Protesters in Hama tonight
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Wednesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: UN Talks, Damascus Fights
2031 GMT: Syria. As the fight for territory heats up, so too will Assad's use of artillery and mortars to dislodge insurgents. But most of the casualties from these events are actually civilians.
Zabadani, northwest of Damascus (map), is a perfect example. As battles rage elsewhere in the city, this shell falls on a residential neighborhood:
The bombardment is still on for the 5th day in a row, targeting the districts of Damascus more fiercely than ever. The bombardment is the strongest on Al Qaboun and Al Meedan districts as regime's militias are using tanks and helicopters and are attempting to invade the districts.
Most of the shops in the center of the city are closed except the bakeries and the pharmacies. The Souks and areas in Al Hraykah, Souk Al Khaja, Burj Demashq, Jeser Victoria, Bab Al Jabyeh, and Souk Al Kahraba are all cut off.
(The governments of the Justice palace are all closed although the gate of the justice palace is open. All the cases in the governments have been postponed and many of the employees have not went to their work today).
All medical colleges compound, Literature college, the electrical engineering college, and the Mechanical engineering college in Damascus university in Al Mazzeh have been closed and students and employees have been banned from entering the area. Note that some students have tests today.
There is no movement or life whatsoever in the streets. Tanks are stationed in Al Baramkeh tunnel in the center of Damascus.
Civilians are fleeing several of the targeted districts and heading to some other districts.
The barriers are cutting off the streets in the city and the regime's security forces and the Republican Guards are very much alert , especially in Al Mhajreen and Al Malki districts.
40 martyrs were reported in the Damascus Suburbs (Saiyda Zainab,Arbeen, Al-Tal, Harasta, Thayyabia); 19 in Homs; 16 in Hama, 15 in Deir Ezzor, 15 in Damascus and Qaboun; , 11 in Daraa; 10 in Idlib; 7 in Aleppo, and 1 in Hasakeh.
Since that report, however, there have been reports of large numbers of casualties in 2 locations. The first, Dael, in Daraa province (map), has been under heavy attack for days on end. We've been hearing more reports of extreme violence and shelling today, but now the LCC has this urgent update:
A large number of people were reportedly martyred and wounded due to the intense shelling of the city that started few hours ago, residents are in a state of panic and fear an impending massacre by the regime's forces.
16 martyrs 12 of them were documented along with several wounded by continued indiscriminate and heavy shelling on the city.
1829 GMT: Syria. Iraqi border guards who witnessed the fall of some of the border crossings report that some of the Syrian insurgents showed no mercy to the Syrian military soldiers who tried to defend the position, according to an Iraqi official:
The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.
"Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers."
The report could not be verified, either by EA or by the AFP.
1811 GMT: Syria. Assad has lost territory in Idlib, Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor, and Homs today. But he's also losing battles right in his own capital and its suburbs.
This video was reportedly taken in Al Tal, a town just north of Damascus, separated from the capital by some dry, arid hillsides and plains (map). There have been many reports of battles there, and some reports that the FSA had made significant strides, but now we see this claim that the FSA has captured a key security building in the heart of the city:
The pace of FSA victories is simply shocking, even for those of us who have been arguing that the Assad regime is far weaker than it appears. The FSA is close to fully encircling Damascus, and the regime is rapidly losing territory elsewhere. Without a drastic change in strategy, Assad could find himself completely surrounded in short order.
1803 GMT: Syria. A STUNNING claim made by the Iraqi government, that every single border crossing from Iraq into Syria is under the control of the insurgent Free Syrian Army:
"All the border points between Iraq and Syria are under the control of the Free Syrian Army," Adnan al-Assadi told AFP by telephone.
This news comes as we were just confirming that this border crossing, near al Bukamal (map), had fallen to the FSA earlier today:
1730 GMT: Syria. Susan Ahmad, from the Syrian Revolutionary Council in Damascus, reports just a little while ago about the situation in Damascus.
