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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: 217 Die Amid Question, "Where's Bashar?"

Insurgents take over a post on the Turkish border on Thursday

See also Syria Opinion: "Insurgency, Not Diplomacy, Will End This Conflict"
Syria Feature: Alawites Flee to the Coast
Thursday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Regime is Shocked and Awed

2030 GMT: Syria. At least initially, the greatest threat that the Syrian crisis poses to the region has nothing to do with terrorism or chemical weapons or cross-border firefights, but has everything to do with the massive amounts of refugees flooding some countries, particularly Turkey and Lebanon, but also Iraq and Jordan. As fighting is heating up in Damascus, the amount of refugees in Lebanon has rapidly risen to an extraordinary number:

Between 8,500 and 30,000 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon in the last 48 hours, an agency spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, said at a news briefing in Geneva. The new flood adds to an exodus of more than 112,000 who have already registered as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, and many thousands more who have fled but not registered. United Nations relief agencies say three-quarters of them are women and children, often arriving in a desperate state with no more than the clothes they are wearing. Internally, as many as a million people have been displaced, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

1942 GMT: Syria. The Free Syrian Army has engaged the Assad military in heavy fighting in the city of Zabadani, northwest of Damascus (map), for the second day in a row today. Fares Mohammed, a spokesperson for the Local Coordinating Committees, sent us this video and reported that the outskirts of the city were shelled by Assad artillery. Based on other reports, it seems that at least some of the shelling was not directly related to the clashes:

1923 GMT: Syria. The LCC now reports that 183 people have been killed so far today:

  • 45 martyrs were reported in Damascus Suburbs "Domair- Tal- Zabadany- Harasta- Hameh- Yalda- Irbeen- Rankous- Harran Al-Awameed- Daraya- Sayyeda Zainab- Deir Asafeir- Jdeidet Artouz- Thyabieh- Kafrein"
  • 26 in Damascus
  • 25 in Homs
  • 23 in Deir Ezzor "Hwayej- Thyab- Bokamal"
  • 20 in Idlib
  • 20 in Daraa
  • 14 in Aleppo
  • 7 in Hama
  • 2 in Lattakia
  • 1 in Swaida

Damascus and its suburbs paid a heavy price, but as you can see from the breakout of the numbers, those locations are hardly alone.

1910 GMT: Syria. It's proving to be much easier to report where protests, battles, and deaths have occurred than to pin down whether the FSA or the Assad regime has control over a particular area or not. Part of the reason for that is that the battle lines are very fluid, particularly in Damascus. Another part of the reason is that good news travels faster than bad news, at least when it comes to the Free Syrian Army.

We've been speaking with several activists, trying to sort the latest news. One activist, Zilal, works with the CFDPC and has many contacts in and around Damascus. She reports that while the FSA withdrew from Midan overnight, they have been trying to retake the area. Earlier the CFDPC carried this report:

The Yarmouk Camp area has been completely liberated and it's under the control of the Free Syrian Army; ongoing clashes in the Midan area of central Damascus where the Martyrs of Duma Brigade is taking again gradually the control. The Qaa area of Midan has been liberated and there are clashes now against Assad forces in the area around al-Majed mosque.

This runs contrary to some other reports, and frankly while we trust many of these reports, we're not sure which is coming first.

Zilal also reports that the FSA has withdrawn from Qaboun, an area that the FSA was relatively strong in.

One thing that is clear is that the military has attacked Saideh Zainab (map). Zilal has collected the names of 14 people who have died in the area today because of shelling, and Rula Amin has this report:

What is clear is that after a massive counter-attack, the Syrian regime has regained some ground, but has still not asserted control over the capital and its suburbs. Also, if the FSA is withdrawing, rather than being pushed out, it means that they still have plenty of fight left to bring to the enemy, a situation that will surely keep the Assad military on edge in the next few weeks, at least.

1802 GMT: Syria. Earlier we posted a video of a protest in the Mezzeh district of Damascus (map, see update 1547E). Activist Zilal, who has many contacts in Damascus, shares with us two other videos from the area. The first shows a helicopter that reportedly opened fire on the district. The second, below, shows smoke rising above the mosque as a result of rocket strikes:

1756 GMT: Syria. One way to measure a threat is by measuring the response to that threat - this was the scene in Midan, a central area of Damascus (map), earlier today:

1731 GMT: Syria. One of the paradoxes of the Syrian uprising is that the more violence is inflicted upon a city, the more likely the Free Syrian Army will be called upon to protect the populace. However, once the FSA is present, it's a recipe for a regime attack.

