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Monday
Mar192012

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Heavy Fighting in Damascus?

Workers in front of a building in Aleppo, Syria, damaged by a Sunday car bomb --- three people reportedly died

See also Syria 1st-Hand Video: Secretly Meeting the Activists
Turkey Live Coverage (19 March): New Year Celebrations, Clashes, and the Syria Crisis
Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: After the Damascus Explosions


2056 GMT: An energetic evening demonstration in Qosour in Homs has a message for President Assad, "We're coming, curse your soul, we're coming!":

2006 GMT: I've been discussing this video with several sources. According to the description, the video shows Free Syrian Army soldiers destroying a tank in Deir Ez Zor. We never see the tank, but we do see the RPG launch at an unknown target.

I showed this video to Ahmed al Omran, from NPR, who says that the videographer appears to say today's date. Also, another source says that this video shows a battle in the Ghassan Abboud roundabout, an area where we have received reports of heavy fighting today:

1912 GMT: This video has emerged from Deir Ez Zor. It is our understanding that this is clearly the heaviest deployment of heavy equipment inside that region since the start of the uprising over one year ago:

It's worth noting that at least 9 people have reportedly been killed in Deir Ez Zor. If this conflict is increasingly sectarian (we'll push back somewhat on that characterization in a separate analysis, coming soon), and if this conflict is more asymetrical (featuring IED attacks, ambushes terrorism), and if outside Sunni radicals are trying to join the assault against Assad, then this kind of escalation, in a major city only a little more than 50 miles from the border with Iraq, could have significant repercussions for the future direction of this conflict.

1824 GMT: With multiple reports that the Bab Sbaa district of Homs was heavily shelled today, one of our commenters shares this video, and summarizes the report by Syrian activist Khaled Abu Salah:"Bab Sbaa starting to look like Baba Amr." (see a map of Homs)

That video appears to have been taken before these, which show shells falling on the Bab Sbaa and Khalidiya districts of Homs at nightfall. A third video appears to show a shell hitting a mosque in Bab Sbaa:

1748 GMT: Back from a break to find that multiple sources are still reporting heavy fighting inside the Harasta district in Damascus. According to the LCCS,

Violent clashes are taking place since two hours between the FSA and the regime’s army, it is reported that light and medium machine guns are used in these clashes as well as [anti-aircraft] weaponry used by the regime’s army. The sounds of explosions can be heard all over the city.

The LCCS also reports that today's deathtoll has risen to 30, "9 martyrs in Deir Ezzor,6 martyrs in Daraa, three martyrs in each of Hama, Aleppo, Idlib, and [the] Damascus Suburbs (Qatana and Douma), two martyrs in Qamishli, and a martyr in Homs."

Looking at the patterns, we have a renewed military assault against Homs, specifically against the Baba Amr district, widespread military campaings against the Daraa, Hama, and Idlib governorates, and a spike in conflict in Deir Ez Zor and Qamishli. Of course, the headline, heavy fighting in Damascus, is still the most dramatic development.

In recent days we have seen a major shift in the patterns in Syria. At the start of this year, the headlines were the victories of the Free Syrian Army. Those headlines were erased by a regime siege of Baba Amr, Homs, military campaigns to quell dissent in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, and the siege of several FSA strongholds near Damascus: Zabadani, Madaya, and Rankous.

The pattern in the wake of these attacks has been far more stagnant in recent weeks. The regime has continued its assault in many provinces, and very little progress was being made by the opposition.

However, since late last week the patterns have once again shifted. The protests at the end of last week were massive, Qamishli and Raqqa have joined the uprising, and now we see major FSA offensives in several regions.

Despite its best efforts, the renewed shelling of several cities, the regime's intensified raids, the counterattacks by the FSA, the enlarged protests, and the new cities that are hotspots, all suggest that the regime, while strong, is not in control of the country, despite its crackdown. The opposition has suffered many military defeats in recent weeks, but the strength of the opposition is in its overwhelming popular support and in its asymetric nature.

The opposition can attack nearly anywhere, at nearly any time. This is the pattern that we saw in the beginning of January, when a series of FSA victories shocked the world, and this is the pattern we see now, that the FSA can suddenly appear inside the capital after suffering extreme setbacks in February.

1624 GMT: Within the last 25 minutes, an activist network with a focus on Damascus reports that there is still heavy gunfire in the Qaboun, Irbeen, and Barzeh areas of Damascus (See a map of the area).

