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Syria, Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Will the Observers Make A Difference?

A discussion on Al Jazeera English's "Inside Syria" on the possible significance of international observers

See also Egypt 1st-Hand: A British Journalist's 54 Days in Detention For Covering Protests
Bahrain 1st-Hand: A Family Visit to Detained Hunger Striker Abdulhadi Alkhawaja
Sunday's Egypt, Syria, Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: So Who's in the Presidential Election?

1959 GMT: Before today started in Syria, the UN Human Rights investigators had already expressed concern that the violence escalated significantly before the deadline for the ceasefire had arrived.

"The commission is also concerned by reports of new arrests, especially in Hama and Aleppo."

With news that the wholesale shelling of Homs continued, activists reported that Assad's air force was conducting attacks against Idlib and Saraqeb, and that at least 50 people have been killed today, I wonder how long the the UN monitors can keep a straight face when saying that things have gotten better since the ceasefire.

1948 GMT: Activist Zainab AlKhawaja reports that she may be receiving preferential treatment by Bahraini police because she is so high-profile, but there may be a case filed against her for taking pictures of tonight's protests:

1940 GMT: The death toll continues to rise in Syria, even at this hour. The LCCS now reports that 50 have been killed by regime forces today, a steep escalation since the "ceasefire" began on Thursday:

25 martyrs in Idlib, 9 martyrs in Hama, 9 martyrs in Homs, 3 martyrs in Daraa, 2 martyrs in Qamishli, a martyrs in Aleppo, and a martyr in Douma in Damascus Suburbs.

NPR's Ahmed al Omran catches another excellent video, shelling today in Baydah, Homs. The heavily besieged city has not seen any cessation in violence, and has been heavily shelled since last week. The only thing keeping the death toll in Homs so relatively low is that many residents have already fled:

1935 GMT: Zainab AlKhawaja reports:

1920 GMT: Bahraini activist Zainab AlKhawaja was present at the protest in Bilad Alqadim. She posted a photo of protesters marching, despite the teargas, and then sent this Tweet approximately 30 minutes ago. Her account has not Tweeted anything since:

1906 GMT: Protesters in Bilad Alqadim, Bahrain, gathered for a candle light vigil. However, according to sources that protest was fired upon by police. However, here are some pictures of the rally before the violence - we'll try to track down further details.

Protesters shout now like a year ago "the ppl want the f... on Twitpic صورة 10 من مسيرة الشموع الحاشدة بالبلاد القديم بذكرى استشهاد ... on Twitpic

1840 GMT: There are many protests tonight in Bahrain. This video was taken in Mhaza, a small village near Sitra. Protesters chanted their support for Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, their anger at King Hamad, and their frustration at the Obama administration for, in their eyes, supporting the regime.

Earlier today, the demonstrations were not so peaceful. Today is the third day of funeral celebrations for citizen journalist Ahmed Ismail Hassan, made even more tense after the news that a 15 year old is still in critical condition after being shot by a police shotgun on Friday. Journalists Ian Parkes and Byron Young are in Bahrain to report on the Formula 1 race, and they saw first hand how tense the situation in Bahrain has become.

Young started with a premonition:

A "party" is what they got. As the police closed in, protesters wrapped cloth around their faces and prepared for teargas. Police and protesters exchanged teargas with thrown stones, and some protesters retaliated by throwing molotov cocktails. Below we've posted just a few of their Tweets describing the scene:

Young posted this picture of a female protester:

1826 GMT: Every time Syrian President Bashar al Assad has pledged to reform, his promises have been put to the test by brave protesters. Last Thursday, over 500 people gathered in a candlelight protest outside the parliament building in Damascus. According to Syrian activists, however, more than 40 of them were arrested:

A group of youths carrying candles staged the sit-in on Thursday in front of the parliament building in Damascus, "demanding an end to the killings," said Anwar Bunni, who heads the Center for Legal Research and Studies.

"Forty-two people were arrested, and some of them were seriously hurt," Bunni wrote on his Facebook page, condemning the "savagery employed against peaceful protesters."

