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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Heavy Fighting in Aleppo

Syrian President Assad faces a prediction

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Monday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: A Divided Country

2125 GMT: Syria. We're closing today's live coverage, but it has been an eventful day.

Most of the focus has been on Aleppo. Even though we've repeatedly talked about the strength of the Free Syrian Army, even we are surprised at how well they are fighting in Syria's largest city. The regime has no choice but to launch a full-out attack on the insurgents if they ever wish to free the city. As the BBC says it will soon air footage of jets bombing the city, that has already begun. Despite this, insurgents are closing in on the city, the Syrian military appears to be evacuating parts of Idlib in order to gain more forces for the fight for Aleppo, and the battle will likely rage for days.

In the end, the FSA was never capable of holding Damascus. It just may be capable of holding Aleppo. But this does not matter. The regime has ruined the economy of its two largest cities during this fighting, and the regime is bleeding territory to the FSA elsewhere.

We've lost track of the narrative in two other important areas. The violence in Daraa and Hama provinces is staggering. Despite the heaviest fighting in this civil war being elsewhere, the amount of civilians being killed by regime forces in Hama and Daraa is very high. These areas are constantly under attack, efforts to ensure that the FSA never gains a foothold in these areas. But the opposition still thrives in both cities, and in their suburbs, and in the countrysides. The strategy is not working, and one has to wonder what will happen the minute the thumb is let off of the necks of the two provinces that started this uprising nearly 17 months ago.

EA's intern, Josh Moss, and I have been compiling an interactive map of today's events. Most of the locations of the map link back to the individual updates, and vice versa. Click on the link below the map to see it in its own window:

View Syria - 2012 July 24 - EA Worldview in a larger map

2118 GMT: Syria. The Guardian posts a dramatic story of a group of fighters of the Free Syrian Army trying to free the eastern city of Deir Ez Zor (map) from regime forces.

In Deir el-Zour, the battle appears to be on an endless loop. Every day, loyalist troops and tanks stubbornly try to take the city from the rebels.

The rebels push them back and the army retaliates by pounding the city with mortar shells and rockets.

The barrage starts in the morning and stops at midnight. Its aim is arbitrary: shells can land almost anywhere in the city.

The story goes on to detail how worn down the FSA soldiers are, and how the entire city is in desperate need for new supplies. Yet the regime may have lost 86 tanks, and countless soldiers, and the military still cannot retake the city.

The story is from Deir Ez Zor, but a similar tale could likely be told in so many Syrian cities.

2102 GMT: Syria. Earlier we posted videos of destroyed regime armor, and a caputred tank, in Kansafra (map). Now, this video has emerged showing FSA fighters riding a recently captured BMP:

2034 GMT: Syria. The reports that the Free Syrian Army has control of much of Idlib and Aleppo provinces is a bit of a misnomer. As today's battles in the Jabal Zawiya region of Idlib illustrate, the regime is almost never totally gone, and as long as the tanks can travel the roads and helicopters can strike anywhere, no territory is really ever captured, in the traditional sense.

This situation means that an organized FSA push towards Damascus is still a long ways off. This fact, however, does not mean that the Assad regime is strong in these areas. It does mean that the FSA often does not have to leave their own territory in order to score victories.

NPR's Kelly McEvers gives her second report in as many days from northern Idlib, in a town called Salaqin (map), an area with a strong FSA presence right on the border with Turkey. She reports that the Free Syrian Army tried to take the town, the regime deployed a column of tanks, but eventually the town fell to the FSA:

We ask [the local FSA commander] how this little victory will help bring down the Syrian regime. First, he says, it is important for the rebels to hold towns like Salaqin along the Turkish border, so injured fighters can reach Turkey. The injured used to die in makeshift field hospitals or along difficult border crossings. Now many of them make it to Turkish hospitals and survive.

Anas says the bigger goal is that all the rebel groups in northern Syria will gather here and push forward to Syria's capital, Damascus, to storm the presidential palace. He admits that might be a long way off.

Even though the rebels have managed to penetrate the country's main cities, the regime's army still has the resources to fight in little towns; towns like Salaqin.

That night, the celebrations go on for hours outside the rebel headquarters. The next day, though, the regime's army takes back Salaqin.

The full story, with audio, can be found here.

2022 GMT: Syria. The LCC now reports that today's death toll has risen to 132, broken out geographically as follows:

  • 44 martyrs were reported in Hama (Latamna, Kafar Zeta, Shareaa, Aqerobat).
  • 21 in Aleppo
  • 18 in Daraa
  • 17 in Homs
  • 11 in Damascus and its Suburbs
  • 7 in Idlib
  • 6 in Deir Ezzor
  • 5 in Lattakia
  • 3 in Hassakeh

1930 GMT: Syria. AFP profiles General Ali Mamluk, appointed on Tuesday as the new head of Syria's National Security office.