These areas encircle to northeastern districts of Damascus. Keeping in mind that last night's fighting was in the Mezzeh area to the west, this means that the city of Damascus is facing fighting on both the eastern and western fronts.

1620 GMT: The video reportedly shows smoke rising from Marea, in the eastern part of the Jabel el Zawiya region of Idlib province. There were unconfirmed reports of government raids in the area earlier today:

1612 GMT: The Washington Post has a bold claim from the Free Syrian Army about the fighting last night in Mezzeh, Damascus:

This video was posted by activists today, showing the extensive damage to apartment buildings in Mezzeh:

1559 GMT: And now today's death toll has risen rapidly in the last hour. According to the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, 26 have been killed by security forces today, "8 martyrs in Deir Ezzor, three martyrs in each of Hama,Daraa,Aleppo, Idlib, and Damascus Suburbs (Qatana and Douma), two martyrs in Qamishli, and a martyr in Homs."

The Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Center provides their summary of the days events so far:

The regime's forces continue to attack rebellious districts in the north, east and centre of the city of Homs (see video). Large numbers of Homsis have been displaced - thousands of them have been arriving in Damascus, where last night saw heavy fighting in Mezzeh district, and today there are reports of clashes in Duma and Barzeh. There has been fierce fighting in Deir Ezzor and rebels in Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama province, famous for the Roman ruins of Apamea, claim to have destroyed 2 tanks there. The FSA has also begun operations in the north-east, attacking a regime checkpoint in Qamishli.

The most interesting piece to this report is the bit about the FSA launching attacks near Qamishli, a largely Kurdish town which has seen an explosion of protests in recent weeks. It has also increasingly come under fire by security forces.

1532 GMT: Another report of a battle east of Damascus, this one in Harasta:

Heavy shelling by the regime's army is reported on the residential houses located in the farms. Al-Wawi mosque is besieged and people are held inside, violent clashes are also reported between the FSA and the regime's army in the western side of the city. The city that has been under siege and is witnessing campaigns of raids and torture on daily basis. Corpses of martyrs who were killed in the last weeks have not been handed to their relatives so far.

It's hard just to keep up with the reports of violence in and around Damascus, but there have been significant developments elsewhere today as well. There are reports that 8 people were killed in Deir Ez Zor when the regime started shelling the city. There are also reports of civilian deaths in rural Hama, rural Aleppo, and several towns in Daraa, and there are reports of new defections in Idlib province.

It's hard to stay ahead of the torrent of relevant news coming from Syria.

1528 GMT: With fighting in the Mezzeh district, on the western edge of the most important area of Damascus, it becomes even more important to focus on reports of protests, and the presence of security forces, across Damascus and its suburbs.

So far, the most dramatic report to come in the last hour is that there may be fighting in the Qaboun district of Damascus, east of the center of the city near the eastern suburbs. The LCCS reports:

Damascus: Qaboun: Sound of shells and shooting from anti-aircrafts is heard from the direction of Air Force Intelligence Branch and Irbeen.

There are also reports of violence in Douma:

Omar Khaleel Al-Tookhy was martyred and several others were injured as a result of security forces sporadic gunfire in the city since the morning. Moreover, all the entrances and exits of the city were blocked and extensive security deployment. Security forces have also prohibited the residents from burying and bidding farewell to their martyrs where the number of un-buried corpses has risen to 22 some have been there for several months.

There are reports that in the Barzeh area, and other points in the northern capital, there is also a report of battles between the Free Syrian Army and the Assad military:

Barzeh Farms: Violent clashes between the regime's army and the Free Syrian Army, and sounds of three RBG and several grenades were heard.

Earlier, there were reports of heavy security forces are deployed outside the security complex, and "shabiha" are patrolling the streets of Barzeh and the surrounding neighborhoods..

The LCCS also reports student protests in the Hajar al Aswad area of southern Damascus.

And this video reportedly shows students protesting in Daraya, a southern suburb:

So, the headline today is absolutely appropriate, as there are more reports of heavy fighting, in multiplee areas in and around Damascus.

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

1350 GMT: Al Jazeera English claims it has confidential documents, provided by a former regime official, prepared for Syrian President Assad by his intelligence and security chiefs on the country's conflict.

The hundreds of pages reportedly show a regime desperate to keep control of the capital Damascus, with clear orders to stop protesters from getting into the city. They also offer detailed security plans for crushing demonstrations in the cities of Aleppo and Idlib.

One leaked paper spelt out orders to give financial and moral support to Assad's supporters in Aleppo.