Several other prominent Syrians were arrested over the weekend, according to the report.

1805 GMT: More strong language from Qatar on the Syrian government:

1752 GMT: Back from a break to find that once again the death toll in Syria is rising.

According to the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, 45 have been killed today by regime forces:

"23 martyrs in Idlib, 9 martyrs in Hama, 6 martyrs in Homs, 3 martyrs in Daraa, 2 martyrs in Qamishli, a martyrs in Aleppo, and a martyr in Douma in Damascus Suburbs."

This video was reportedly taken in Idlib, and matches accounts that EA has heard. Smoke rises above the city as airplanes can be heard overhead(scout planes are said to be providing coordinates for artillery units):

Several other videos (which are inconclusive), including this one, claim to show helicopters attacking ground targets in Idlib province.

1542 GMT: The LCCS now reports that 30 have been killed across Syria:

10 martyrs in Idlib, 9 martyrs in Hama, 5 martyrs in Homs, 3 martyrs in Daraa, 2 martyrs in Qamishli, a martyrs in Aleppo, and a martyr in Douma in Damascus Suburbs.

1539 GMT: NPR's Ahmed Al Omran shares this video, reportedly taken in the Qarabis district of Homs, and another which reportedly shows shelling in the Khalidiya district:

1524 GMT: We've often focused on the northern Syrian city of Qamishli because, demographically, it is different than many other cities across Syria, and it stands as a sign that the "Sunni vs. Alawite" conversation often played out in the media is an oversimplification, as Qamishli breaks that mold. This is also a key element to the city's importance to both the Assad regime and to the opposition, and thus more weight is added to events that transpire there.

However, as a reader of our material points out on Twitter, my characterization of Qamishli as a "Kurdish" city is also an over simplification.

In fact, most Syrian cities are far more diverse than the media, which has sometimes focused on sectarian tensions, gives it credit for. And Qamishli is far more diverse than most Syrian cities:

Its mixed population increased with influxes of Armenian, Assyrian Christian, and Kurdish refugees from Turkey and Iraq. The town also has Sunni Muslims, Syriac-speaking Christians, and a Jewish community. It is the seat of both an Armenian and a Syrian Catholic archbishopric.

The complexity of the city only adds to its significance, and adds a possible clue to why the Assad regime is so threatened by the growing opposition there.

1510 GMT: According to activists in Homs, the regime is "whitewashing" the city, cleaning up pro-regime areas and renaming the streets to trick UN monitors into believing that they are in opposition neighborhoods:

Districts which are loyal to the regime like al-Zahra, al-Arman and al-Dhahab are predominately inhabited by Alawis and Christians. They are being cleaned and prepared for the UN observers. They are putting the names of Bab Sabaq'a and other districts on street signs. Like the Arab League monitors the UN team will be under the full control of the regime and they will never have the chance to see the truth on the ground.

1501 GMT: Better video of Bahraini protester Ali Mushaimi:

1552 1452 GMT: Syrian activists have reported a major spike in today's death toll. According to the LCCS, 27 have been killed by Assad forces, "including a child, a woman, two defected soldiers, and a person martyred under torture in Hama. 9 martyrs in Hama, 7 martyrs in Idlib, 4 martyrs in Homs, 3 martyrs in Daraa, 2 martyrs in Qamishli, a martyrs in Aleppo, and a martyr in Douma in Damascus Suburbs."

The increase in martyrs in Hama suggests that the military is once again focused on stubborn locations that have had prominent protests in recent days. Also, the report that there are 2 martyrs in Qamishli is particularly interesting - Qamishli is a largely Kurdish city, and a breach in ceasefire there could be yet another signal of how Assad is threatened by the idea that the Kurds seem increasingly willing to align themselves with the opposition and not the regime.