Mamluk, a career intelligence officer and confidant of President Assad, takes his post amid a a shake-up of the security services after last Wednesday's bomb that killed four senior members of the regime.

A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2007 referred to Mamluk's "objectionable activities regarding Lebanon, and his suppressing Syrian civil society and the internal opposition". However, three years later Mamluk was meeting US diplomats to discuss co-operation with Washington in the struggle against terrorism.

1854 GMT: Syria. The CFDPC, a network of activists who share information about Damascus and its suburbs, has this summary of today's events, as well as an accompanying collection of videos showing the destruction in the capital:

After a siege that has been imposed on the area for several days, the regime's militias, accompanied by tanks and armoured tanks. invaded Al Qadam and Naher Ehseh districts and randomly raided, vandalized, and burnt houses as they opened some very heavy gunfire in order to terrify families.

Regime's militias have also bombarded Barzeh district this morning after they invaded the district, robbed, and burnt the houses.

Note that the regime's militias have arrested a huge number of civilians in the districts they invaded.

In Kafarsouseh, life is gradually coming back to normal scene after 5 days of suffering under a suffocating siege and the bombardment and raids were ongoing. 19 civilians were killed in the latest violence.

In Al Mazzeh district, regime's militias continued to bulldoze small farmlands, to randomly raid houses, and to arbitrarily arrest civilians.

Helicopters were always flying at low altitudes over most of the areas in the city.

This video, also shared by the CFDPC, reportedly shows the destruction in al Midan (map). It's hard to imagine this level of destruction in such a central district of Damascus:

1818 GMT: Syria. This video, posted by several sources, reportedly shows Deir Ez Zor today (map). The city has once again been attacked by helicopters, according to reports on the ground. A few seconds into this video, heavy explosions ring through the air - then the sound of helicopters, and then the helicopter comes into view:

1800 GMT: Syria. FINALLY the BBC answers the question we've been trying to figure out today. Their reporters in Aleppo directly witnessed Russian-made MIG fighter jets attacking ground positions inside Syria's largest city.

The BBC reports that the fighting was intesifying, with snipers trading fire, and fighters in the streets battling for territory. Then the regim escalated artillery and helicopter strikes against civilian neighborhoods, and then the jets arrived.

But it was what happened late in the afternoon that underlined the grave risk to the government of losing ground in what is Syria's largest city and its economic capital.

First came an unmistakable sound that has so far been absent in this conflict - the roar of fighter jets.

What appeared to be Russian-made MiG planes arced through the sky. We watched as they dropped in, bombing and strafing rebel positions.

Dead and wounded civilians and fighters were taken to hospitals and makeshift clinics as the human cost of this conflict continues to grow.

The stakes for both sides here could not be higher and it is now clear that neither side is prepared to give way.

We'd note a few things - the stakes are much higher for the regime, as this is a fight for survival. There have been more reports of more territory falling into FSA hands today, and more regime losses away from Aleppo, so it is the insurgency, not the regime, that has some cushion. Secondly, this may not be the first time jets have been used. There were similar reports from Deir Ez Zor last week (unconfirmed), and an activist posts this video, claims of jets attacking Al Rastan, north of Homs, yesterday:

It's inconclusive. Still, the fight is escalating, and the extent to which the regime is willing to use new weapons is a sign that it is afraid it is losing this fight.

1744 GMT: Syria. For months we've been saying that there as a growing body of evidence that suggested that the Kurds were challenging the regime in large numbers. However, even EA's staff was stunned to find that Kurdish fighters, some of whom came from Turkey, had captured several towns north of Aleppo, and Kurdish political parties were now establishing civic authority over these territories.

Now, Radikal, a Turkish news agency, reports that thousands of Kurds are streaming across the Iraqi border into Syria. The significance of this claim is clear. If true, it would mean that the Kurds now believe that the Assad regime is finished, and that the greatest hope they have is establishing a strong presence in northern and eastern Syria.

Also important - among the civilians were armed men, presumably traveling to Syria in order to join the fight against Assad's rule.

1658 GMT: Syria. It seems the FSA has won a fairly significant victory in the Jabal Zawiyah region in Idlib province, after many days of fighting. We're not exactly sure how significant the Assad military losses are yet, but at least several armored vehicles were destroyed, the these FSA fighters have claimed a significant prize - a T series tank.

