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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: UN Talks, Damascus Fights

View Syria - 2012 July 17 - EA Worldview in a larger map

An interactive map of Tuesday's developments in Syria

See also Syria Audio Special: The Importance of the Damascus Bomb --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Turkey Analysis: Discussions over Syria in Moscow --- What Do They Mean?
Morocco Feature: The Rise and Fall of the February 20 Movement
Syria Analysis: It's Not Quite "The Battle for Damascus"...But It's An Important Fight
Tuesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting Across the Country

1958 GMT: Syria. Defections have been occurring at a faster and faster pace, but today there were reports that a relative trickle, perhaps a hundred ot a few hundred soldiers every week, may have finnaly reached flood-stage, with unconfirmed reports that hundreds of fighters jumped ship.

There are reports that a single new brigade of Free Syrian Army soldiers, the "Unification Brigade" claiming to be made up of soldiers from many different backgrounds, contained more than 100 soldiers, all of whom appear to be heavily armed, and that those soldiers are also equipped with multiple vehicles armed with heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons.

1938 GMT: Syria. EA's editor, Scott Lucas, spoke with Monacle 24 radio earlier today about the situation in Syria. His take-away - the bombing in the capital was as much a blow to the people's confidence in the regime as it was to the regime's leadership.

See also Syria Audio Special: The Importance of the Damascus Bomb --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24

That sentiment is echoed by Dutch journalist Sander Van Hoorn, who spoke to The Guardian from Damascus and concluded that today's events have been a major blow to morale in the center of the capital:

Only yesterday people in the centre of Damascus felt that events were happening far away from them. Yes, the outskirts were scenes of fighting, they knew that, but for something like this to happen in downtown Damascus…

People are nervous. You can tell. They are constantly checking their phones, calling others to check: how are you, where are you, what are you doing, what rumours are you picking up?

So far people in downtown Damascus believed themselves to be safe. When you heard an explosion, you know it had to be in the outskirts of the city, as that was where all the fighting was taking place. After what happened today, if you hear an explosion, you see people walking outside to check. They realise that now, it could be very close.

1920 GMT: Syria One of our contacts, Zilal, shares this video, confirming earlier reports that Free syrian Army militants and Assad security forces fought earlier in the Palestinian Refugee camp in southern Damascus (map):

We asked Zilal about rumors that the regime had shelled the camp. As far as she and he contacts know, this was not true, but the reports that there were skirmishes throughout the day are accurate.

The fact that the Palestinian refugees have sided with the opposition is a major blow. The fact that they are freely striking at Assad's flanks with RPGs and AK-47s is another sign of just how quickly things are changing in Damascus.

1910 GMT: Syria. Yet another sign that the capital is surrounded by violence - this video was reportedly taken in Ain Tarma, in the Ghouta region east of Damascus (map).

1840 GMT: Syria. Global Post News, which has launched a new live-blog of events in Syria, picks up on this report from Reuters:

The Syrian army shelled the Damascus district of Mezze and the Mouadamiya suburb on Wednesday, according to reports from activists, Reuters said.

"Artillery batteries stationed on Qasioun mountains overlooking Damascus started firing intermittently at the two districts at about 7:30 p.m.," Reuters reported, citing activists.

Mouadamiya (map) and Mezzeh (map) are particularly important areas because they link southern districts where fighting has been so heavy with the west of the capital, the location of the heart of Assad's government. We've seen shelling southwest of Mezzeh before, but if the FSA is making inroads in these areas then the regime has a direct threat on its hands.

1827 GMT: Syria. A Twitter user who is carefully following Bambuser accounts finds another live-stream, this one reportedly from Al Bukamal, near Deir Ez Zor (map). While we cannot verify the video, especially since it is now night, we do have other reports of heavy fighting in the area.

Intense fighting has also continued today in Deir Ez Zor, according to our sources. The battle for these Eastern countries will growing increasingly more interesting if the Assad regime is forces to move forces back west in order to secure Damascus.

1806 GMT: Syria. The death toll is climbing - the LCC Reports 92 people have been killed so far today.

28 in Damascus; including 15 in Hajar Aswad, 11 in Damascus Suburbs, 15 in Daraa, 4 in Aleppo, 8 in Homs, 8 in Idlib, 8 in Deir Ezzor, 6 in Hama, 2 in Lattakia, and 2 in Swaida.

As you can see, the newest tally reflects the reports that the death toll in Damascus is climbing, and the fighting only escalating in some areas, particularly Hajar al Aswad (map), as the night draws on.