In Aleppo, the protests have remained peaceful for so long, but after the terrible loss of life two weeks ago, the FSA has likely become a permanent fixture of Friday protests there.

And here's another thought. If the FSA is already operating inside Aleppo, and the FSA is making gains by leaps and bounds in the Aleppo countryside, how long will it be before today's scene playing out in Damascus plays out in Aleppo?

1724 GMT: Syria. Damascus, earlier today:

1653 GMT: Bahrain. The day has been marked by marches of dozens of people across the Kingdom, met at times by firing from security forces --- a protester flashes a Victory sign amid a cloud of tear gas in Sanad:

1633 GMT: Syria. We've been receiving and sorting reports from the Saleh el Dine district in central Aleppo (map) for hours. We've been speaking with activist Rami al Jarrah (AKA Alexander Page) about the developments there. He informs us that very large protests were dispersed when security forces, backed by many tanks and perhaps dozens, or even hundreds, of security vehicles stormed the area. Video do show tanks in the streets, and a series of videos, including one we posted earlier and this one, shows FSA fighters confronting the regime forces.:

According to Rami, there are still some protesters on the streets in some areas, though now it appears that most of the crowd is just trying to escape the violence.

1547 GMT: Syria. There have been large, widespread, and defiant protests in many areas of Syria, despite the constant threat of violence.

A. These anti-regime protesters march in Qamishli (map) - note the Kurdish flags side-by-side with the opposition flag:

B. Binnish is a small town on a key highway in Idlib province (map), a small town with a massively-loud voice that has paid heavily for supporting the Syrian opposition:

C. Another scene from the Saleh el Dine district of Aleppo (map), where protests have been fired upon and the FSA is now engaged in street battles, often very close to where some are still protesting:

D. Very large crowds have also protested today in the Kallasah district in central Aleppo (map):

E. An extremely brave protest in front of the Mustapha mosque in the Mezzeh district of Damascus (map), very close to recent clashes between government forces and the FSA:

F. The crowd in Khaled ibn al Waleed street in central Damascus (map, see update 1426) before it was shot at by security forces.

This is a small sample of the protests occurring nationwide.

1530 GMT: Syria. Damascus is burning - this live-stream, reportedly taken in Irbin, an eastern suburb (map), shows smoke rising above the skyline:

Harasta (map):

Shooting and smoke on the streets of Harasta:

1523 GMT: Syria. So the extension of the UN mission in Syria is temporary.

No Rula, certainly nobody at EA sees any chance that the situation will magically improve in 30 days. But at least the observers will have a front-row seat for some serious fireworks.

1516 GMT: Syria. This just in...

As Scott Lucas just said to me, that's a big surprise. After all, what could the UN monitoring mission possibly accomplish, as most of the observers have been confined to hotel rooms for much of the last several weeks?

In the end, Scott Lucas had a single concise summary:

"The sideshow must go on."

1510 GMT: Bahrain. The opposition party AlWefaq has posted several pictures of today's protests:

Of course, as some activists are reporting, these things have a tendency to turn quickly in Bahrain:

1502 GMT: Syria. The LCCS death toll is rapidly rising. The latest count - 145:

26 in Damascus, 23 in Idlib, including 10 unidentified corpses,25 in Damascus Suburbs, 18 in Daraa, 16 in Deir Ezzor, 11 in Hama, 12 in Homs, and 14 in Aleppo.

1445 GMT: Syria. According to Syrian State TV, Hisham Ikhtiar, the national security chief, has died of wounds he received in Wednesday's bombing that left at least 3 other high-ranking regime officials dead.

1436 GMT: Syria. We posted video of a gun battle in the Sallah el Dine district of Aleppo (map, see update 1400). Now, we are receiving even more reports of heavy gunfights in central Aleppo.

We also are seeing videos like this, taken earlier today, showing large protests in the area.

