after explosions at them, today's theme is "Friday of Bloody Bread."

Rafif Jouejati, LCC spokesperson, puts the theme into perspective with the political developments we discussed earlier:

A large protest in Hama, where for the second week in a row the crowds are growing larger and more defiant, as if they can sense the oncoming rebel victory:

Haritan, rural Aleppo:

Hajar al Asward district of Damascus:

The Khalidiya district of Homs, close to where there was a suspected toxic gas released on Sunday:

1408 GMT: Syria. Earlier we reported about the Russian invitation, extended to the Syrian opposition's National Coalition, to negotiate a political end of the crisis. According to a spokesman for the National Coalition, that invitation has been rejected outright:

"The coalition is ready for political talks with anyone ... but it will not negotiate with the Assad regime," spokesman Walid al-Bunni told Reuters. "Everything can happen after the Assad regime and all its foundations have gone. After that we can sit down with all Syrians to set out the future."

But Moscow's Middle East envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, also invited National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib to visit, its first such overture to the head of the body formed last month and since recognized by most Western and Arab states as Syria's legitimate representative.

Spokesman Bunni did not say whether Alkhatib would accept the invitation, saying Moscow's intentions were unclear.

In other words, Brahimi's mission is dead in the water, and Russia is still out in the cold with the group of people, the opposition, who will in one form or another replace the government of Assad. One need look no further that the message from the protesters of Kafranbel to see that the opposition in the Syrian streets at least echoes this sentiment.

This message is perhaps the clearest statement that the opposition has released yet, stating clearly that all of the regime must be removed before talks can begin. The probability of Assad accepting this condition appears to be close to zero which means that the probability of a negotiated end to this conflict is the same - almost zero.

This is important because not only Russia but also the United Nations and the United States seem to have troubles comprehending this fact. Russia is still making statements that indicate it will not take a position on whether or not Assad needs to go, and the United States has recently made statements, through Ambassador Ford, that a negotiated and political settlement is the end goal. Until Russia is willing to put the removal of the regime as a precondition of peace talks, there is no chance for a political settlement - and until this happens the United Nations, the EU, NATO, Turkey, and the United States, are all deluding themselves if they think that politics, not military might, will end this crisis.

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

1330 GMT: Iraq. An estimated 60,000 protesters, most of them Sunnis, challenged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki after Friday prayers.

The demonstrators maintained a week-old blockade of the main road through the city of Falluja, 32 miles west of Baghdad, setting fire to the Iranian flag and shouting "Out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free" and "Maliki you coward, don't take your advice from Iran".

Anger has been stoked by last week's Government raids of the offices and home of Minister of Finance Rafa al-Issawi, arresting his guards. Protesters also demanded include an end to the marginalization of Sunnis, the abolition of anti-terrorism laws, and the release of detainees.

Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, where protesters chanted "the people want to bring down the regime".

Speaking at a "reconciliation conference" broadcast on television, al-Maliki said: "It is not acceptable to express something by blocking roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq."

1210 GMT: Syria. Officials at Turkey's Foreign Ministry say two more generals have defected and crossed the border.

The officials said the two generals were "regional Syrian Air Force commanders".

1150 GMT: Saudi Arabia. Authorities have confirmed that religious police stormed a house in Al-Juf Province, detaining more than 40 people for “plotting to celebrate Christmas".

The host of the alleged Christmas gathering is reportedly an Asian diplomat whose guests included 41 Christians, as well as two Saudi Arabian and Egyptian Muslims. The host and the two Muslims were said to be “severely intoxicated".

1116 GMT: Saudi Arabia. Activists say police have killed a teenager and injured six other people when they opened fire on protesters in Qatif in Eastern Province.

The demonstrators were complaining about detentions, in an area notable for recurrent protests against the regime.

Authorities claimed a security patrol had come under fire and shot back in self-defence as they tried intercept rioters who had blocked a road with burning tyres. Activists said security forces in two sports-utility vehicles had shot "indiscriminately", even aiming at people on rooftops.

1021 GMT: Israel-Palestine. Associated Press summarises West Jerusalem's assertive move this month for more Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory:

With more than 9,000 apartments in various stages of planning and construction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reaffirming his opposition to ceding any parts of the holy city to the Palestinians, a compromise two of his predecessors had accepted. The planned construction contributes to completing a ring of Jewish areas around the Arab inner core of east Jerusalem, making it more difficult to one day link it to the West Bank, which surrounds the city on three sides.

Within the space of a single week, Israeli officials have moved more than 5,000 apartments in east Jerusalem close to the stage where construction can begin, including a project that would build the first new Jewish settlement there in 15 years. With some other 4,000 apartments already being built or about to start, the pace is unprecedented....

Those 9,000 apartments would add almost 20 percent to the existing stock of 50,000 apartments built for Jews in east Jerusalem in the 45 years it has been occupied.

0911 GMT: Bahrain. Photojournalist Mazen Mahdi is free after his brief detention by security forces:

0820 GMT: Bahrain. Photojournalist Mazen Mahdi has been arrested while covering a protest in Saar this morning demanding the release of medics from prison:


0751 GMT: MENA. Brian Whitaker posts a scathing summary:

The dinosaurs of Arab media --- the government news agencies --- gathered for their 40th conference [on Wednesday] in an appropriate venue: Bahrain.