1800 GMT: Syria. Complicating the situation tonight in Damascus, large protests have also taken place in the capital. Those protests are often very close, dangerously close, to where fighting is taking place.

This video shows protesters in Kafer Souseh (map) after they lit fires on the road to block any regime vehicles that might respond. However, what sounds like gunfire can be heard on the video.

1706 GMT: Syria. This live stream, shared with us via Twitter, reportedly shows gunfire in the Midan district of Damascus (map). Though we can't confirm the exact location, the hills in the background certainly resemble Damascus, and this report is consistent with others emerging from Damascus:

1659 GMT: Syria. The neighborhood of Nahre Eshe (map), once a quiet area southwest of central Damascus, was one of the first areas to host consistent anti-Assad protests. Now, it is a neighborhood racked by gunfire, shelling, and burning fires:

1630 GMT: Syria. The death toll has been raised to 77, according to the LCC:

In Daraa (Daeel, Zayzon, Tafas, Daraa Sad and Om Mayathen), there were 15 martyrs, 11 in Damascus Suburbs (Tal, Hama, Jisreen, Zamalka, Madaya, Maleha and Zabadani), 17 in different neighborhoods of Damascus city, 6 in Deir Ezzor, 8 in Homs, 6 in Hama, 8 in Idlib, 2 in Lattakia, 2 in Aleppo Suburbs and 2 in Swaida.

As we wrote about earlier, most of those killed were not in Damascus.

However, things inside Damascus are heating up, and the fighting appears as though it will rage well into the night. In the newest development, the LCC reports an intensification in Zamalka (map), where a battle between insurgents and the military has erupted. The area is reportedly being heavily shelled from artillery and helicopters.

With battles raging in the southwest, in places like Nahre Eshe, and in the south in Midan, Al Asali, and Hajar al Aswad, fighting in the northwest in places like Jobar and Qadoun, and now fighting in Zamalka, the capital is encircled in conflict on 3 sides (view the locations on our map).

1540 GMT: Syria. To look more closely at how much damage has been inflicted upon the Assad regime, we'll look further than Damascus for a moment.

Barely a day goes by without us seeing more evidence of insurgent victories in Izaz, an important town north of Aleppo, only a few kilometers from Turkey (map). This video,, reportedly taken today, shows yet another tank destroyed by the Free Syrian Army:

As I noted in my "History of the Insurgency," an in-depth assessment of the Free Syrian Army that we published only last Wednesday, we talk about how the Syrian regime has been losing ground in northern Aleppo, AND trying to regain it, for many weeks now, with no success. This begs the question - if the capital is under attack, will Assad pull more forces out of Aleppo and into Damascus, giving the FSA nearly unchecked access to the countryside surrounding Syria's largest city?

I'll echo the same question as I post this video, reportedly taken on a road in Deir Ez Zor, which appears to show the burned-out remains of yet-another tank:

And in yesterday's coverage we posted many similar videos, including a clip that showed 7 armored vehicles reportedly captured by FSA fighters in Talbiseh, north of Homs.

See also Tuesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting Across the Country

This bombing is a huge blow to the Assad regime, but it's hardly the only body blow received by the regime in recent weeks. By all reports, the fighting elsewhere continues today as well.

1526 GMT: Syria. Celebrations are being held in many towns and cities across Syria as news of today's bombing inn Damascus spreads. But the protests don't end in Syria. The Sham News Network posts this video, reportedly taken in a refugee camp in Turkey, where protesters jubilantly celebrate:

Obviously, we cannot confirm this video.

1518 GMT: Syria. Fascinating international news - according to AFP, the UN Security Council vote on a draft resolution aimed at Syria, scheduled to take place today, will likely be delayed. But the reason for the delay is both vague and intriguing:

"There are more contacts at the highest level so it will probably be delayed," a Security Council diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

1507 GMT: Syria. More confusing reports - after initially reporting that interior minister Mohammad Shaar was dead, Syrian state media reported that he survived the attack and was now in stable condition. Now, however, it appears that State TV has officially announced that Shaar has died.

We'd write a statement like "we're not sure," or "still unconfirmed," but if you've been reading today's coverage you probably get that almost none of this information is particularly reliable. The Syrian State Media keeps changing its stories, Hezbollah and Lebanese media is often broadcasting conflicting information to what the Syrian media broadcasts, and the rest of the information is one giant rumor mill.

If we had to guess, we'd say that Shaar survived the blast but has since died. It seems unlikely that at this relatively late hour the state media would say that he has died if this were not the case.