1426 GMT: Syria. Dramatic images from the center of Damascus.

We believe that this video was taken not far from the police headquarters, right in the center of the city (map). This is not the only report of a violent disruption of protests there. The video below shows protesters shot in the street. Yet another, posted by the CFDPC, shows a graphic image of a young boy, probably 12 or 13, reportedly shot dead in the area.

1400 GMT: Syria. This would be nearly unthinkable video just a few weeks ago, but now it was almost expected:

Saleh el Dine (map) is at the heart of the peaceful protests in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and a city that has been spared, thus far, this kind of scene. However, protests have been growing larger and larger for many months, and the regime crackdown against them has grown increasingly violent. Two weeks ago, scores were killed when the regime forces opened fire with snipers and heavy machine guns. Last week, for the first time, we saw Free Syrian Army fighters escorting the protests in response. Now, Aleppo may have taken its first steps towards a fate that is very familiar to the rest of the country.

1352 GMT: Syria. Yesterday may have been the bloodiest day yet in Syria. It was certainly in the top ten. But there are already reports that 99 people have been killed so far today:

26 martyrs in Damascus, 20 martyrs in [Idlib] including ten unidentifed bodies, 18 in Damascus suburbs, 18 martyrs in Daraa, 16 martyrs in Dair Ezzor, 11 martyrs in Hama and 10 martyrs in Homs.

The numbers speak for themselves - there is heavy violence in every corner of Syria. some of the violence is the result of battles between the FSA and the regime, but most of the reports we've seen today are of an older narrative - the regime firing on peaceful anti-government protesters.

It's sadly safe to say that this death toll will almost certainly rise.

1318 GMT: Syria. It's Friday. We're talking Syria. So we're focused on 3 narratives - the protests, the crackdown on the protests, and the continual fight between the Free Syrian Army and the regime. Let's start with a story that is a mix of protest and battle...

Yesterday, there were reports that Kurdish forces, independent from the Free Syrian Army, took the town of Kobani, and Kurdish forces working with the Free Syrian Army took or made significant gains in Afrin and Manbij, all towns in northern Aleppo province (map). Today, we have this video, reportedly showing the removal of the Assad governments flag and the raising of the Kurdish flag on the police station in Amouda, in Hassaka governorate (map), another sign that the Kurds are actively pursuing the control of many of these border towns.

It's also interesting that in these areas there have been almost now reports of actual violence, though there are reports of some fighting in Amouda before this video was taken. This suggests that the Kurdish elements are very strong, and the Assad government is no longer interesting in fighting in some of these rural areas away from major cities.

1313 GMT: Syria. James Miller takes over today's live coverage, with a big thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us to the afternoon.

Let's start with a very important update from our friends at The Guardian.

Syrian banks are reported to be running out of cash and a rush to find safe housing has caused rents in some places to spike to $100 per night, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said today.

The UNHCR's chief spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, told a briefing in Geneva:

"We've heard reports that many of the banks have just run out of money.

"I just have a report from our staff that says state and private banks are reported to be out of funds. Whether this is all banks, I don't know.

"This is specifically relevant to the refugee population as reported but it's probably also affecting the Syrian population."

Why is this important? A bank run will definitely shake confidence in the regime. When confidence goes, defections will rise.

1205 GMT: Syria. Wladimir Van Wilgenburg offers a series of updates on his blog of developments in the Kurdish areas, including this video of residents of Kobani celebrating and defacing images of President Assad after the opposition took control of the town:

1133 GMT: Syria. Journalist Sander van Hoorn reports that President Assad was not at today's funeral of Minister of Defense Dawoud Rajha, who was killed in Wednesday's Damascus bomb. Van Hoorn adds these observations:

1123 GMT: Syria. A demonstration today in Tremseh in Hama Province --- last week, at least 103 people were slain in the town:

1116 GMT: Syria. Insurgents have said that they have withdrawn from the Midan section of Damascus after six days of fighting.

A local insurgent commander said Syrian forces, backed by armorred vehicles, moved into the district and took control of the market area. He said, "It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus."

1108 GMT: Syria. AFP reports on Iraqis fleeing Syria amid violence and unrest:

"The situation there is so bad," said Khalid al-Jawadi, a 60-year-old retired teacher from Baghdad.