These agencies are one of the last outposts of an archaic style of journalism that speaks with a tone of authority and an almost complete lack of credibility. Their main task is to produce unreadable (but sometimes unintentionally entertaining) reports on matters of little or no interest to anyone except the governments they represent: telegrams exchanged by heads of state congratulating each other on anniversaries, recovery from illnesses, etc, and statements from ministers assuring the country that everything is fine, despite any appearances to the contrary.

Another of their tasks is to denounce more interesting stories that appear in other news media. Such stories, as they constantly remind the public, are fabrications with "no basis in fact" circulated by "foreign hands" that seek to undermine the country's "security, stability and social unity". Since the actual content of these "fabrications" is rarely if ever mentioned (lest someone might be tempted to believe them) and the sinister foreign hands behind them are never identified, it is often very difficult to work out what their reports are talking about.

0745 GMT: Egypt. The Chief Prosecutor has ordered an investigation into allegations that opposition leaders committed treason by inciting supporters to overthrow President Morsi.

The probe targets Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed El Baradei. as well as former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, both of whom stood against Morsi in this year's Presidential election.

The accusations were filed by two lawyers earlier this month during protests over Morsi's attempt to expand his powers by decree.

0740 GMT: Syria. As we post a first-hand account from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Aleppo, "Why Insurgents are Fighting Each Other". C.J. Chivers of The New York Times offers a lengthy perspective from the city:

Now in its sixth month, the battle for Aleppo has become the contest for Syria in a microcosm, exposing the weakness of both sides, while highlighting anew the perils and costs of the country’s bitter civil war.

It has underlined the rebels’ difficulties in organizing a coherent campaign; their paucity of infantry weapons heavier than machine guns; and some of their fighters’ participation in the same human rights abuses for which they condemn the government, including the summary killing of prisoners.

It has also left rebels vulnerable to allegations of corruption, including the theft of much needed food and other aid.

Simultaneously, the fighting has exposed the government’s seemingly fatal miscalculations. For all of its statements to the contrary, and no matter its effort to mass soldiers and firepower here, Mr. Assad’s government has mustered neither the popular support nor the military might to stop the rebels’ slow momentum, much less to defeat them.

0735 GMT: Turkey. Prominent journalist Soner Yalcin has been bailed from prison after almost two years behind bars on charges that he plotted to overthrow the government.

Yalcin, the owner and editor of OdaTV, and 12 co-defendants are accused of acting as the media wing of a "terrorist" network, Their trial has been adjourned to 21 March.

Yalcin said as he left Silivri Prison, “We do not write or think with the permission of anyone; we think and write freely."

0655 GMT: Syria. Russia has invited the head of the opposition Syria National Coalition to talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said today.

"The invitation has been handed over, it is in the hands of [Coalition head) Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib," Bogdanov said, adding the talks could take place in Moscow or a location like Geneva or Cairo.

Bogdanov did not indicate how the discussion might relate to the talks on Thursday with the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister and tomorrow with United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Bogdanov said, however, that he expected a meeting between Brahimi and US and Russian representatives in January.

0650 GMT: Bahrain. Leading activist Said Yousif, detained three weeks ago during a protest in Manama, has sent out a message through his brother.

Yousif, the Acting Vice President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was seized for sending out messages via Twitter. He said in his message:

My detention shows how all offices within government, including the Public Prosecution, works in harmony against activists. Despite the government pressure against Bahrain Human Rights activities, the Center will continue to document cases of abuse.

0520 GMT: Syria. On Saturday, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrives in Russia, following his discussion this week with President Assad and meetings between Russian and Syrian officials on Thursday.

Brahimi declared yesterday as he left Damascus, "Change should not be cosmetic; the Syrian people need and require real change, and everyone understands what that means. We need to form a government with all powers... which assumes power during a period of transition. That transition period will end with elections."

The envoy gave no details beyond assertion  "the transition period should not lead to the collapse of the state and its institutions. "We prefer...a project whose facilitation the parties have agreed upon, and, if they do not, the last solution is going to the (UN) Security Council which will make a binding resolution." He did not specify a timetable.

Brahimi also made no mention on the fate of President Assad, but some officials have said that the envoy is re-stating the proposal made in June, which left Assad in power during the transition.

So while the envoy has taken some headlines away from the advance of the insurgency, we are sceptical that his latest mission will end in success. James Miller wrote on Wednesday:

This plan has few specifics, and many pieces would need to fall into place simultaneously for any deal to work.

Assad and his inner circle would have to allow the establishment of a transitional government that was not comprised of regime hardliners, as the opposition and insurgents demanded a strong presence in such a Government. 

Furthermore, there is a small window for this ceasefire, and the establishment of the transitional government, to win over the various insurgent groups in the field. The opposition's military continues to advance in nearly every corner of the country, and the largest command has recently stated that it would not abide by any ceasefire that did not include large prisoner transfers and other concessions. 

Lastly, the holding of free and fair elections would have to be swift, and those elections would have to be respected by the insurgent.s It's hard to tell whether Syria's civil society is capable of accomplishing this.

In short, the insurgency no incentive to stop fighting or accept any sort of deal that they would consider less than a resounding victory. Brahimi, and indeed Assad, will have to recognise this reality for any deal to take hold.

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