1436 GMT: Syria. More important rumors - there have been widespread rumors that Syrian military units are defecting in large numbers, particularly near the capital. Among the most significant report is that the amount of defections in Qaboun (map) is significant enough to effectively deliver the neighborhood to the Free Syrian Army.

Because of today's events, we expect to see lots of wild rumors. But these rumors are also being posted by traditionally conservative opposition outlets, like the Local Coordinating Committees.

There are also disturbing rumors that shabiha, pro-regime paramilitary, have entered Midan and Al Asali with guns and knives. These rumors also seem alarmist, but sources close to Al Jazeera, and some of our own sources, have also heard the rumors.

1422 GMT: Syria. The LCC reports that 57 people have been killed so far today:

14 in Daraa (Daeel, Zaizoon, Tafs, Na'aeemeh, Om Mayazen, Daraa Sad), 12 in Damascus (Madaya, Zabadani, Malieha, Tal, and Hameh), 7 in Homs, 5 in Deir Ezzor, 5 in Idlib, 4 in Hama, and 2 in Aleppo (Kal ـibrbin and Tal Rafaat.

For now, mostly for lack of resources, we are concentrating on Damascus, but these numbers are supported by the fact that widespread violence is reported in Daraa province, Homs, and Deir Ez Zor today. While the situation in the capital is escalating, the regime has lost control of many areas of this country, and is fighting to keep control in areas like Aleppo and Deir Ez Zor, where that control is very much challenged by a surging insurgency.

1414 GMT: Syria. The New York Times reporter David Goodman shares this live-stream showing smoke rising and gunfire in Midan, Damascus (map):

1408 GMT: Syria. The Syrian government, through SANA, has released a statement that a "large number of terrorists" have been "hunted down" by Syrian military forces in Midan, but also in areas of Homs and Idlib provinces.

1356 GMT: Syria. Meanwhile, video has surfaced of the FSA capturing a regime vehicle in Midan (map). There are rumors of even more significant trophies.

1347 GMT: Syria. A clarification (we think) of some of the rumors reported earlier. The Vice President was initially reported to have defected, then there were rumors that he had been killed. Apparently, the first rumors have been denied:

The second rumor, that Al Sharea was killed, sprung from confusion over the reports that General Turkmani, who was acting deputy Vice President, has been killed.

1343 GMT: Syria. This live-stream reportedly shows the Damascus suburb of Sbeneh (map), south of the other fighting going on today. It shows a strong presence of FSA fighters on the streets near the capital. Clearly, while battles rage further north, some areas south of the capital have been largely or completely abandoned by Assad forces.

1332 GMT: Syria. News of even more deaths today - there are rumors that the Syrian vice president has been killed, and now the confirmation that yet another major general has died:

1325 GMT: Syria. The Syrian State news website, SANA, is finally back online, and has released this statement:

Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the Armed Forces, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense Gen. Dawood Rajiha and Deputy Minister of Defense Gen. Asef Shawkat were martyred on Wednesday in a terrorist explosion targeting the National Security headquarters in Damascus.

The terrorist blast happened while a meeting of a number of ministers and authorities senior officials was taking place, causing injuries among the attenendees, some of them critical.

1305 GMT: Syria. How big a blow was this suicide bombing? There are rumors that the Syrian military has withdrawn its tanks and soldiers from the Midan district (map) and the military is now shelling the district. Heavy fighting has also been reported on the outskirts of the district.

If this report is true, it would mean that a very important and very central district of Damascus has been ceded to the FSA. The regime is clearly trying to secure the center of the city, and areas like Rawda where so much of its power is centralized, but even if the military plans on retaking this area, such a withdrawal would be a major defeat, and a reinforced Midan would pose a threat to regime tanks and troops when a counter-attack is eventually launched.

These reports are also unconfirmed. The fighting is very intense, and the situation chaotic, so the perceptions of the activists are absolutely vulnerable to the fog of war.

1251 GMT: Syria. The latest on the reports of bombings - the fallout from the bombing in the Rawda distrcit of Damascus (map) continues to unfold, but just as consequential are the reports of explosions at the headquarters of the 4th division, Assad's most loyal division.

There are reports that State TV has made a statement that while there were explosions near the 4th division HQ, there have been no explosions inside the building. The building is in a fairly rural area, but it is also nearly surrounded by areas where the Free Syrian Army has displayed significant capabilities in recent days (map).

All of this is still unconfirmed.

1236 GMT: Syria. The Syrian government has announced, via State TV, that a new defense minister has been appointed after the last one was killed. Fahd Jassem al-Freij is a relative unknown, beyond the fact that he was formerly Chief of Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces.