She mentions shelling from Mount Qasioun, an infamously ominous military base on the top of a mountain overlooking the capital (map). A nearby military base in now on fire according to the LCCS:
حريق كبير في جبل الأربعين الموازي لجبل قاسيونBig Fire on Arbaeen Mountain Parallel to Qasioun Mountain fb.me/2i1KCAEDm— LCCSY (@LccSy) July 19, 2012
Even more impressive, multiple sources report right now that Qasioun itself is on fire, and this live-streaming video claims to show the artillery base burning:
1709 GMT: Syria. In our last entry, we reported that the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa, in Idlib (map), was captured by the Syrian insurgents. Reuters confirms this news, but reports that, for the third time in 10 days, the FSA has had to withdraw:
Ahmad Zaidan, spokesman for an opposition group called the Higher Council of the Revolution's Leadership, said rebels were in charge of large areas around the border crossing and that they wanted to gain control of the gate itself.
He said the raid was also meant to provide an opportunity for opposition sympathizers among the government soldiers to defect. Most defections, he said, were pre-planned whereby sympathizers would know of an impending rebel attack.
"We withdrew because we didn't have enough anti-aircraft missiles, and to preserve the lives of those sympathetic soldiers who weren't able to defect," Zaidan told Reuters by telephone from Hatay.
This report gives us a few important pieces of information. First of all, despite 10 days of attempts to take the crossing, the Syrian army still briefly allowed the insurgents to capture it. Secondly, the most serious deterrent were the military's helicopters, vehicles which are both expensive to operate and extremely vulnerable to properly-armed fighters. Third, the claim that the FSA's attacks are coordinated with sympathizers inside the military provides a possible answer as to why so many units seem to defect at the same time as an impending FSA offensive.
1647 GMT: Syria. The opposition's Sham News Network shares this video, reportedly showing the Free Syrian Army capturing a border crossing between Turkey and Syria in northern Idlib province (map). Syrian insurgents now have yet another major route from which to move goods, refugees, or even insurgent fighters, from Turkey into the Aleppo/Idlib region:
28 martyrs were reported in the Damascus Suburbs (Arbain, Al-Tal, Zabadany, Harasta, Haran Al-Awameed); 15 in various areas of Damascus; 15 in Homs; 12 in Hama;9 in Idlib; 7 in Deir Ezzor; 5 in Aleppo; 4 in Daraa and 1 in Hasakeh.
More than half the total come from Damascus and its suburbs.
1532 GMT: Syria. More bad news for the Assad regime in Aleppo province. There is more confirmation of the story that Izaz (map) has fallen to the FSA. Beyond that, there have been rumors that Al Bab (map) is nearly or totally under the control of the FSA, and now we find this video of FSA fighters ransacking the headquarters of the Baath Party in the town. Beyond this, there are more reports confirming our story that Afrin and Kobani may have fallen to Kurdish fighters (see update 1430).
To top all of that off, there is evidence that the FSA has taken Manbij (map). Earlier, an activist sent us a live-stream of fighting in the area and a second one showing signs that the FSA had removed the regime forces completely from the town. Now, many other activists, sources we cite more often, report that the FSA has won victoryy there and regime elements have withdrawn.
If true, this would give two major highway routes from Turkey to Aleppo.
There are also reports of fierce fighting and shelling in Haritan (map), possibly suggesting that the heaviest fighting has moved closer to Assad's largest prize, Aleppo.
1504 GMT: Syria. The Guardian has spoken to Omar Daimashki, a spokesman for the Revolution Leadership Council of Damascus, who has some astonishing claims about FSA progress in Damascus. According to Omar, Midan (map) and Qaboun (map) are completely under control of the Free Syrian Army. Omar further reports that the FSA has destroyed 3 tanks in front of the most important intelligence and security building in Kafar Souseh, and the FSA is trying to assert control over the area between Mezzeh and Kafar Souseh (map). This matches reports we heard yesterday that sudden defections in Qaboun have shifted the area to the FSA, and that there has been fighting near the Old City and Damascus University:
This news, if it can be confirmed, is remarkable - if true it would mean that the Free Syrian Army is making progress on the very doorstep of the Assad regime, within shooting distance of the heart of the government.