1438 GMT: Bahrain's main headline this morning may revolve around London, England. Activist Ali Mushaimi has taken to the roof of the Bahraini embassy in London to demand the release of his father, Hassan Mushaima, who is secretary-general of the Haq Movement, an opposition party in Bahrain. Hassan was sentenced to life in prison in July of 2011 after her returned from England to Bahrain to take part in protests. Hassan is also diagnosed with cancer.

Ali Mushaimi believes that the British government was complicit in the arrest of his father:

The son of a prominent Bahraini dissident told The Sunday Telegraph that a British Foreign Office official tried to stop his father, who had taken refuge in London, from returning to Bahrain to join the uprising.

Ali Mushaima said the official rang his father, Hasan, secretarygeneral of the democratic Haq Movement, as they were driving to the airport. "They were literally pleading with my father not to go back," said Mr Mushaima, who heard the call.

"They said he should wait until the regime began dialogue. I am sure the Foreign Office made a deal with the Bahraini government to try and stop him." Hasan Mushaima carried on to the flight and was greeted by large crowds when he arrived in Bahrain.

According to activists, Ali refuses to come off of the roof:

1354 GMT: For months, I've sounded like a broken record when I've stated that the peaceful protests, not the Free Syrian Army, were the most important factor in judging the strength of the opposition and the weakness of the Assad regime. It is true that many things have changed from a year ago. Protests are not planned ahead of time, or at least are not publicized. They are smaller, shorter, more impromptu because they have to be - if they are not, they are quickly dispersed with gunfire. However, protests are arguably more numerous, and wider spread than they were a year ago, before the most serious violence.

While it is clear that the ceasefire is not in effect everywhere, the violence, and the risk for violence, has been at least partially mediated. As a result, we are once again seeing crowds build.

This video was reportedly taken today at a funeral in Douma, a key suburb (perhaps THE key suburb) of Damascus. It is one of several videos which shows (perhaps) thousands on the streets in one of the largest daytime protests in recent memory that was not held on a Friday:

This video was reportedly taken in Kafr Roumeh, in Idlib province. The town is extremely small, but has an extremely large presence of opposition - this is a large percentage of the town:

All of this begs the question - if Assad continues to allow the protests to grow, how long will his regime last?

1338 GMT: A Youtube account that often posts videos from Homs has uploaded several videos that were reportedly taken today. In the first video, it appears that several armored vehicles are attacking. Another video shows a tank opening fire.

This video, uploaded by the same account, shows shells landing in Homs today:

1327 GMT: The Local Coordinating Committees, a network of opposition activists inside Syria, has already confirmed the deaths of 19 people at the hands of the Syrian government, "including two children, a woman, a defected soldier, and a person martyred under torture:

8 martyrs in Hama, 6 martyrs in Idlib, 3 martyrs in Homs, 1 martyrs in Douma in Damascus Suburbs, and a defected soldier in Manbaj in Aleppo."

While the crackdown in Homs hasn't seemed to slow since Thursday's ceasefire, the deaths in Idlib are particularly interesting to note. This means that Assad forces are still on the offensive in the region, in the northwest of Syria near the Turkish border (Map), but it also means that the Assad military is killing in territory where there is a very strong presence of insurgent fighters, further threatening the ceasefire.

1315 GMT: The Guardian has spoken to a former Syrian air force office who claims to be a commander in the Free Syrian Army in Al Rastan, just north of Homs. According to Qassim, the FSA is holding fire in accordance with the Kofi Annan peace plan, but the Assad military is not:

There has been heavy shooting against the Khaldiyed and al-Bayadah districts [of Homs] since last Thursday. The regime is not complying with the ceasefire. But we at the FSA will comply to the end.

At this stage there is a need for self-control and peaceful demonstrations. If Annan's plan fails, we have an attack plan, but we wish Annan's mission succeed.

The regime tries to provoke us, but we won't give it a pretext in front of the UN observers. Despite the shooting, we are holding back to prove to the world that we are an organised army and will adhere to the peaceful nature of the uprising.

This matches reports we've been cataloging since the ceasefire took hold on Thursday, that the northern and central districts of Homs continue to be heavily shelled by the Assad regime. Though casualties are unacceptably high in Homs since Thursday, EA sources tell us that most residents have fled or the death toll would be even higher.