1225 GMT: Syria. The news is breaking fast, but we'd be amiss if we did not remind the readers that this bomb blast (or bomb blasts) are occurring in a capital city that is already under siege. Gun battles continue to rage, and the military is attacking many areas with helicopters, tanks, and even mortars and artillery.

This video was reportedly taken this morning in Saqba (map), an eastern suburb of the capital:

1215 GMT: Syria. Two groups have claimed responsibility for today's attack. The Free Syrian Army released a statement that they were behind the attack. Qassim Saadedine, the spokesperson of the FSA, said "This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started." This echoes statements that the "battle for Damascus has begun," made yesterday.

The other group is called Liwa al-Islam, or the Islamic Brigade, which has said that it "targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus." The Islamic Brigade does not have a very long track record with which to judge the reports.

The rumor flying since morning is that a senior member of the security forces, or perhaps a body guard, were responsible for this attack. Such an action would likely be the work of the Free Syrian Army, the destination of most defectors.

1206 GMT: Syria. This is unconfirmed, but Al Jazeera's networks, and CNN, are both reporting that there are reports of a huge explosion at the headquarters for the 4th division. The 4th division is one of the most trusted, beloved, and feared brigade in the military. It's also the division run by Maher al Assad, the head of the Republican Guard and the brother of the president.

If true...

1158 GMT: Syria. If you live in Syria, when you turn on your TV today you will see a patriotic montage of images of the Syrian military, interspersed with the breaking news that so many members of the regime are dead.

But if you look out the window in Damascus, this is what you will see, smoke rising from the capital city:

1150 GMT: Syria. Some snap analysis -

This is a major blow to the regime. Confidence in Assad's ability to handle this crisis will shrink at a faster rate than the violence grows. Today's bombing claimed the life of the Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, the Deputy Minister of Defense/head of intelligence services Assef Shawkat who is also Assad's brother-in-law, and possibly the Head of National Security Council Hisham Bakhtyar (from what we know now, that information could change, but Syrian State TV just confirmed that he is dead), and injured many others including the Minister of Interior Mohammad Sha'ar, is a strike at the heart of the regime. The drum beat we've been pounding out, that the Assad regime is vulnerable from a sudden defection or high-profile betrayal, combined with a surge of insurgents in the capital, has particular resonance now. The fact that the capital is on fire shows that Assad can only defend his capital by destroying it.

The rest of the country is also in flames. Aleppo is slipping, and could soon share a similar fate. In fact, the only places that have been safe from this kind of violence is Tartous and Lattakia, and even there some protests, and occasional violence, has been reported. 9 of Syria's top 10 cities have seen extreme violence, and very large protests, in the last few weeks, and the Free Syrian Army is in nearly full control of large parts of Idlib, Aleppo, and northern Hama provinces.

The end has probably begun.

Expect more defections. Expect more bombings like this. But also expect the FSA to gain confidence. What we should probably not expect is for the international community to figure out that the window for dialogue is over.

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

1128 GMT: Syria. State TV has confirmed the death of Deputy Minister of Defense and head of intelligence services Assef Shawkat, President Assad's brother-in-law.

1126 GMT: Syria. Journalist Ali Hashem reports Hisham Bakhtyar, the head of the National Security Council, was also killed in the Damascus bombing.

Reuters, however, is citing "security sources" that Bakhtyar is critically wounded and undergoing surgery.

1109 GMT: Syria. Al-Manar TV is reporting that Assaf Shawkat --- Deputy Minister of Defense, head of intelligence services, and brother-in-law of President Assad --- has died from injuries suffered in this morning's suicide bombing in Damascus.

Al Arabiya claims that Shawkat is alive but critically injured.

State TV says Minister of Interior Mohammad Sha'ar is in "stable condition" in hospital.

1047 GMT: Syria. Al-Manar TV, linked to Lebanon's Hezbollah, is reporting that the Minister of Interior Mohammad Sha'ar, has been seriously injured in the Damascus suicide bombing. Al Jazeera English says Ahmed Shawkat, Deputy Minister of Defense and brother-in-law of President Assad, is also in serious condition.

1040 GMT: Syria. State media have reported that the bodyguard of Minister of Defense Dawoud Rajha, slain in the attack, was the suicide bomber in Damascus this morning.

The website of the official State news agency SANA has been off-line since first reports of the bombing.

1030 GMT: Syria. Back from an academic break to find the report from State TV that Minister of Defense Dawoud Rajha has been killed in a suicide bombing of the National Security Building in the Radwa district of central Damascus.

