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Wednesday
Jul252012

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: What Next in Aleppo...and Elsewhere?


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

Interactive map of Tuesday's developments in Syria

See also Syria Feature: The Next Challenge --- Running a Liberated Town
Bahrain Feature: Inside the Appeals Court --- A Tale of "Secret Sources" and Justice Repeatedly Delayed for Younis Ashoori
Syria Audio Feature: "A Conflict of Attrition...And the Regime is Losing" --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Tuesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Heavy Fighting in Aleppo


1959 GMT: Syria. 129 people have been killed today, according to the LCC:

27 martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs, (most of them were killed in the massacre of Qaboun neighbourhood, their bodies were discovered today), 22 in Aleppo, 21 in Homs, 15 in Hasakeh, 12 in Hama, 12 in Idlib, 11 in Deir Ezzor and 9 martyrs in Daraa.

1354 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:

Following escalating complaints and concerns, "12 free-standing air conditioning units and large generators to power them" have been fitted at Jaw Prison "as an emergency measure", reports Trade Arabia. Jaw Prison is Bahrain's largest and where many political prisoners are currently being held. The installation of the air conditioning units is something of a victory for activists online who have been raising awareness of the lack of air-conditioning for several days through Twitter using the hashtag "#JawPrison_without_AC".

Trade Arabia quotes Bahrain Interior Ministry Works Directorate design head Major Adnan Al Qattan as saying that there had been false claims made about the conditions at Jaw Prison. However, his response suffers from an unfortunate double-negative:

"For a very short time between the process, there was less cooling and it was made into a report there was no air conditioning," he said. "However, at no point - even now - was it not uncomfortable."

1915 GMT: Bahrain. Ali Asheeri, a 15 year old boy, was yesterday sentenced "to one year imprisonment on charges of illegal assembly," reports Bahrain Center for Human Rights Vice President Maryam AlKhawaja.

1912 GMT: Bahrain. John Horne makes another report:

The appeal of Younis Ashoori, the 61-year old hospital administrator, arrested, tortured and sentenced last year, was adjourned for the eleventh time today. Younis was sentenced to three years by a military court, charged with taking oxygen cylinders to the site of a protest in an ambulance. (See our separate feature: Inside the Appeals Court --- A Tale of "Secret Sources" and Justice Repeatedly Delayed for Younis Ashoori.)

His appeal was repeatedly adjourned over recent weeks because voice recordings of the ambulance were not handed over by the Ministries of Health and Interior. The judge finally received the CD of the recordings this week. However, in court today, a family witness reports that the judge announced he had not had time to listen to it. The appeal was adjourned until August 6th, when the judge has said he will give the final verdict.

1909 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:

Activists have been targeted by UK manufactured malware which "takes screen shots, intercepts voice-over-Internet calls and transmits a record of every keystroke to a computer in Manama," reports Bloomberg.

It’s one of the world’s best-known and elusive cyber weapons: FinFisher, a spyware sold by U.K.- based Gamma Group, which can secretly take remote control of a computer, copying files, intercepting Skype calls and logging every keystroke.

(...)

Researchers believe they’ve identified copies of FinFisher, based on an examination of malicious software e-mailed to Bahraini activists, they say. Their research, which is being published today by the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab, is based on five different e-mails obtained by Bloomberg News from people targeted by the malware.

(...)

Three Bahraini dissidents who said they received the malware-laden mailings were in Washington, London and Manama when the malware attempted to infect their computers in April and May. The first e-mails they received, sent in April, were titled “Existence of a new dialogue - Al-Wefaq & Government authority” and, in Arabic, “Events this week.”

E-mails sent in May had the subject lines “Torture reports on Nabeel Rajab,” a reference to a jailed opposition leader; “King Hamad Planning,” a reference to the Bahraini king’s trip to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee; and “Breaking News from Bahrain -- 5 Suspects Arrested.”

Husain Abdulla, a U.S. citizen who is director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, said he tried to download the “Existence of a new dialogue” attachment on his Blackberry while walking from a Washington Metro station to meetings at a Congressional office building.

Abdulla, 34, the Mobile, Alabama-based owner of gas stations, now is considering lawsuits and a complaint to the U.S. State Department about the border-crossing hack.

1830 GMT: Syria. In places like Deir Ez Zor, Aleppo, Idlib province, and even Damascus, the cycle of violence follows a pattern - there are gathering insurgencies in these areas, and the government is trying to respond. In Daraa province, however, despite the fact that there are no clear battle lines, and no territory is "held" by the Free Syrian Army, a battle against insurgents is still present.

