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Syria Live Coverage: Is This the End for Assad?

Anti-regime protest in Binnish in Idlib Province today

See also Syria Audio Feature: Why US and Russia Suddenly Met Thursday --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Syria Opinion: "The US Must Act Soon" --- James Miller in The American Prospect
Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Morsi Defies Protesters and Warns "Infiltrators"
Thursday's Egypt, Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Protests and Fighting at the Presidential Palace

2050 GMT: A curious report from the LCC:

Lattakia: Faranlaq: Fierce clashes between the FSA and regime forces amid attempts by the regime forces to storm the district and the FSA is blocking it.

What's interesting is that we did not know where Faranlaq was, nor were we able to find it on a map. The reason - Faranlaq is not a town or district, but a forest, only 5 milometers north of Lattakia city (approximate location on map).

Usually, fighting in "Lattakia" is in the mountains to the east, many miles from the city, often considered a stronghold of the Assad regime. However, this fighting is located between the city and an important naval base.

How "fierce" are the clashes? We don't know. We have also not independently confirmed the news. If true, it is becoming clear, however, even Assad's strongholds are not immune from the insurgent advance.

1908 GMT: Sky Arabia posts this video, showing many different weapons being used by the FSA to siege the Airforce Intelligence Headquarters in Aleppo:

1840 GMT: Just because there are pitched battles in and around Aleppo and Damascus does not mean that 100% of Idlib province is secure. In fact, large pockets of Assad resistance remain. What has changed, however, are two main factors. First, the Free Syrian Army is now very well equipped, armed with plenty of arms an ammunition, RPGs, anti-tank missiles, recoilless rifles, and scores of captured trucks, armored vehicles, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and even artillery pieces. All of this equipment is the result of more than a year of fighting, and all of the heaviest weapons have been captured from the regime itself.

The second factor is that the FSA has shut the road near Ma'arrat al Nouman, and captured many air support bases. Cut off from ground support, artillery support, reinforcements, basic supplies, and the assistance of Assad's air power, the FSA is able to slowly siege these bases, eliminating the remnants of the regime one base at a time. Time is on the side of the insurgents, here, and so they appear to be taking as much time as they need so that they minimize their own losses.

For days we've heard reports that FSA units were advancing to the town of Harm, in northern Idlib province. Today, this video shows how the FSA is now putting their heavy firepower to use, as they attack an Assad base with captured anti-aircraft equipment:

1638 GMT: 106 people have been killed so far today, according to the LCC, though this number includes the 50 bodies reportedly found in Deir Ez Zor:

51 martyrs were reported in Deir Ezzor, and include 50 victims of the massacre; the martyrs were found by residents of Jbeileh. 35 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 6 in Lattakia; 6 in Daraa; 3 in Hama; 3 in Idlib; 2 in Aleppo; and 1 in Homs.

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

1558 GMT: A 30-member team from the Syrian opposition has met in Turkey, in the presence of members of the "Friends of Syria," and have begun to elect a unified military command and a civilian leadership structure, according to Reuters.

"The command has been organised into several fronts. We are now in the process of electing a military leader and a political liaison office for each region," said one of the delegates who did not want to be named.

1546 GMT: It's anecdotal evidence, but it seems that Friday protests in Syria are once again growing larger, after weeks and months of being depressed because of the intensity of the violence. A few examples are posted below, but it's safe to say we've seen hundreds of videos and pictures of today's protests:

One of the strongest protest movements, for now more than 20 months, has been in Kafranbel, in Idlib. The Guardian translates one of the posters we posted earlier as saying "By beheading al-Assad terrorism will become a disgusting folk tale (thanks, Catmari, for pointing this out)." Below is a closeup of another poster:

In Yabroud, half-way between Damascus and Homs, the regime has little control - and yet the bombs keep falling. Yabroud has been punished for months by airstrikes, the Assad military's way of sending a message that despite its defiance it is still vulnerable. That has not deterred the uprising, however:

A large protest in the very small town of Lapin, north of Aleppo:

And this protest reportedly took place in Zablatani, a district in eastern Damascus, amidst buildings pock-marked by bullets or shrapnel:

The theme of this week's protests appears to translate to "No to peacekeepers, the revolutionaries (the FSA) are the peacekeepers." The message is, according to sources, two-fold - that foreign troops are not needed on the ground in Syria because it is up to the armed wing of the opposition to keep the peace after Assad falls."

1515 GMT: For days we've seen reports of Free Syrian Army brigades securing crossings and checkpoints on the border with Jordan, in Daraa province. This news has come after weeks of escalating insurgent actions against the Syrian Military in the southern province. Today, this claim was matched by a report from the Strategic Research & Communication Centre, who now claims that 70% of Daraa province is in the military control of the Free Syrian Army:

In Daraa, Lieutenant colonel Yaser Aboud, commander-in-chief of the FSA southern division said that 70% of Daraa is now under their control after taking over the entire eastern border with Jordan. Further to the south in Qunaitera near the occupied Golan Heights, the rebels stormed the air intelligence compound as well as a police station in the town of Khan Arnabeh.