1451 GMT: Syria. Everywhere else it's getting bold headlines, but here it will get just a small note.
Russia and China have used their veto to stop a UN security Council resolution that would have passed additional sanctions on the Assad regime if they did not stop using heavy weapons against civilians.
Also, the UN observer mission appears to be finished.
1430 GMT: Syria. More signs of significant obstacles for the Assad regime in Aleppo province. Turkish media, Firat News Agency, as well as many activists are reporting that Kurdish elements have taken complete control of Kobani, a town on the Turkish border (map).
Speaking to ANF about the most recent developments in the city, Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) co-chair Saleh Muslim Mohammed confirmed the news and remarked that the committees for civil defense never resorted to the use of force during the act of seizure. Mohammed pointed out that the same act has been carried out in some regions of Afrin as well. People are going for self-governance, noted PYD co-chair and added that the acts of seizure have been carried out to not to allow clashes in the country to proceed to the Kurdish region.
The claims about Afrin (map), west of Izaz where the FSA has won a major victory this week, is also very interesting. Sources with the Syrian opposition suggest that many Kurdish fighters have joined the FSA in some of these areas, and so this peaceful transition of power may not have been so peaceful after all.
All of this news is unconfirmed, though EA correspondent Ali Yenidunya puts stock in the report from Firat. Either way, add these developments to the insurgent victories in the area, and Assad's problems are exponentially mounting in north of his largest city.
1409 GMT: Syria. Yesterday was a bad day for the Assad regime, a day that they were clearly not prepared for. According to sources in the city, Syrian State TV spent much of the day broadcasting patriotic images of the Syrian Armed Forces, with only the periodic break to discuss which high-ranking regime member they could now confirm was dead.
Now, the regime is firing back. According to the Global Post News, the first step was to take to the airwaves to reassure the people:
“You have to have full confidence, beyond any doubt, that the morale of your military is higher than ever before, and the morale of our people is the highest ever,” said Information Minister Omran Zuabi on Syria TV.
Since then, Syrian State TV has also broadcast that the new Defense Minister, General Fahad Jassim al-Freij, has taken the oath of office and will begin work immediately.
The message - everything is under control.
Then, the next step - assure everyone that all news to the contrary is a lie. SANA, Syrian State media, published a report that a Qatari film production company was setting out to create fake news about events inside Syria:
A security company in Qatar specialised in manufacturing models has started executive preparations in a move that is aimed at misleading the public opinion about what is going on in Syria.
According to special sources, the company has manufactured models analogous to official buildings and squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia in al-Zoubareh region near Doha.
The sources quoted eye witnesses as saying that the company started gathering people to make them wear special customs [sic] to represent military personnel and photographers as if from the Syrian TV channels and prepared public, private and military cars with fake Syrian registration plates to film fake videos and fabricated photos about the situation in Syria.
1348 GMT: Syria. There's a story that we haven't been able to cover for 3 days now, reports that the fighting in Zabadani, a far-northwest suburb of Damascus (map), and a place that was temporarily "liberated" by the FSA in late winter, was once again the site of heavy fighting.
Zabadani is strategically important because it is an area between the border with Lebanon and the Syrian capital. It is also almost a back door from Homs, and other insurgent-heavy locations to the north. If Damascus is under siege, eventually the FSA will need to move additional troops and supplies into the city, and Zabadani offers one route. It also has the added bonus of being extremely mountainous, and as such if the FSA were to recapture it, they could inflict heavy losses on any force that would try to retake it.