Today there are reports of intense fighting north of Daraa, in a town called Al Sheikh Maskin (map). This is the continuation of a battle for control of many of Daraa's suburbs, particularly the ones on the road to Damascus. The regime cannot lose these territories or insurgents will have a direct route to the capital. However, the regime is deeply unpopular in this district, and its enemies are everywhere, so despite its efforts to combat insurgency in Daraa province are proving costly - and perhaps ineffective.

1810 GMT: Syria. Deir Ez Zor (map) was once again shelled today. Videos like the one below show smoke rising from the city, and rubble in the streets.

But according to Now Lebanon and Al Jazeera, a major defection has occurred in the city:

1748 GMT: Syria. Underestimating the Free Syrian Army, however, is a oft-made mistake. The battle has lasted into the night in the Al Asali district of Damascus (map), where earlier we carried a report that 4 tanks were destroyed by the Free Syrian Army. While no citizen journalists have been able to get close enough to the fighting to provide video yet, the Facebook Page of one of the FSA battalions now reports that 6 tanks were destroyed "through a combination of RPGs and anti-tank missiles."

This news has sparked many other rumors, including that a column of 14 tanks was seen moving into the area, but only 2 came out. We're treating that as a strict rumor, but we now have 5 completely different sources reporting that 4-6 tanks have been destroyed by the FSA.

1730 GMT: Syria. The FSA has made significant gains in Aleppo, has posed a significant threat to the regime inside Damascus, and has made considerable gains in the rest of the country while the fighting is raging close to the capital.

The Free Syrian Army is also growing in strength. Most experts now estimate that the FSA is a fighting force of more than 60,000 soldiers. Michael Weiss, Research Director of the Henry Jackson Society and an analyst for the Telegraph, told me that he believes, based on reliable sources, that this number is more like 100,000, with most never making an appearance on any sort of social network or media outlet. The FSA is gaining more weapons, is capturing armored vehicles, and has so many defectors in its ranks that it both operates with military efficiency, and has an inside knowledge into the workings of its enemy, the Assad military. There is also evidence that there are traitors within the regime that are supporting the insurgents, a possible explanation for last week's bombing in Damascus that left 4 high-ranking members of the regime dead.

But there are significant problems inside the FSA. There is a lack of coordination nationally, and many fighters are more interested in their own battalion, or the town or village that they protect, than the efforts to topple the regime. There are also signs that, in Deir Ez Zor in particular, those divisions are threatening the insurgents' success.

Yesterday, The Guardian's Ghaith Abul-Ahad reported that while the FSA had control over 90% of the countryside of Deir Ez Zor, it was struggling to unify and coordinate an attack to take either the city of Deir Ez Zor or al Bukamal. Today, Ghaith reports that there have been battles between different elements of the FSA, fights centered around the distribution of the limited supplies, and the overall leadership of units there.

If the FSA really has 100,000 fighters, as Weiss suggests, then if the FSA could simply unify, or show some sign of a national command structure, then they could possibly quickly overcome the Assad military. Without such unity there may be much success, but the questions become how long this crisis will take to end, and what will be left of Syria once Assad is deposed?

1550 GMT: Syria. Today's death toll has increased to 100, according to the LCC:

25 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (most killed in the Massacre of Qaboun neighborhood, their bodies were discovered today), 17 in Aleppo, 15 in Hasakeh, 12 martyrs in Homs, 11 martyrs in Deir Ezzor, 9 in Idlib, 6 in Hama and 5 in Daraa.

1513 GMT: Syria. This video is being pushed on social media by accounts who usually post Free Syrian Army videos. It reportedly shows weapons and supplies captured from an arms depot in Aleppo (we're not sure exactly where, we've only heard from inside the city). We can't verify the report, but it matches other murmors and rumors:

Some discussions we've had on Twitter about this video:

1444 GMT: Syria. An activist shares a dramatic live feed from the Shaar district of Aleppo where the FSA has reportedly captured a police station (map). Al Shaar is in the center of the city - this is a sign of how strong the FSA is in the very middle of Syria's largest city:

1408 GMT: Syria. With all the fighting, it's easy to get caught up in the news about military victories and defeats from one side or the other. However, it's important to realize that the Free Syrian Army, while very successful in recent weeks (really, months), has yet to deliver a knockout blow to the regime. The regime has yet to have any success outside of Damascus (and that success is highly muddled). The result - intense fighting, often accompanied by artillery, tank, and rocket attacks, inside civilian areas of Syria.

This is the Salah el Dine district of Aleppo (map), a once prosperous boulevard in the center of the city. Now, much of it looks like this:

1352 GMT: Syria. Another video from Hajar al Aswad (map), in southern Damascus, shows smoke rising above the skyline, and helicopters patrolling the area. These helicopters have been part of today's combat, according to multiple sources.