1649 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordinating Committees, a network of activists in and out of the country who work to verify news from inside Syria, reports that 91 people have been killed by regime forces today:

20 martyrs in Aleppo including 13 martyrs in the Central prison, 20 martyrs in Hama including victims who were killed when a shell fell on the vehicle carrying individuals who were fleeing Latamneh, 18 martyrs in Daraa including a whole family from Herak, 10 martyrs in Homs, 9 martyrs in Damascus and It's Suburbs, 5 martyrs in Idlib, 5 martyrs Deir Ez Zor, 3 martyrs in Hasakeh and 1 martyr in Lattakia.

A few things that these numbers reveal - this story is much larger than just Damascus and Aleppo. Also, it's important to keep in mind that it is still relatively early in Syria (nearly 8 PM), verified death tolls always come many hours late, and the reports of widespread violence are still pouring in.

This number will rise.

Also, it's important to note that neither the LCC, nor the Free Syrian Army, nor the regime itself, publish any numbers about the amount of regime soldiers who are dying in this conflict.

1643 GMT: Syria. A breaking and dramatic (and unverified) claim from Al Jazeera that, if true, is a major development:

1640 GMT: Syria. The New York Times casts some doubt on the BBC report that jet fighters had actually bombed Aleppo, though the BBC has made little comment one way or the other:

Fadi Salem, an Aleppo resident reached by telephone from Beirut, reported helicopters but no aircraft. “I would say if there was one I would have heard it,” said Mr. Salem, an academic.

Until there is video, or clarification from the BBC, this report should still be considered unconfirmed.

1628 GMT: Syria. Forgotten in all the news from Aleppo and Damascus, there was news that the regime also launched a counter-offensive in the Jabal Zawiyah region of Idlib. However, there are already signs that this offensive has not gone well. Today there were rumors that the Syrian military was retreating from the area, but that rumor has been hard to clamp down.

Now, a series of videos corresponds to a series of eyewitness claims that the FSA has driven the Syrian military from the town of Kansafra (map), destroying more armor, including this BMP fighting vehicle, in the process. The FSA claims to have liberated the town.

1610 GMT: Syria. There are several activist reports of heavy fighting near a central hospital, the Dar Al-Shifa hospital, in the Shaar district of Aleppo (map). According to one activist Facebook page, the area has been under heavy attack from helicopters and heavy machine guns. another activist shares a live-stream (finished now) reportedly showing helicopters operating in the area.

This area is east of Bab al Hadid, but there are areas in the west of the city that are also sites of battles and regime shelling campaigns.

Nearly every corner of Aleppo is currently either a battleground, or is being attacked by shells or helicopters.

1556 GMT: Syria. More evidence that the FSA controls Bab al Hadid, in the center of Aleppo (see map and last update):

1550 GMT: Syria. A group of activists share this live feed from the Bab al Hadid district in the center of Aleppo (map). The district is in the heart of the city, where fighting is reported. According to earlier reports, the FSA has control of the area. On the left is a stream from Daraa:

Watch live streaming video from syrianfreedom at

1535 GMT: Syria. The BBC and Al Jazeera have both confirmed that reporters on the ground, and activists, are reporting that they witnesses Mig fighter jets bombing locations inside Aleppo.

This is a huge escalation. As the battle for Aleppo is heating up, the general consensus, nay, the common knowledge, has been that the regime military is very strong in the city, and the lightly armed Free Syrian Army could not possibly hope to stand up to them. This is direct evidence to the contrary, as it may be the very first time that fighter jets have bombed ground targets (there are rumors of other examples, but certainly in no place as important at Aleppo).

The FSA is making remarkable progress in Aleppo. Expect the regime to continue to drastically escalate its counterattacks.

However, a few things need to be kept in mind - every bullet fired in Aleppo and Damascus is a testament to the weakness of the Assad regime. This is, supposedly, their territory. Also, these two cities are among the only areas that had a working economy. Now, that illusion is shattered. The Free Syrian Army has proven, once again, that it is strong. At the end of the day, the FSA is likely to gain new recruits, new defectors, and is likely to gain new arms. The regime's military, however, can only take losses.

We'll stress that though these are very credible sources reporting this news of a jet being used, they are unconfirmed reports. It would be nice if their was video, or other confirmation. However, the rest of the news from Aleppo suggests that whether the news of the jet is real, the regime has another major fight on its hands.

1430 GMT: Syria. The Guardian has three quick pick-ups. The first, a report on Now Lebanon, that fighters from the Free Syrian Army are trying to come to the aid of a prison revolt in Aleppo:

People from inside the prison contacted members of the [rebel] Free Syrian Army to try and get some help. The FSA fighters responded to the phone call and surrounded the prison. The FSA fought with the army around the prison and called the general of the prison warning him to stop [the violence ...

