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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Top Military Commander Defects?

President Assad and Manaf Tlass in the 1990s (see 0515 GMT)

See also Kuwait Feature: The Politics of a "Sinking Ship"

Thursday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting on the Turkish Border

1909 GMT: Syria. A significant development in the battle north of Aleppo. Many activists, including some of our more trusted sources, report that the Free Syrian Army has successfully ambushed a military convoy on the highway between Turkey and Aleppo city. What's even more significant is that the FSA appears to have captured some of the vehicles and weapons, as well as what appears to be an oil tanker, after the ambush.

1800 GMT: Syria. Still, some areas saw very large protests, even areas like Al Bab (map), which are not far removed from the ongoing and intense violence:

1750 GMT: Syria. A correction - an activist in Hama suggests that the over 600 protests today is nowhere near a record, and protests today, on the whole, appear to be less widespread because of the threat of violence:

While in some places, like Damascus and Aleppo, the protests have been very large, many towns and villages across the country have not seen the usual protests because of the high risks involved.

1744 GMT: Bahrain. An EA correspondent in Bahrain reports that there have been large protests today that were met by the police with force:

"There were heavy clashes today on [many areas] of Budaya highway after police forces attacked protesters that were trying to join the opposition societies' rally.

"This video shows how mercenaries tried to run over protesters today in AbuSaiba village."

A picture, posted earlier by an activist, appears to show a different angle of this incident.

1730 GMT: Syria. The LCCS now reports that 73 people have been killed so far, though there is still no official word on the number of dead in Khan Shiekoun, and the reports of violence continue to come in.

According to that same report, there have been over 600 confirmed protests nationwide, perhaps making today one of the largest protest days since the start of the uprising.

1618 GMT: Syria. NATO will not establish a no-fly zone in Syria, nor do they appear close to even considering this as an option, despite the fact that Turkey has invoked Article 4 of the NATO charter:

“To establish a no-fly zone requires a large number of jets in combat-ready status and of course one has to be ready to accept losses. The Syrian anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles are quite successful,” another Western diplomat said. A new process began June 30 after the Geneva meeting with the participation of Russia, the diplomat said, adding that “After Geneva, there will be no U.N. Security Council resolution and of course no no-fly zones. It’s not the time to show muscles in that area.”.

1548 GMT: Syria. The activist network LCCS reports that they have confirmed 60 deaths so far today:

20 martyrs in Damascus Suburbs, 11 martyrs in Daraa, 9 martyrs in Idlib, 8 martyrs in Homs, 5 martyrs in Aleppo, 4 martyr in Damascus and 3 martyrs in Hama.

In this report, there is no mention of Khan Sheikhoun, where some reports suggest over 100 have died. However, the LCCS reports to use a stringent verification process, and appears to be having problems carrying definitive reports from the town because the Syrian military has taken over today and internet has been spotty.

It's possible, and likely, that this number will rise.

1532 GMT: Syria. An interesting video from Aleppo:

Update: NPR's Ahmed al Omran reports, "'Allah greets (or salutes) the FSA' is a more accurate translation."

1517 GMT: Syria. Activists report that a child was run over by a bus driven by "shabiha," pro Assad paramilitary thugs, in Aleppo. The report is extremely graphic, and we encourage you not to click this link (YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED). The report matches others we've heard.

Tens of thousands marched today in the Salah el Dine district of Aleppo (map), perhaps more tens of thousands in the other demonstrations in the city, but the Assad regime has made their presence known. In another graphic report, an opposition Facebook page claims that heavy machine guns were turned on part of the crowd. In a chaotic and loud video, gunfire and explosions can be heard, and the body of a man, reportedly shot by a sniper in his doorway, appears to lay on the ground.

In the nearby al Sukkari district there was even more death after huge protests were held there as well (map). This video reportedly shows the firefight:

And another video shows that some of those bullets hit their mark.

We could dwell on the horror and death, but it is a reminder that scenes like this one are an existential threat to the Assad regime, a regime that is willing to use this kind of force against its people because it has lost the support of the vast majority of Syrians:

1447 GMT: Syria. Dramatic images are emerging that reportedly show the heavy shelling of the Jouret al Shayah district of Homs today (map). This first video is from the very reliable Sham News Network. The other is from a series of videos from another usually reliable account, but the videos carry yesterday's date. If we had to guess, we'd say that the owner of the Youtube account is confused about the date. Then again, this neighborhood has been under nearly constant bombardment for weeks:

1444 GMT: Syria. More from today's protest in Kafranbel:

1414 GMT: Syria. There will be plenty of news about violence in Syria, but part of today's focus needs to be on the impressively large protests happening nationwide. The protests are the backbone of the revolution, as they are what give the Free Syrian Army legitimacy and what gives the Assad regime a direct challenge to his authority.

A large crowd in Majib, a relatively small town northeast of Aleppo (map):

The protests in the El Waer district of Homs rarely disappoint. Today's crowd is no exception (map):

Another very large protest in Aleppo, in the Bustan al Qusour district (map):

Another amazing video from the Salah el Dine district of Aleppo (map):

1352 GMT: Syria. The Guardian brings us the weekly "Kafranbel report," by posting the always-clever slogans from this small Idlib town (map). Here's today's entry:

Kafranbel is usually the uplifting story for the day, as Foreign Policy Magazine's collection of Kafranbel's colorful posters demonstrates, but Kafranbel is also an area that finds itself closer and closer to the epicenter of the fighting every single week.

1344 GMT: Syria. Earlier we carried LCC reports of a battle between FSA fighters and the military in Kafer Souseh, an important area of Damascus (map). Now, LCC reports two powerful explosions overheard in the area, and they have shared a video which reportedly shows the gunfire.