1244 GMT: Over the weekend, opposition flared in Raqqa, which had been considered a relatively secure area for the Syrian regime. Al Jazeera English reports:

1240 GMT: A Turkish diplomat has said that two more Syrian generals have fled the country and joined the insurgency.

A total of nine generals have reportedly deserted since the start of the uprising in March 2011.

The diplomat said around 200 more Syrians crossed into Turkey on Sunday, bringing the total number of refugees to 16,100.

1137 GMT: Five leading opposition societies in Bahrain have issued a statement, following a meeting on Sunday, about the proposal of "dialogue" with the regime:

Whilst welcoming any dialogue offering leading to a political resolution guaranteeing justice and equality and protecting interests of people from all walks of life in the country, [with] the absence of a security solution with its adverse consequences, opposition forces would like to affirm the following:

First: Any offer of dialogue requires consensus on its agenda, means, and duration in order to provide initial guarantee of its seriousness.

Second: Political forces contend, [that] for inclusion of all spectra including detainees, the way forward is for a representative of His Majesty the King separately engaging with opposition groups with rights to meet others. A public announcement should be made once a consensus has been attained.

The societies call for talks on the basis of the Crown Prince's initiative of 13 March 2011; the opposition's "Manama Document" of 12 October 2011; and November's recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Specially, they demand the release of all politicald detainees, the reinstatement of all unfairly dismissed employees, the start of the process of transitional justice, and a halt to "all kinds of political and sectarian agitation" in State media,

Claimed footage of Bahraini police removing Shi'a religious banners in Alma'ameer village on Saturday:

1129 GMT: The office of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has issued a statement of concern at attempts to sow division inside the country, citing the "profanation" of mosques in Tunis and in Ben Guerdane, south of the capital as well as mentioning the actions of "radical" Islamists.

The opposition Progressive Democratic Party expressed similar concerns at what it said was an attempt to create discord and conflict inside the country.

1125 GMT: Returning from an academic break, we are trying to establish the scale of the overnight fighting in Mezzeh in the Syrian capital Damascus. Meanwhile, the State news agency SANA puts out this version:

Authorities on Monday morning stormed a hideout of an armed terrorist group in one of the residential buildings in Mezzeh after evacuating the building.

[A] SANA reporter was informed that the authorities clashed with the terrorists, killed two of them and arrested one, in addition to seizing three machineguns and grenades.

The clash resulted in the martyrdom of a member from the authorities.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 18 regime troops were injured.

Meanwhile, the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria said Free Syrian Army fighters destroyed "the Division of the Countryside", a government ministry, in Deir Ez Zor in the northeast.

0825 GMT: Al Jazeera English reports on this morning's fighting in the Mezz"eh section of Damascus:

0810 GMT: Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights has said that more than 2,000 people have been killed since the start of the 2011 uprising against the Saleh regime.

The Ministry said the toll includes unarmed protesters and military defectors, as well as more than 120 children. It claimed that 22,000 people have been wounded.

0710 GMT: British reporter Nicholas Davis and cameraman Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, detained by a Libyan militia since 22 February, have been freed.

The Libyan Interior Ministry earlier said the two men, who worked for Iran's Press TV, would be deported on Monday.

The two men were seized by the Misurata Brigade and accused of spying.

0700 GMT: Yusur Al Bahrani writes a poignant tribute to prominent Bahraini blogger Ali Abdelemam, in hiding for more than a year as he was sentenced to 15 years in prison:

As I daily check my facebook messages and notifications, I also check Ali Abdelemam’s profile. Everyday I wonder if there are any posts from him. Everyday I check his wall to see his family’s posts, and photos hoping that I could at least know something about him. I ask my friends and colleagues in Bahrain about Ali, and no one knows anything about him. I wonder where is Ali now. Ali, a father of three, disappeared and left us wondering about his destiny. Why did Ali disappear?

0630 GMT: We open Monday with reports of fighting in Mezzeh, one of the key districts of the Syrian capital Damascus.

Residents heard heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades throughout the night from the area, home of several security installations and one of the most heavily guarded sections of the city. "There is fighting near Hamada supermarket and the sound of explosions there and elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Security police have blocked several side streets and the street lighting has been cut off," one resident said.

A member of the Revolutionary Leadership Council claimed, "It all started around midnight...."Some people came to Mezzeh and they are trying to attack Mezzeh residents. They are calling them names and taking them out of their houses....People have left their homes. They are in the streets. The security forces are all around the place."

There was no immediate word on casualties. 

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