The prisoners feel that there is hope and that the FSA will free us.

The second pickup, a remarkable claim from a BBC reporter inside Aleppo:

The third report, that the neighborhoods of al-Hadid, "Shaaar" and al-Sakhour have already fallen to insurgents, and the FSA is moving towards Al Nasr (map).

A rebel group in Aleppo, calling itself General Unity, has claimed control of four districts in the city, writes Rima Cherri.

Speaking via Skype from Aleppo its spokesman, Basheer Al Hejjie, told the Guardian:

"General Unity was established for the purpose of liberating Aleppo. We have successfully taken control of Saladin, al-Hadeed, al-Sakhour, and al-Shaaar."

The government forces committed a huge mistake when they brought their tanks to Aleppo to fight us. Yesterday, we captured two of their tanks, and fighting continues

If this report is true, then the FSA is holding territory in many different areas, from the east to west, the north to the south, in Syria's largest city.

1342 GMT: Syria. A quick rundown of the headlines in Damascus - Assad's military is focused on many key areas that were held by the opposition in the last 7 days, breaking into homes and making arrests, shelling neighborhoods, and even burning homes and shops of suspected anti-regime activists or supporters of the Free Syrian Army.

The areas receiving the harshest treatment are in the north and east. Barzeh, Qaboun, Irbeen, and Harasta (map). Videos show widespread destruction, and activists report heavy-handed arrest campaigns, as the military tries to disrupt the opposition in the area and intimidate residents.

In Nahr Eshe (map), in the south, columns of tanks hold the area. The CFDPC offers this summary of today's events:

Summary of the events since early morning till now:

After the siege, the artillery shelling and shelling by helicopters for 10 days, after the displacement of more than 90% of residents, thousands of members of the 4th division stormed the Nahar Eishe area of central Damascus raiding each house or shop without exception. Assad forces stormed the neighborhood from several sides:

1 - from the international highway

2 - from the side of the Ministry of Transport

3 - from the side of the Consumer Corporation

4 - from the Dahadeel area.

Tanks and armored vehicles closed all the entrances preventing entry or exit to Damascus in general; regime forces enter each home, destroy the doors, loot and smash or burn the houses (they burn the houses if the occupants are wanted, while houses are just looted and destroyed if the occupants are not wanted).

The campaign of regime forces is still ongoing and it's the largest since the beginning of the revolution.

1320 GMT: The Guardian picks up an alarming report, carried by activists on the ground and by the rights group Avaaz, that there have been live rounds fired inside a prison in Homs in order to put down what may be a prisoner revolt.

What's interesting about the report - the BBC appears to have confirmed the gunfire.

The witnesses in communication with prisoners inside report that the prisoners are scrambling to get fresh air because of all the teargas. At least 3 have reportedly died as a result of live rounds.

James Miller takes over today's coverage. A big thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us through the morning.

1116 GMT: Syria. Residents and activists report that insurgents are fighting Syrian troops and intelligence forces at the gates of Aleppo's Old City, a United Nations World Heritage site.

1056 GMT: Syria. Turkey's Dogan News Agency is claiming that "thousands" of Iraqi Kurdish fighters are moving into Syria from Iraq's Zakho region, chanting, "We are going to get Qamishli".

The site posts video of the men travelling on foot. It says that, while they are unarmed, there are armed guards on the hills protecting their advance.

On Monday, Massoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, said that Syrian Kurdish fighters were being training in Iraq. The day before, the KRG had declared, "A number of newspapers and websites have published reported that Kurdish Peshmerga forces have entered Kurdistan of Syria, but we firmly reject that news as baseless and far from the truth,”

1050 GMT: Syria. The opposition Syrian National Council is pulling back a comment by senior member George Sabra, made to AFP (see 0948 GMT), that it would support a transitional government led by regime figures if President Assad stepped down.

The SNC leader of the SNC, Abdel Basset Sayda, denied the statement on Al Jazeera Arabic, while Sabra said his remarks had been "misconstrued".

1042 GMT: Egypt. State media and the Freedom and Justice Party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, reports that Minister of Irrigation Hesham Mohamed Qandil has been named Prime Minister by President Morsi.

0954 GMT: Bahrain. The latest court hearing of Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Centre (see 0620 GMT), has been adjourned until 5 August, when a verdict will be issued.

0948 GMT: Syria. A senior official of the opposition Syrian National Council, Georges Sabra, has told AFP, "We would agree to the departure of [President] Assad and the transfer of his powers to a regime figure, who would lead a transitional period like what happened in Yemen."