We've also discovered this video, which was clearly taken in Kafer Souseh based on the hill in the background, and matches the reports:

1150 GMT: Syria. Every Friday there are protests, but today's look particularly large. So far, however, the most impressive appears to be taking place in Aleppo, in the Saleh el Dine district (map):

A live-stream from Aleppo which appears to have stopped just moments ago but may start again:


1143 GMT: Syria. Another possible headline stealer - The LCCS reports heavy fighting between insurgents and the military in Kafer Souseh, a central district in Damascus:

Violent clashes are reported between the Regime's army and the Free Syrian Army near al-Na'aeem Mosque in order to free residents praying inside from the regime's siege.

The mosque is in the southwestern corner of arguably the most important neighborhood in Damascus (map) and is very close to the center of Assad's government and civic buildings. It's a story worth watching carefully as the day moves on.

1100 GMT: Syria. According to French politician Laurent Fabius and other unnamed Western diplomats, Manaf Tlass, a high-ranking general in the Republican Guard, is now en route to France after having defected and traveled to Turkey.

This will be today's headline, and it could be the wrong headline. While Tlass's defection is notable, and a sure sign that more may follow, it is unclear how hard Bashar al Assad's former friends will push for regime change in Syria. So far, all we know is that he has left the regime, a move which may spark more defections, but is unlikely to, in and of itself, cause a major crisis for the regime.

And today there appears to be what could be more significant news (for now). According to The Guardian, the opposition stronghold of Khan Sheikoun, in Idlib province (map), has fallen to regime forces. According to Abu Haman, a rebel spokesman who spoke to Reuters, a large force of military, armor, and helicopters stormed the town:

The Free (Syrian) Army withdrew from the town last night after it ran out of ammunition, (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad's army is in control of it.

They are burning the houses. They have burned my own house. I see the smoke covering the sky from where I am now.

That's significant news. Khan Sheikoun is a strategic town, on the road between key cities in Idlib and Hama province. It's also a town that has been the focus of fairly regular military strikes for weeks, as have towns to the north. Earlier this week and late last week, evidence surfaced that Assad was pulling his armored units out of the mountains to concentrate on these crossroad towns. They are important to the regime.

But because of this, the fact that the military has taken the town is not a huge headline. The fact that, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, the death toll in the town could top 100, is.

If 100 or more are dead, this will become another major rallying cry for the opposition. Perhaps more significantly, it is a sure sign of how large a threat the insurgency poses the regime in south-central Idlib province.

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

0800 GMT: Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims regime forces have shelled the town of Darraya this morning, killing at least one civilian.

0625 GMT: Bahrain. A court ruled on Thursday that 11-year-old Ali Hassan, arrested on 14 May and held for weeks in prison, may remain at home but must be monitored by a social worker for a year. Visits will be scheduled once every six months.

Hassan was charged with participation in an illegal assembly. He and his family say he was wrongly detained, held with adults, and mistreated.

0535 GMT: Bahrain. American academic Lisa DeFrank-Cole, who recently taught a three-week seminar at a Bahraini women's university, offers this story:


A few days into the course, it became apparent to me why students were sitting on different sides of the room. The Shia women were sitting on one side of the room and the Sunni women were sitting on the other. This type of separation did not occur in my classroom two years ago—or at least it was not apparent to me.


DeFrank-Cole concludes with a sign of hope:


What I found remarkable was that in the last week of the course, two different Bahraini students invited our entire class to their homes for dinner. Though only one dinner was able to accommodate all of us in the course, it was such a positive and heartfelt move on the part of the students to both host and attend the event, that I was overwhelmed. Having students, who sat on opposite sides of the classroom, come together and share a meal was more important to me than any other lesson on mutual understanding that I could teach in a course.


0525 GMT: Syria. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has told journalists, "We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaeda's terrorist network have gone to Syria."

Zebari offered no details.

0515 GMT: Syria. With the notable exception of the possible defection of a commander in the Republican Guards, Syria has dropped off the front pages of international outlets this morning. Al Jazeera English, for the first time in many days, has no story from the country.

Yet there was no shortage of news on Thursday. Shelling continued of parts of Homs, and there appears to be a protracted battle to take control of Izaz near the Turkish border. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria said 70 people had been killed by security forces.

As for the Republican Guards commanders, General Manaf Tlass, Joshua Landis notes that Syria Steps, a pro-regime site, has posted,  “A highly placed source in intelligence has confirmed that General Manaf Mustafa Tlass has fled to Turkey.” Landis offers this provocative commentary:

The word is that Manaf had been told to solve the Harasta and Duma problems (the growing uprising on the outskirts of Damascus). He did a good job by negotiating with the opposition leaders in both suburbs, agreeing that both government forces and opposition would pull back. The Alawi leadership said “no, that is not how we are going to do this.” They pushed him aside and came down like a ton of bricks on the opposition in both neighborhoods, in an effort to assert state authority and crush the uprising through military means.

Manaf supported a policy of negotiation, flexibility and compromise. He was overruled by the military leadership and has since looked for a way out.

If he has indeed fled the country, the regime will be thrown back on its heels. Manaf is perhaps the most senior Sunni in the regime because he was a close friend of Bashar, he came from the Tlass family which had been at the Assads’ side from the earliest days of Hafiz’s assumption of power, and because he was situated at the heart of the military. When foreign statesmen or Syrians thought of a Sunni who could possibly take power, Manaf had to be at the top of the list or very close to the top.

Landis also reports from "sources" that Tlass's house in Damascus is being "ransacked", adding weight to the claim that he has left the country.

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