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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Anticipating Today's Protests

Claimed footage of police beating a man in Sitra in Bahrain

See also Syria 1st-Hand: How Abuse Created an Insurgent
Syria Video: Stop One Year of Bloodshed
Turkey Live Coverage (15 March): Refugees Flowing from Syria
Thursday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Intervention?

2115 GMT: We close our live coverage with this thought...

One year ago the protests started, and in the last week alone new towns and cities have joined the uprising. Protests today were large, defiant, and were in every area of the country. Even Aleppo and Damascus are now host to regular protests, and the areas around these citties are opposition strongholds. Even forcing government workers to attend pro-government rallies cannot net Assad the large crowds of support that he once enjoyed. More people are joining the protests, and more people who are not in the opposition are refusing to speak up in support of the government.

The violence is not working. The opposition is not going anywhere. The debate about how to end this crisis rages, but the crowds are undeterred. Without intervention, next Friday there will be huge protests in nearly every area of Syria. A month from now, with our without intervention, that will not change. Will it change in 6 months? In 12? In 18? The protests have only a single trend - with every passing month, more people die, and more people join the Syrian uprising.

This is the fact that most analysis overlooks. No matter what the international community does, until Bashar al Assad is out of power there will be protests. And unless foreign nations stop him, Assad will continue to shoot and arrest the protesters. This is the cycle that will not end anytime soon. This is the only certainty of the crisis in Syria.

All other information is less certain - but all other information is arguably less important.

2100 GMT: An activist shares a jubilant video from a protest in rural Aleppo, reportedly earlier today:

2054 GMT: An impressively large protest in Kafer Takharim, a town in northern Idlib that was home to the Free Syrian Army for more than a month earlier in the year, but a town that remains an opposition stronghold.

2031 GMT: Al Jazeera reports on a ghost town, Azaz, north of Aleppo:

2015 GMT: Despite the threats from Assad forces, and the cold rain, the people of Qosour, Homs, protest tonight:

We're still catching up on protests that occurred earlier today. We had pictures of an impressive anti-government demonstration in the Khalidiya district of Homs, but "Sami" Tweeted this picture earlier:

1940 GMT: This is the most complete, and most dramatic, video we've seen yet emerge from Raqqa today. This video comes from a Facebook page associated with the city's opposition, and shows the gunfire, and the wounded being evacuated.

1925 GMT: We've been trying to collect more information about what has happened in Raqqa today. According to an activist with a contact in the city, the military has withdrawn from the city and checkpoints have been established outside. According to the LCCS, in both Raqqa, and nearby Tabaqa, there have been large nighttime demonstrations (see map of area). This is a video purporting to show protests in Tabaqa tonight:

But the reports of dead continue to come in. According to the LCCS, a 4 year old was killed by security, and they have posted a video of a young man who was reportedly killed there. And this video has emerged showing the gunfire in the city earlier today:

Also, the activist we talked to, ArabSpringFF, said that the Baath party headquarters in Raqqa was set on fire this morning after the funeral for last night's martyrs. He also says that the Baath part HQ was destroyed in MA'arrat al Nouman last night, matching the video we posted earlier.

1813 GMT: It's been a long year, and we've all seen some pretty terrible videos, so it's time for a little comic relief, because life is sometimes at least as strange as fiction.

A yacht previously owned by Hanibal Qaddafi, "Muammar al-Qaddafi's ne'er do well (even by the standards of the Qaddafi family) son," has been purchased by a major cruise line. The amenities?

Replete with marble columns, gold-framed mirrors and huge statues, the Phoenicia was to have included a 120-tonne tank of seawater for two sand tiger sharks, two white sharks and two blacktip reef sharks. Four resident biologists would have tended to the animals. The sharks' nutritional needs mandated a dedicated food store.

Yes - sharks - giving this supervillian a one-up on even THIS GUY!

However, an unnamed source tells EA that these sharks did not have laser beams on their heads.

1740 GMT: Syrian State Media, SANA, reports a second day of pro-Assad rallies in Tartous and Damascus:

Crowds of citizens gathered on Friday in Saba' Bahrat Square in Damascus and the Sea Corniche in Tartous for the second day to express rejection of foreign interference in the Syrian affairs and support to the comprehensive reform program led by President Bashar al-Assad.

The participants blasted the ferocious campaign targeting Syria led by Western and Arab powers, voicing appreciation of Russia and China for standing by Syria against the conspiracy.