Qassim also went on to express doubts about whether the UN has sent enough observers:

The UN observers should come to the opposition towns and villages. There are 700 areas in Syria that are against the regime. Each one of them needs at least five observers, so, of course, the observer mission is limited and the regime is trying put obstacles in its way...

The regime won't stop the killing because that would mean millions of people would take to the streets to protest against the government.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage from Scott Lucas.

1305 GMT: A demonstration in Kafarouma in Idlib Province in Syria today:

1055 GMT: Claimed footage of regime shelling of Homs in Syria today:

0855 GMT: Video has been posted of Bahraini police detaining protesters in Duraz last night --- Bahraini activist Said Yousif Almuhafda and two staff of Human Rights Watch, Nadim Houry and Tom Malinowski, were also seized as they watched the security forces but were released hours later.

0725 GMT: Brad Spurgeon, who covers Formula 1 for The New York Times, writes a sharp comment after Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix and anticipating the attempt to hold the Grand Prix in Bahrain next weekend:

In the news meeting with the Mercedes team, which won the race Sunday,... [its] team director tried to close off the discussion about Bahrain by saying that there were “many positives” from going to Bahrain for the race. I was genuinely surprised and interested to hear what these “positives” were, so I asked very quickly before the subject changed.

“I don’t want to get into a debate,” said the director, Ross Brawn.

He refused to tell me what the positives were.

I spent the night trying to figure out what the positives could be. After all, no one but the Bahrain government and some of those citizens who say the race is great for the country would have blamed Formula One for pulling out of Bahrain. And since the series is not supposed to be political, pulling out of a hotbed of political activity, a country that is using the race for political reasons — see the promoter’s slogan containing the word “UniF1ed” — would not harm the image of F1.

So the only positive I could find was that the teams and Formula One would fulfill their contract and earn their appearance fees. One team, McLaren Mercedes, is in fact partly Bahraini owned, so clearly the race is a positive for it.

Meanwhile, the Bahraini Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, has welcomed the decision of motorsports' governing body FIA to persist with the Grand Prix: "The move reflects confidence in Bahrain's security and stability, as well as its capacity to host the key global sporting event."

0715 GMT: Yemen's President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi has ordered a military trial for dismissed Air Force Commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, a half-brother of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Hadi's office said al-Ahmar will be tried for refusing the President's order, issued earlier this month, to step down from his position. Armed men loyal to the Commander fired on Sana'a International Airport, closing it for a day, and al-Ahmar remains in an office at Air Force Headquarters.

0710 GMT: An EA source in Bahrain, following up last night's report of a police blockade of Sitra with checkpoints and raids of some houses, says 12 people were arrested.

0630 GMT: In Bahrain, Said Yousif of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights has been released after hours in detention. He was seized with two foreign activists, Tom Malinowski and Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, as they observed a protest on Sunday night.

Meanwhile, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, the founder of the BCHR who has been imprisoned for life, is on Day 68 of his hunger strike. He is, after a visit last week by the Danish Ambassador, taking water and the juice in the hope that his situation will soon be resolved.

We have posted, in a separate feature, Zainab Alkhawaja's account of a visit to her father on Sunday.

0620 GMT: We start with the news that the first international observers seeking to monitor a supposed cease-fire have arrived in Syria.

Six unarmed military observers arrived in Damascus late Sunday evening. They are part of an initial group of 30 United Nations monitors, approved by the UN Security Council this weekend. UN officials hope that the Security Council will endorse a full mission of about 250 monitors.

Yet, just before the first observers arrived, Syrian State media featured a statement by a "senior official" indicating that the Assad regime would continue to pursue "armed terrorist groups", and there was shelling of areas of Homs throughout Sunday.

So will the observers make a difference?

A mass protest in Ma'arat Numan in Idlib Province on Sunday night:

And a demonstration in Harasta, northeast of Damascus:

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