1440 GMT: The first video that claims to show some of the bodies found today in Deir Ez Zor - it is graphic:

1426 GMT: According to the newly-formed media organization Syria Deeply, the United States is training rebel brigades to secure Syria's chemical weapons:

The US and its allies have hired contractors to train some Syrian rebel brigades in chemical weapons security, Syria Deeply has exclusively learned from four diplomats, including one US official. The sources asked to remain anonymous, as they deal directly with developments in Syria. The training would mark a higher level of coordination between the US and armed opposition forces, working to secure Syria’s chemical arsenal during a period of political turmoil.

The diplomatic sources say defense contractors hired by the US and its European allies have recently conducted training exercises with Syrian rebel forces in Turkey and Jordan. The programs were intended to prepare brigades to handle chemical weapons sites and materials they might encounter, as Assad troops lose control of over parts of the country. US contractors have also been on the ground in Syria to monitor the status of regime stockpiles, said an employee with a major US defense consultancy that has been engaged in that work.

1414 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 80 people have already been killed today across Syria:

50 martyrs were reported after residents of Jbeileh in Deir Ezzor discovered the victims of a regime massacre; 22 martyrs were reported in the Damascus Suburbs; 3 in Daraa; 2 in Hama; 2 in Idlib; and 1 in Homs.

First, see our note on the casualty figures posted by the LCC.

Second, the LCC is not saying that the 50 bodies found in Deir Ez Zor were killed today, but that their bodies were found today. Here is their report:

50 martyrs were reported in a massacre committed by the regime. The completely disfigured corpses were found near the Khoukh Complex, and family members were unable to retrieve them due to the choking siege on the area. The victims had been kidnapped approximatey 2 months earlier.

We have yet to see videos or pictures of the bodies.

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

1205 GMT: Today's protest in Kafranbel declares that peace can only come through the downfall --- by violence if necessary --- of President Assad:

Protest in Mashhad section of Aleppo:

1115 GMT: Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs points to an outcome of Thursday's sudden meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

1055 GMT: Insurgents have declared Damascus International Airport a military target, warning civilians and airlines not to approach it.

Fighting near the airport last week closed it for two days and limited services for some time after that.

1045 GMT: The BBC's Cara Swift supports the claims of activists of regime shelling of Damascus suburbs:

0915 GMT: Activists claim that the Syrian army has fired rockets into and reinforced its positions around the Damascus suburbs of Moadamiyeh and Darayya with tanks and troops.

The two suburbs are among a ring of districts which, if held by insurgents, would establish an arc of control from the northeast to southwest of the capital, cornering Damascus against the Qasioun mountain range.

"Fifteen tanks arrived at the edge of Moadamiah this morning after and a night of very heavy artillery shelling and rocket fire into the suburbs," said an activist. "They are trying to storm the area."

0835 GMT: The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Filippo Grandi, has returned from a visit to some of the 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria with the message:

The Palestinians should remain neutral and everybody should respect that. Nobody should put them into the crisis.

The majority does not want to fight. They know it is going to be even worse. Every day, Palestinians are killed in Syria.

Grandi was in Damascus on Wednesday and Thursday for meetings with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, deputy minister Faisal Muqdad, the Russian Ambassador, and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Grandi said, "The government guaranteed they are not encouraging armed groups," but he expressed concern over the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, an armed group which supports the regime.

The PFLP-GC is especially strong in the Yarmouk camp of Damascus, home to some 150,000 refugees. which has been affected by shelling and clashes between the regime and insurgents.

"What was the most striking in Yarmouk is that there is hardly ever any moment when you don't hear mortars," said Grandi, although "there is no targeting of Palestinian camps as such."

0655 GMT: Last night, in an interview to be posted later this morning on EA, I was asked to assess the sudden meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov in Dublin, Ireland. Was it because of the "chemical weapons scare" that had emerged this week?

No, I replied. The prospect of the Assad regime possessing and using chemical weapons was the pretext for a wider, unannounced aim: the de facto establishment of a "protected zone" in northern Syria for territory held by the insurgents. 

Asked if the Russians were moving away from support for President Assad remaining in power, I said that, yes, Moscow was now planning for a post-Assad period.

I think I was far too cautious in that assessment. Moments after the interview, I learned from EA's James Miller that opposition fighters had taken yet another regime military base near Damascus, adding to their capture earlier in the day of a Baath Party headquarters earlier in the day, one just over a mile from another base which hold Syria's chemical weapons stocks.

If I was interviewed now, I would say that the Clinton-Lavrov meeting --- following that of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan --- was to confirm the planning for a possible Assad fall, but for the likelihood of this within weeks (8-10 weeks, according to a CIA estimate leaked in The Guardian a few days ago) rather than months.

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