They have posted 5 pictures, all from Tartous, and the same guy (the smiling guy in the bottom right of the picture below) is in 3 of them, suggesting that the crowd was not very large. Also, there is debate about the size of the pro-Assad protests that were held yesterday, but to our eyes they appeared smaller than previous pro-Assad rallies:

1628 GMT: Last night, there were noteworthy battles in the suburbs of Damascus, particularly in Al Tal, north of the city. There were also reported clashes in Dumayr, to the east, and Qatana, to the west of the capital (map):

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clash in Tal, on the outskirts of the capital, lasted until the early hours of Friday.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) posted the following updates:

Tal: Regime forces began a raid campaign in Dahaya and gunfire at Harne gas station

Tal: Sounds of gunfire in the city as security forces backed by armored vehicles head towards it. There are fears that the city will be stormed

There were also clashes in other areas near Damascus, including Dumair and Qatana on Thursday night, according to the two activist groups.

The Observatory and LCC also reported clashes between government troops and the Free Syrian Army in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor that borders Iraq. They said one person was killed.

1623 GMT: We still have not been able to verify the reports that the Baath Party headquarters in al Raqqa has been destroyed. However, a hard working activist and EA source has found several videos, perhaps taken from an opposition Facebook page, that suggests that a huge rally was fired on by Syrian security forces today:

1552 GMT: Still more important videos of large protests in Syria today. This first is remarkable because it is reportedly in the Khalidiya district of Homs, an embattled area that is still controlled by the Free Syrian Army:

This large protest reportedly occurred today in Kornaz, Hama governorate:

And this protest reportedly took place inside the Zine El Abidine mosque in the Midan district of Damascus:

1522 GMT: We are still trying to confirm that the Free Syrian Army has destroyed the Baath Party Headquarters in Raqqa today, as well as the video posted several updates ago reportedly showing the Baath headquarters being destroyed yesterday in Ma'arrat al Nouman, in Idlib. However, today is the 24th anniversary of the 1988 massacre of Kurds at the hands of Saddam Hussein, a Baath party member. Is this a coincidence, or did members of the Free Syrian Army decide to attack the Baath party headquarters in several cities to commemorate the event?

What we do know for certain, however, that that there are many large and impressive protests across Syria. The Local Coordinating Committees post these videos. This first was reportedly taken in Ma'arr Ballit, in the Jabel al Zawiya region if Idlib province:

Khan Sheikoun, Idlib:

Perhaps most importantly, however, this large protest reportedly took place in the Barzeh district of Damascus:

1503 GMT: Now, here comes the confusion.

The tag on the last video actually says "Idlib," specifically Ma'arrat al Nouman. But other activists are saying that the Baath headquarters in Raqqa was destroyed as well. Were both destroyed?

1454 GMT: CORRECTION and UPDATE: See above - While still unconfirmed, multiple activists, and a twitter account linked to the Free Syrian Army, report that the FSA has blown up the Baath Party headquarters in Raqqa (and in Ma'arrat al Nouman, Idlib - see above):

A prominent activist provides some context:

1440 GMT: Last night, we posted video of security forces opening fire in Raqqa, in north-central Syria. Now, there are reports that many have died as security forces have stormed the city:

Reports about 6 martyrs and more than 15 got wounded by security forces and Shabiha's bullets including 4 children.

According to the LCCS, the regime forces stormed the city with soldiers and armored vehicles, disrupting a protest and opening fire on civilians.

This is a significant development. Raqqa has been relatively peaceful, but has had a growing protest movement in the recent month. Those protests seem to have reached a breaking point, as there have been reports of heavy violence every day for the last several days.

Another city may have reached its breaking point with the Assad regime.

1421 GMT: As we suspected, the recent rash of embassy closings this week in Syria is a coordinated effort:

All six Arab Gulf states will close their embassies in Syria in protest at the year-long crackdown in the country, said Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) head Abdullatif al-Zayani early Friday.

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait took the step, he said, citing the regime's "massacring its people, choosing the military option and rejecting all initiatives aimed at finding a solution to the crisis."

Italy and the Netherlands also closed their embassies, and perhaps in response the Syrian ambassador has been withdrawn from London.

All of this begs the question we asked yesterday - why now? There is no specific security threat in Damascus that has escalated in recent weeks. Perhaps a piece of this is that Turkey is also planning on closing its embassy in Damascus, and Prime Minister Erdogan, echoing statements made by Turkish officials yesterday, suggested that foreign intervention is still on the table:

"On the subject of Syria, a buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied. It would be wrong to look at it from only one perspective."