For three days we've seen reports of more intense fighting, and more presence of the Free Syrian Army. Now, the CFDPC posts this claim:
defection of several checkpoints in the Zabadani area of Damascus and clashes between Assad forces and the Free Syrian Army; heavy artillery and rocket shelling on the area. Mohammad al-Laham died and dozens of people have been injured.
Families are fleeing the area.
Yet another front for the Syrian military to fight for control of the capital.
1322 GMT: Syria. In our full assessment of the history and the current state of the Syrian insurgency, we point out a pattern - the Free Syrian Army often advances into an area is a surprise attack, and then the Assad regime has to storm that area in order to retake it. The "storming" process is where Assad loses the most soldiers and equipment, both to casualties and to defections, and the more casualties his military takes the more defections occur.
We may be seeing that pattern again in Damascus (we already saw it in Douma, Saqba, and other parts of Ghouta, the eastern suburbs, in the last few months). What appears to be happening is a steady withdrawal of Assad military from the outlying areas in order to protect the core of the capital. While we're likely to see a counter-attack sooner than, say, Al Rastan north of Homs, the price Assad pays will likely be high.
But there is another thing to keep in mind - the cost to civilians, and to infrastructure, will be even higher. This hurts the regime in several ways. First of all, in other cities, like Homs, where the fighting has grown intense, once the peaceful protesters, usually a separate entity from the insurgency, come to believe that they are likely to die in their homes if they do not act, expect to see the ranks of the insurgency swell with new recruits. This is another pattern that has repeated elsewhere, and it has turned the tide in some areas.
Secondly, the economic impact is tremendous. A few videos tell the tale, and remember, this is Syria's Capital City:
Kafr Batna (map):
1315 GMT: Syria. The map says it all. Below, we've marked locations that we've seen reliable reports of clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the military, or locations that the military is shelling because they believe there is an FSA presence there. By the end of the day, this map will likely be flushed out in more detail, but the key pattern is already clear - the capital is surrounded by the Free Syrian Army on many sides - the southwest, the south, the southeast, the east, and at least some of the northeast.
View Syria - 2012 July 19 - EA Worldview in a larger map
77 martyrs were reported thought Syria thus far, including 8 defected soldiers, 1 woman, and 3 children. 25 martyrs were reported in the Damascus Suburbs (Arbain, Al-Tal, Zabadany, Harasta, Haran Al-Awameed); 13 in various areas of Damascus; 13 in Homs; 12 in Hama; 7 in Deir Ezzor; 4 in Daraa; 3 in Aleppo, and 2 in Idlib.
During the previous two days, the death toll inside Damascus was relatively low, and the death toll in the suburbs of Damascus was even lower. That pattern fell apart late in the day yesterday, as the death toll inside the capital grew higher and the fighting spread to more and more suburbs. Now, a battle is raging in nearly every corner of Damascus, as the military appears to be trying to hold the core of the city.
James Miller reports for duty. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us through the morning.
Among the fatalities were 60 people slain when a funeral procession was shelled in Sayeda Zainab, south of Damascus.
Claimed footage of the mass burial of the procession's victims:
1113 GMT: Syria. State TV is warning viewers, "Armed men in Tadamon, Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha (neighbourhoods) are wearing military uniforms with the insignia of the Republican Guard. This confirms they are planning to commit crimes and attack people, exploiting the trust of citizens in our courageous armed forces."
1107 GMT: Syria. Insurgents show off regime armoured vehicles captured in Izaz in the northwest:
At least one person was reportedly killed in fighting in the Ikhlas neighborhood near the Council of Ministers and a Damascus University campus. Hundreds of families were fleeing the area, between the districts of Kafarsouseh and Mezze, according to witnesses.
"The refugees have nowhere to go. There is fighting across Damascus," said a housewife watching the fighting from a tower block on Mezze Autostrade near the Prime Minister's office.
Fighting has been focused in the southern and north-eastern suburbs of the city, as well as the central areas of Mezze and Kafarsouseh, where a resident said army snipers were deployed on rooftops after insurgents attacked armored vehicles stationed near the Prime Minister's office and a roadblock behind the Iranian Embassy.