1327 GMT: Syria. Today we've seen many reports of fighting in the Al Asali neighborhood of southern Damascus (map). We've found videos that show thick smoke rising from the area, reportedly as the neighborhood was stormed by the military and shops were burned.

However, both an opposition Facebook page and our contact with the CFDPC, Zilal, have heard reports that four tanks were destroyed in the neighborhood as several units of the Free Syrian Army converged in the area in order to stop the military advance.

Zilal also shares this video of a helicopter flying between the Al Asali and Hajar al Aswad areas, as sounds of gunfire can clearly be heard:

For all the talks of the regime's overwhelming victory in Damascus, it seems the battle is still far from over.

1302 GMT: Syria. The LCCS reports a massacre in Qaboun (map), an area east of the center of Damascus where many have witnessed nearly continual shelling for days.

The regime's army committed a new massacre against unarmed civilians who had hidden in a shelter due to fear of the shelling. After shelling, which had targeted the neighborhood for the past 5 days, regime forces detained more than 150 people from one of the shelters. The detainees were taken to Military Police and threatened with death. Their bodies were found yesterday in the area of Teshreen neighborhood, some were executed and others were killed due to the shelling.

The report also contained several videos, reportedly showing some of the bodies.

It's worth noting that Qaboun is an area where a large amount of troops defected several days ago, enough for the FSA to defend the neighborhood, but the decision was made to pull those troops out of Qaboun with the rest. This raises the question of whether the troops defected because they were ordered to do something horrible, or whether these horrible acts are retribution for the large-scale defections.

1255 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordinating Committees report that 80 people have been killed so far today. The deaths are distributed as follows:

23 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (most killed in the Massacre of Qaboun neighborhood, their bodies were discovered today), 15 in Hasakeh, 10 in Aleppo, 9 in Idlib, 9 in Homs, 8 in Deir Ezzor and 6 in Hama.

Meanwhile, there are more signs that the battle in Aleppo is heating up. There are reports of gun battles in multiple areas. We'll have a breakdown of the reports very soon.

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

1140 GMT: Syria. Claimed footage of an insurgent driving a captured regime tank in Aleppo:

1133 GMT: Bahrain. The Times of London has posted further news about the alleged treatment of detainees:

Bahrain has begun an investigation into allegations that police are using “black sites” to beat and torture anti-government protesters, dodging efforts to clean up security forces in the Gulf state.

The accusations cast more doubt on government claims to have overhauled police practices since an independent inquiry found systematic human rights abuses during a crackdown on anti-government protests last year. More than 80 people have been killed in the 17-month uprising.

The Bahraini regime had previously denied that the black sites existed, despite persistent allegations that beatings and torture had continued unabated since the report was published in November. But officials now admit privately that some police officers have continued to operate outside the law.

Opposition groups claim that a youth centre just outside the capital, Manama, and a police equestrian centre in the western district of Budaiya, have been used to beat and interrogate detainees before they are transferred to police stations, where stricter procedures are now in place. Cameras have now been installed outside the two sites, identified in testimony to human rights groups, to monitor those going in and out.

1117 GMT: Syria. Following his Foreign Ministry's declaration that it will not recognise new European Union sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov --- in the colourful description of Russia Today --- has condemned the US reaction to bombings in Damascus, including last week's blast that killed four top members of the Assad regime:

This is direct endorsement of terrorism. How are we supposed to understand that? This is a sinister position, I cannot find words to express our attitude towards that.

Lavrov chided the remarks of the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, that the Damascus violence could lead to the adoption of a resolution authorising harsh sanctions, and possible military intervention, against the Syrian regime: “In other words this means ‘We are going to support such acts of terrorism until the United Nationns Security Council does what we want’.”

Meanwhile Lavrov's deputy Gennadi Gatilov has said the Assad regime, which acknowledged its possession of chemical weapons stocks on Monday, has given "firm assurances...that the security of these arsenals is fully ensured".

1104 GMT: Syria. A Turkish diplomat has said two more Syrian brigadier generals crossed into Turkey on Tuesday, bringing the total to 27 since the start of the uprising.

At least six generals have reportedly crossed the border in the last nine days.

1040 GMT: Syria. Speaking on Radio Sawa, oppostion Syrian National Council spokesman Mohamed Sermini has announced the defection of Syria's Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdel Latif Al Dabbagh.

Al Dabbagh's wife Lamia al-Hariri, the Syrian Ambassador to Cyprus and niece of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, defected on Tuesday.

Earlier this month Nawaf al-Fares, Syria's Ambassador to Iraq, left his post.

1001 GMT: Syria. Claimed footage of an Aleppo police station set on fire by insurgents:

0950 GMT: Syria. Russia's Foreign Ministry, saying new European Union sanctions against Syria are "counterproductive", declared that it will not recognise measures it views as a de facto blockade.