Turkey is set to host the next "Friends of Syria" meeting.

1330 GMT: It's Friday. Expect big protests in Syria. It's the anniversary of some of the earliest protests, and the earliest deaths, of the Syrian uprising. Expect big protests. While we're chasing reports of hundreds of protests, here are a few videos, mostly from smaller areas, just to give you a sense of the scope of the events so far.

Kafer Sajenah, Idlib:

Al Darbasiyah, in Hasaka on the border with Turkey:

Nahta, Daraa province:

Kherbat Ghazala, Daraa province:

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to a busy Scott Lucas for getting us through the morning.

1241 GMT: A US official has claimed that the Iraqi government has refused US requests to stop Iranian cargo flights to Syria, despite credible intelligence that the planes are transporting up to 30 tonnes of weapons.

The US has made several requests in recent months to the Iraqi Government, including a direct appeal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to either halt the flights or allow the planes to be inspected in compliance with international law. Iraq has refused, saying the planes are carrying only humanitarian aid.

1235 GMT: A demonstration today in the Qosour section of Homs:

1105 GMT: Children at an anti-regime protest at Maarat Shoreen in Idlib Province in northwestern Syria:

1028 GMT: US officials said the Obama Administration plans to resume military aid to Egypt, despite concerns over rights abuses and the Egyptian regime's crackdown o non-government organisations.

The Administration plans on bypassing a new Congressional requirement that links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to waive the requirement on national security grounds, as soon as early next week. That would allow some, but not yet all of $1.3 billion in this year's military aid this year to proceed, according to the officials.

In December, Egyptian authorities had raided the offices of ten NGOs, including several who were American-funded, and they later charged 43 people, including at least 16 Americans, with criminal offences. After protracted negotiations, the accused Americans were allowed to leave the country earlier this month.

Earlier this week, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga accused foreign embassies of financing organizations and individuals to carry out unlawful activities in the country. She said the embassies offered "cash" directly "from hand to hand" until they created interest groups in Egypt.

1020 GMT: According to Ahram Online, Egypt Finance Minister Momtaz El-Saeed has revealed that the Government is negotiating with officials of the former Mubarak regime, because they have offered to pay back illegally acquired money in exchange for their freedom.

Ahram claimed that the minister said negotiations were underway with Ahmed Ezz, former Minister of Tourism Zoheir Garana, and former Minister of Housing Ahmed Maghraby.

El-Saeed did not give details of the process. The former Mubarak officials are accused of selling public assets at a price lower than their market value.

On 3 January, the ruling military council amended the investment law, opening the door to the settlements.

0940 GMT: Human rights activist Brian Dooley claims that he has been blocked from seeing political prisoners in Bahrain, including Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is entering the sixth week of a hunger strike: "Asked govt if I can see Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, Mahdi Abudeeb and Ali Alghanmi in prison. They said no, no, and no."

Alkhawaja, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was condemned to a life sentence last year. Abudeeb, the head of the Bahrain Teachers Society, has been given 15 years, and Alghanmi is serving a 12-year term, allegedly imposed after he joined protests.

0620 GMT: Bahrain's Minister of Interior has declared a new code of conduct for police. It requires that officers abide by 10 main principles, including limited use of force and a zero-tolerance policy on torture and mistreatment.

Officers must show "respect for human dignity" and make arrests in accordance with international human rights standards, Sheikh Rashid said, adding that the code forbids the use of force "except when absolutely necessary".

The Ministry also said 50 policemen accused of mistreatment of protesters are being prosecuted in Bahrain's courts. No names or details were given.

0600 GMT: Eighteen of the 20 Bahraini medics who had been sentenced to sentences of 5 to 15 years in prison were in court again on Thursday.

Proceedings were adjourned until Tuesday after a series of witnesses testified for the defendants.

The doctors and nurses, accused of a range of crimes connected with their activities in Salmaniya Medical Centre amidst the regime crackdown on last year's protests, were sentenced by a military tribunal last September. After international outcry over the prison terms, the regime moved the cases to a civilian court.

Earlier this month, the Government withdrew the sentences for 15 of the 20 defendants, effectively holding a re-trial rather than an appeal for them.

0500 GMT: One year and one day after the start of the uprising, we look towards another protest Friday in Syria, this one in the context of the regime's attempt to squeeze the life out of the opposition.

Of 46 deaths reported by activists on Thursday, 37 of them were in Idlib in the northwest, the current focal point of the regime effort to re-establish control. 

I am on the road back to Britain, but we will be updating live from about 0900 GMT.

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