"There is fighting, gunfire -- it is a war there, everywhere. We escaped because we were very afraid of dying."

Standing near his wife and four children, Jawadi added: "I will never, ever, return to Syria."

An Iraqi Airways Captain said 750 Iraqis had been flown out of the Syrian capital since Thursday, with two more flights of evacuees expected Friday. Thousands of Iraqis have also crossed the land border into Iraq in the last 24 hours.

The United Nations refugee agency had expressed concern for the safety of 88,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, after a family of seven was found shot dead in a Damascus apartment and three other Iraqis were killed by gunfire last week. A representatives thousands of refugees, mainly Iraqi, who have been living in the Damascus suburb of Saida Zainab --- where about 60 people were reportedly killed this week when a funeral procession was hit by a shell --- had fled their homes due to violence and "targeted threats".

1104 GMT: Syria. Residents of a village in Jabal al-Zuwiya, in the northwest, have held "free" local elections.

About 600 men voted in a school to select nine of 21 candidates for the "Local Revolutionary Council."

Only males were allowed to cast ballots.

1047 GMT: Syria. A street in the Kafarsouseh section of Damascus this morning:

A funeral for three victims, including a child, in Daraa Province:

0947 GMT: Syria. Turkish journalist Mehmet Aksakal tells The Guardian that regime forces have reclaimed the Bab al-Hawa border post (see 0859 GMT) on the Turkish frontier.

Aksakal anticipates, however, that the insurgents will again take the post, as the Assad military is spread so thinly in the area.

0938 GMT: Syria. Reports from Dutch journalist Sander van Hoorn an hour ago:

0930 GMT: Syria. Al-Manar TV, the outlet of Lebanon's Hezbollah, is reporting that Hisham Bekhtyar, the head of Syria's National Security Council, has died from injuries suffered in Wednesday's Damascus bomb.

0859 GMT: Syria. Insurgents have seized control of another border post, this one at Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish frontier, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.

About 150 insurgents held the post, opposite Turkey's Cilvegozu border crossing in Hatay Province, amid burnt-out trucks and the blood-stained, bullet-riddled building. Regime soldiers reportedly abandoned the site.

0850 GMT: Syria. A correspondent for Time magazine reports on the fighting in Saraqeb in Idlib Province, following news of Wednesday's bomb in Damascus that killed senior regime officials, that reportedly killed dozens of people:

“Is it real? Is it really almost over?” asked a young FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighter who took up arms a year ago. “I’m so sick of guns, bullets, bombs.”

He didn’t have to wait long for his answer. Later Wednesday night, just before 11 p.m., a rocket landed near the Brek family home, killing a little girl, her brother and her mother as well as her two aunts and another woman from her family.

Perhaps it was bravado, perhaps it was a sense that the regime was on the back foot, or perhaps it was just a desire to end a drawn-out conflict that had left townsfolk weary, and even little girls able to differentiate the sound of a sniper bullet from other forms of gunfire. Whatever the reason, the rebels of Saraqeb were determined to take out the Kaban Checkpoint on Thursday.

The first tank shell landed on the home of a regime supporter, eliciting smug reactions from many of the young men gathered outside an FSA outpost in one of the town’s schools. That turned into peals of laughter when one man drove the white fire truck up the street to put out a small fire near his own home. “He’s not from the fire department,” said Abu Ahmad. “It’s self service,” he said, using the English term.

Intense gunfire suddenly erupted. The thud of mortars pounded positions within the town. A helicopter circled overhead before unloading several rockets into a residential area called the northern neighborhood. The power and cell phone service was out, but an hour into the battle several young activists fired up a generator, hooked up an internet connection and called nearby FSA units via Skype asking for help. “Listen brother, the power is out here so the line might cut out. We need RPGs, two, three as many as you have. Brother, it’s a very difficult situation now, mortars, tanks and there’s a helicopter now too. Whoever can come, come.”

0845 GMT: Syria. State TV has proclaimed, "Our brave army forces have completely cleaned the area of Midan in Damascus of the remaining mercenary terrorists and have reestablished security."

0810 GMT: Syria. The People's Daily, linked to the Chinese Communist Party, has followed up Thursday's veto by China and Russia of a United Nations Security Council resolution with a pointed accusation, "Frankly speaking, Western countries attempted to push the United Nations to vote for the sanction resolution in order to get the green light for their military intervention."