Fighting was also reported in Midan, a central district where insurgents have been operating in alleyways and narrow streets that cannot be entered easily by tanks.
Witnesses said armoured vehicles entered the Sinaa neighbourhood, which is adjacent to the historic Old City centre of the capital.
1022 GMT: Egypt. A flashback --- in January 2011, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker offered an incisive profile of Omar Suleiman, the long-time head of the Mubarak regime's intelligence service who has died in the US:
Since 1993 Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.
0952 GMT: Egypt. Amid Wednesday's events in Damascus, Egyptian security forces fired tear gas to push back several hundred protesters trying to storm the Syrian Embassy in Cairo and raise the green-striped flag of the opposition.
A security official says that 14 people were detained.
Activist Ahmad Aggour, who was in the march, narrated events as they occurred.
0942 GMT: Egypt. Reuters summarises the spread of strikes in the textile industry --- about 23,000 employees of Misr Spinning and Weaving, Egypt's biggest company, protesting for a fourth day and were joined by around 12,000 workers at other state firms.
The mandate of the current mission expires tomorrow.
Mood said, "It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that."
0906 GMT: Syria. The Guardian speaks to "Ameer", an activist in Damascus --- he says, "[There is] happiness because of what happened yesterday and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] on the gates of Damascus. And fear of what the upcoming days will bring."
Ameer reports "long lines in front of the bakery and food markets", and regime helicopters flying over neighbourhoods. He says the areas of Kafarsouseh and Midan have been under heavy bombardment, but shelling in Barzeh is not as intense, with the Free Syrian Army making "some progress" in the area: "Yesterday they attacked a security branch, and I think they hit the electricity supply to it."
Ameer concludes, "People were very happy. It was great news yesterday --- these people are the regime --- they controlled security and the military. Their deaths are great news to us."
0854 GMT: Egypt. Reuters, quoting an aide, reports that Omar Suleiman, long-time head of intelligence in the Mubarak regime, has died in the US while undergoing medical examinations.
Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera are also carrying the news.
0754 GMT: Syria. The rumour that President Assad went to the coastal city of Lattakia after yesterday's Damascus bomb persists --- Reuters is citing activists and a Western diplomat this morning, although it says it is unclear whether Assad left the capital before or after the attack.
0607 GMT: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. So what line is the US military pursuing in the region, amid significant events from Cairo to Damascus to Manama? The head of US Central Command, had a busy day on Wednesday, seeing Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and chatting with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz.
There was even time for a chat with Bahrain Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa about "the region's security and stability".
0605 GMT: Bahrain. Following their line of recent weeks, authorities have again denied permission for a march by the opposition society Al Wefaq, this one planned from Bab Al Bahrain to Ras Ruman in the capital Manama on Thursday morning.
0500 GMT: Syria. Wednesday may have been the most significant day so far in the 16-month uprising against the Assad regime. Four leading officials --- Minister of Defense Dawoud Rajha; Deputy Minister of Defense and President Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, Minister of Interior Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar, and Deputy Vice President Hassan Turkmani --- are dead, killed by a bomb that decimated a meeting of the regime's National Security Cabinet. The head of the National Security Council, Hisham Bekhtyar, is among those seriously wounded.
There were reports throughout the day of other insurgent attacks on regime buildings and positions in Damascus, and the opposition advanced on other fronts across the countries. Unconfirmed rumours swirled about President Assad and his brother Maher, a key military commander; the bottom line was that neither were seen as their leadership was shaken violently.
An EA correspondent summarised the events, with the prospect of more to come:
Friends in Damascus are using the word "uncomfortable" and noting this is the first time that the violence has reached the centre of the city. The 16 months to now has been a prologue to the real action. And no one expect it.
This is the day of the Battle for Damascus. Everyone in the city knows that they are in crisis --- that will have a powerful impact on public opinion. This attack was the real definition of shock and awe.