The Foreign Ministry criticised the requirement on EU member states to inspect sea and air cargoes headed for Syria from third countries if they suspect weapons are on board.

"Russia does not recognise (the EU sanctions) and views them as counterproductive, not capable of resolving the situation in Syria," the statement said, adding that they were against the spirit of the peace plan of United Natons envoy Kofi Annan.

0814 GMT: Syria. A Turkish official has said all border gates with Syria will be closed from today because of worsening security conditions.

Insurgents took control of several gates on the Syrian side of the border over the last week.

The Turkish step will close the only three border gates that were still open, at Cilvegözü, Oncupınar and Karkamış.

0802 GMT: Syria. Testimonies in this morning's summaries from Aleppo....

Academic Fadi Salem, “People are still in shock that this is happening — they thought it would be limited to one neighbourhood, but it is growing in size to other neighbourhoods. They are scared of chaos and lawlessness more than anything else.”

An activist, "The Free Syrian Army is on the streets like ants."

A resident of a Christian quarter north of the Old City, "We are not used to this," said a resident of the Christian quarter north of Bab al-Hadeed. "Everyone is scared, everything is closed."

0757 GMT: Syria. Video to back up James Miller's note (see 0515 GMT) of the significance of conflict beyond Aleppo and Damascus --- claimed footage of many bodies after fighting in al-Shree'a in Hama Province:

0637 GMT: Syria. Brazilian journalist Marcelo Ninio reports from Izaz, a town on the Turkish border now held by insurgents:

Amid a bucolic landscape of long lines of olive trees, destruction is overwhelming, a ghost town with signs of war everywhere. The smell of burned metal still fills the air.

Most of the houses were completely or partially destroyed by heavy artillery. There is very little left of the village's two gas stations. But the most impressive are the burned tanks scattered around, like an open air civil war museum.

[I] counted seven destroyed tanks, but the rebels say there are 13. Four of them were around the city's main mosque, which was used as a base for the Syrian Army.

Ninio also reports on last week's clashes between Turkish police and discontented Syrian refugees in camps near the border, adding this twist: "An 8-year old Syrian boy ran over to show one of the gas shells [fired by police], which read 'Made in Brazil' --- produced by Condor, a company with headquarters in Rio."

0625 GMT: Syria. An incisive note from Joshua Landis:

Bashar al-Assad announced four new security chiefs to replace those killed in the recent bombing at the national security meeting. Three of the four new security nominations are Sunnis. There is debate on the fourth (Abdul Fattah Qudsiye), who may be either Sunni or Druze. All are hawks. The notorious Rustum Ghazali, who ruled Lebanon with an iron fist, is among them.

The message is that Sunnis will dominate the security leadership [and that] this is an effort to keep the Sunni-Alawi alliance alive. Baathist rule has been built on the Sunni-Alawi alliance, which has all but collapsed since the beginning of the uprising. The defections of high-level Sunnis recently underscores that it is moribund.

0535 GMT: Syria. The website of the State news agency SANA is off-line again, with the last cached homepage more than 18 hours old.

0531 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria reported at the end of Tuesday that 150 people, including fighters and civilians, were killed by security forces. The largest share of casualties was in Hama Province with 46 slain; 27 died in Aleppo Province, 22 in Homs Province, 20 in Daraa Province, and 12 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0515 GMT: Syria. Far from pulling back in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, insurgents showed on Tuesday that they are ready to expand the fight. At one point, they were reportedly at the gates of the Old City, and the regime responded not only with heavy ground fire but with air attacks --- a BBC team in the city reported that jet fighters as well as helicopters were used, and residents also said the fighters were overhead.

EA's James Miller captured the significance last night:

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.

Miller also picked up an important story that has received little attention amid the dramas of Damascus and Aleppo, noting the violence and civilian casualties in Daraa and Hama Provinces:

These areas are constantly under attack, with regime efforts to ensure that the Free Syrian Army never gains a foothold. But the opposition still thrives in cities, suburbs, and countrysides. The strategy is not working, and one has to wonder what will happen the minute the thumb is let off othe necks of the two provinces that started this uprising nearly 17 months ago.

Then there were the developments on the political front. Lamia al-Hariri, the niece of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, resigned her post as Ambassador to Cyprus, following the departure of the Ambassador to Iraq last week. And Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, the former confidant of President Assad who defected last month to Turkey, called on the Syrian military to turn against Damascus (see video in Arabic): "I address you...as one of the Syrian Arab Army's sons who reject the criminal behaviour of this corrupt regime. The honourable people in the military would not accept these crimes."

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