Rajha, 65, was the highest-ranking Christian official in the regime. He was also targeted with other ministers in a poisoning attempt in May.

State media said the attack occurred during a meeting of Cabinet ministers and senior security officials, It reported that several were seriously wounded.

Activists in Damascus said that Republican Guards sealed off the Shami hospital in the capital after ambulances brought casualties from the site of the explosion.

0920 GMT: Syria. State TV is reporting an attack by a suicide bomber on a national security building in Damascus.

0910 GMT: Syria. According to Le Figaro, via The Guardian, a French investigation has concluded that Gilles Jacquier, the first journalist to die in the Syrian conflict, was killed by opposition fire.

Jacquier was slain with eight Syrians during a regime-organised visit to Homs in January,

A Ministry of Defense source said, "Ballistic analysis and information gathered on site by our sources just after the incident indicate that Jacquier was killed by 81 mm mortar shellfire coming from a Sunni rebel neighbourhood....Analyses show quite accurately the source of the shot."

See also EA Video Feature: A Tribute to Journalist Gilles Jacquier

0907 GMT: Syria. Dutch journalist Sander van Hoorn reports:

0856 GMT: Sudan. A witness said security forces broke up a protest in central Khartoum on Tuesday by dozens of people demanding the release of relatives jailed for taking part in four weeks of anti-regime demonstrations.

The witness said the protesters tried to gather in front of the national security headquarters: "Agents in civilian clothes beat with batons several young men trying to gather. They arrested several people and dragged them away."

Rights organisations, citing activists, say about 2000 people have been detained since last month's protests challenging austerity measures and the 23-year rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

In another sign of dissent, about 60 journalists protested against a security crackdown on independent newspapers, witnesses said. They shouted "Freedom, Freedom" in front of the Sudanese Union of Journalists.

0841 GMT: Syria. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official says two Syrian brigadier generals crossed the border overnight, among another 330 refugees.

The generals would be the 19th and 20th to defect since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in March 2011.

The Turkish official said that nearly 43,300 Syrian refugees were now living in camps near the border.

0551 GMT: Libya. Election results for 80 of the 200 seats of the General National Conference have been announced, with the National Forces Alliance winning 39 of the place reserved for political parties.

The NFA is led by Mahmoud Jibril, who headed the National Transitional Council during the uprising against the Qaddafi regime.

The Justice and Construction Party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, won 17 seats.

The remaining 120 places are reserved for independent candidates.

0533 GMT: UAE. The Gulf Center for Human Rights gives details on the crackdown on activists from Sunday to Tuesday:

The arrests took place at the homes and places of business of the human rights defenders the day after the Public Prosecutor made a statement claiming that a conspiracy that threatened State security had been discovered. Those arrested to date are active in calling for reform on social media websites such as Twitter and include members of the Reform organisation Islah. Among those arrested are the President of the Emirates Centre for Studies and Information Dr. Mohamed Al-Mansoori, Director of the Centre for the memorisation of the Koran Abdulrahman Al-Hadidi, writer Rashid Al-Shamsi, administrative trainer Dr. Husain Al-Najjar, youth activist Omran Al-Radhwan, activist Khaled Al-Shibah Al-Naimi; prominent human rights lawyer Dr. Mohamed Al-Roken, his son Rashid and his brother in law, Abdulla Al-Hajeri.

As part of the crackdown, security forces raided the homes of human rights defenders Dr. Ibrahim Al-Yasi and Khalifa Al-Naimi and spent several hours searching the properties before arresting both men. It is suspected that more individuals have been arrested or are at risk of being arrested.

0520 GMT: Syria. The United Nations Security Council will vote today on a new resolution, but only the most committed UN disciple will argue that this is where the most significant action is the 16-month crisis is taking place.

There is little chance of agreement on the Western demand for a "Chapter 7" resolution threatening non-military sanctions and raising the prospect of military intervention, gien Russian opposition. Meanwhile, as the diplomats fence, clashes in Damascus are likely to enter a fourth day.

EA's James Miller, following up his analysis "It's Not Quite The Battle for Damascus...But It's Important", summarised last night:

What we are seeing this week in Damascus is historic, but the regime is not ready to fall yet. We expect more battles tomorrow, and we eventually expect the regime military to recapture some of this territory. There is likely only one reason why that has not happened already --- the regime is worried that if it takes too many casualties, or too many soldiers defect, then it could lose the momentum here.

President Assad will be careful. But if he's too careful, the fighting in the capital could get out of hand, and his forces could continue to lose territory elsewhere while the military's focus is foxed on how to gingerly restore order in Syria's capital city.

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