0941 GMT: Syria. The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, has said the days of the regime are numbered.

Speaking after an Arab League meeting which called on President Assad to step down, Elaraby declared, "There is now no talk about political reform, but a transfer of power."

Asked about the political survival of Assad, "I cannot define a period, but the regime cannot continue for a long time."

0838 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 37 people killed so far today. It claims 16 deaths in Hama Province, including those slain when a shell fell on a vehicle with people fleeing Latamneh, and 11 in Aleppo, including nine detainees in the Central Prison (see 0825 GMT).

0835 GMT: Bahrain. Claimed footage of overnight clashes in Sitra between security forces and protesting youth:

0825 GMT: Syria. The opposition Syrian National Council has said eight people have been killed in an overnight protest at a prison in Aleppo during the night.

"[Security forces] opened fire with bullets and tear gas on the detainees at Aleppo central prison in response to a peaceful sit-in organized by prisoners because of the great injustice of which they are victims," the SNC said in a statement. "Eight people were martyred and a fire broke out inside the prison."

The statement said regime forces had fired on the prison from helicopters as the fire raged inside, preventing help from arriving at the facility.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission asserts that nine prisoners were slain.

There was also trouble last week in the central prison in Homs, with activists claiming two inmates were killed.

0705 GMT: Syria. The Foreign Ministry has tried to walk back Monday's statement by spokesman Jihad Makdisi that Damascus could use chemical weapons if it was attacked.

Syria had always denied that it possesses the weapons. The Foreign Ministry claims this morning:

The goal of the statement and the press conference wasn't to declare but rather to respond to a methodical media campaign targeting Syria to prepare world public opinion for the possibility of military intervention under the false premise of weapons of mass destruction (similar to what happened with Iraq) or the possibility of using such weapons against terrorist groups or civilians, or transporting them to a third party....

Such allegations are completely false, noting that nonetheless they are dangerous allegations as they are made by the same sides that are rallying against Syria in mass media and international circles, noting that these are the same sides that fabricated lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which turned out to be false later....

Makdisi's statements were meant to explain the state's general defensive policies in response to false media speculations and allegations, stressing the need to commit to precision and professionalism in news related to Syria and putting them in the proper context.

0620 GMT: Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is back in court today in the appeal of the three-month sentence he received earlier this month for "insulting" Tweeter messages. tweeting. Last night, activists in Bahrain held a rally outside Rajab's house calling for his immediate release. Former AlWefaq MP Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, according to 14 February Youth Media, said:

We are standing by a man who embarrassed the regime by a simple tweet that was twisted to accuse him. Nabeel was able to fight against the regime using the international law - that's why they wanted to arrest him. Nabeel is using an international law and not a local law that they can manipulate to suit their wants and needs.

At the first appeal hearing on 19 July, Nabeel was put into a glass cage so he could not be heard. At a court appearance three days earlier, Rajab had said:

You sentenced me unjustly to 3 months on fabricated and false charges....You will not be able to change my convictions that the Prime Minister is a corrupted person who is not fit to manage the state. You will not be able to change my convictions or stop me whether you sentenced me to 3 months or 3 years or 30 years.

Yesterday, Amnesty International issued a statement calling for all prisoners of conscience to be released, specifically mentioning Rajab. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's MENA Deputy Programme Director, said:

The charade of justice has gone on too long in Bahrain, and all prisoners of conscience must be set free immediately and unconditionally before these appeals take place. All convictions against them should be quashed.

Tomorrow sees further appeal hearings for Younis Ashoori, Ali Humaidan and Jaffer Salman, three Bahraini citizens who were arrested, abused, and sentenced before a military tribunal last year and have remained behind bars ever since.

0540 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees reports that 175 people were killed by security forces on Monday, with 90 of the deaths in Damascus and its suburbs.

0515 GMT: Syria. Fighting spread and grew more intense in Aleppo, the country's largest city, on Monday. Video offered dramatic images of street battles in neighbourhoods such as Hananon and of the Free Syrian Army destroying and capturing tanks. Foreign reporters in the city witnessed the clashes and wrote that the insurgents, who claimed the capture of the Salaheddin area, were "ightly armed and confident but army remains far stronger".

CNN posts a video report from Atareb, halfway between the Turkish border and the Syrian commercial capital Aleppo, noting that insurgents control the town and adding detail on an attack which we noted with footage over the weekend: "The commander of the local rebel brigade, Ahmed el Faj, was killed on Friday along with at least 11 of his fighters, rebels said, during a botched attack on a nearby regime-controlled police school."

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