After the vote on the resolution for sanctions, passed 11-2 but blocked by the vetoes, Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the resolution aimed to "open the path to the pressure of sanctions and further to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs".

0800 GMT: Syria. Journalist David Enders, who has been four times this year and most recently in June, comments on Democracy Now! about Wednesday's Damascus bomb and the latest fighting, "I think what we’re seeing is just the government crumbling under the weight of a massive rebellion. It simply can’t put it down."

Enders said of claims of foreign insurgents, including those linked to Al Qa'eda, leading the campaign, "The uprising is made up of Syrians who are fighting to topple their own government."

0755 GMT: Syria. A Turkish diplomat said a 21st Syrian general has crossed the border.

At least three generals have reportedly defected this week, amid hundreds of refugees leaving Syria.

0751 GMT: Syria. Claimed footage of the National Security Building, with white smoke rising from it, after Wednesday's bomb that killed senior members of the regime:

0635 GMT: Syria. The website of the Bahraini Police hails a successful visit by Minister of Interior Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa to the US, including discussions with CIA Director David Petraeus; FBI Director Robert Mueller; and Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; and senior members of Congress.

According to the website, the Minister of Interior highlighted Bahraini reforms which "led the way to a democratic approach....He stressed that the incidents in Bahrain were not internal matters since they received outside support to escalate them to the level of violence and vandalism".

Al Khalifa reportedly said, "We understand that security and civil peace cannot be achieved by force or through violence and terror but through respect for the law and loyalty to the nation in order to achieve justice. This is a sign of wise governance by HM the King."

The website exalts US acclaim for the message:

Gen. David Petraeus appreciated HM the King’s reforms and his wise decision to set up the BICI. He also hailed the police role towards extremists and in the discovery of explosives and thanked Bahrain for supporting the Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Robert Mueller highlighted the importance of Bahrain as a strong ally and friend of the US. He agreed with HE the Minister about the exaggerations by the media in their coverage of the events in Bahrain and expressed his readiness to cooperate in training and fighting terror and cyber crimes.

Michael Posner appreciated the Kingdom’s efforts towards international cooperation and its commitment to world conventions. He also expressed his understanding of what policemen were facing by way of threats and challenges due to the extremists’ activities and the nature of Bahrain's environment. He said the solution could only be a political one and hoped for the integration of all sections of society in police forces. He also appreciated the government efforts to implement the BICI report and the Ministry’s efforts to implement the police code of conduct.

0615 GMT: Syria. A source in Lebanon's General Security reports that at least 30,000 Syrians have crossed the border into the country in the last 48 hours.

Four lines of cars waiting to enter Lebanon were backed up for nearly a kilometre (0.6 mile) at Masnaa on Thursday afternoon.

The influx began Wednesday evening, hours after news of the bomb killing high-ranking members of the regime.

0515 GMT: Syria. On Thursday, a day after a bomb killed at least three top members of the regime, questions swirled about President Assad. The leading rumour, backed by activists and a Western diplomat, was that he had left Damascus --- before or after the bomb was unclear --- for the coastal city of Lattakia.

An Assad aide claimed that the President was still in the capital, leading a meeting on the response to Wednesday's attack. Later in the day, State media broadcast images of Assad attending the swearing-in of the new Minister of Defense, replacing a predecessor killed in the bombing.

Some still disputed the "live" appearance of Assad. This morning the website of the State news agency SANA offers no further information --- it is off-line.

Meanwhile, fighting continued across the country. Insurgents reportedly made significant advances in Aleppo Province, taking at least three towns, and seized posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria said 217 people had been killed by security forces. The total included 70 deaths in Deir Ez Zor Province 40 in the Damascus suburbs, 33 in Idlib Province, 21 in Homs Province, 16 in Hama Province, 15 in Damascus, and 14 in Daraa Province.

Thousands of miles away, at a United Nations Security Council meeting, Russia and China were vetoing a resolution invoking "Chapter 7" sanctions over the use of deadly force against civilians.

The final vote was 11-2 in favour, with two abstentions.

The formation of a new militia by Druze in Quneitra, a village on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

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