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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Annan Quits, The Mass Killings Do Not

Claimed footage of the aftermath of regime attacks on the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, which killed at least 20 people on Thursday (Warning: Graphic)

See also Syria Audio Feature: "Annan's Resignation is A Sideshow...and What Is Really Important" --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Syria Video Feature: Fighting the Battle with Camera Phones
Thursday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Is Aleppo Out of Control?

2040 GMT: Syria. For two weeks we have been talking about the likelihood that the Syrian Army will liberate Aleppo in the sudden push of a massive military assault on the country's largest city. For two weeks, we have been saying that the Free Syrian Army will make Assad pay for every inch of that liberation. Now, however, we need to consider that the most likely scenario may no longer be regime victory in Aleppo.

The roads north of Aleppo are virtually clear of the Syrian army. The area as far east as Kobani (also known as Ayn-al-Arab), and as far west as Dar T'Izzah, all the way north to the border with Turkey, is either completely or largely in insurgent hands. Free Syrian Army fighters have captured perhaps hundreds of vehicles, some of them armoured, and a few of them are tanks.

The FSA has more and more weapons, and has proven it can beat Assad's armour. Those fighters have been hit hard by the helicopters and jet fighters, but have proven that they are strong enough to take those hits. We have now gone many days without a regime victory in the area, and the FSA continues to advance. Perhaps as much of 70% of Aleppo is under some degree of FSA control, while the insurgents are closing in on Assad's military bases south of Salaheddin.

Common knowledge says that the regime will strike soon, but common knowledge said that the regime would retake the city last Saturday. It didn't happen. The FSA won the battles. In fact, there is no available empirical evidence that suggests the Assad regime can win the future battles inside Aleppo.

A quick look at the map tells the story --- the area in blue is area over which the FSA has at least partial control, though this is likely too conservatively drawn):

View Syria - 2012 August 3 - EA Worldview in a larger map

The regime is working against the clock. Since February, the Syrian military has not retaken a single city or town that has been in insurgent control for more than 2 weeks. Reporters on the ground are saying that the FSA is become better equipped and better supplied and that its ranks, both inside Aleppo and outside, are growing.

The regime could make a significant military assault in a bid to take Aleppo back, but it would likely have to be much larger than anything we have seen so far.

Without being alarmist, the most likely scenario may not be a regime assault on the city. Soon, the Free Syrian Army could be poised to take Aleppo --- all of it.

1944 GMT: Syria. Michael Weiss has just returned from a whirlwind trip to Syria, and he can testify that The Guardian report about al Bab being in regime hands is completely inaccurate:

Placing those areas on a map it is clear that the Free Syrian Army has nearly free-range north of Aleppo. This conforms to our understanding, from other sources, of the situation there. We're not sure if The Guardian made an error when they said Al Baba was in regime hands, or they just have poor information.

1902 GMT: Syria. Our last update contrasts slightly with a report from The Guardian that suggests western Aleppo is a "stronghold" for the regime:

Rebel-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo came under attack from artillery, helicopters and fighter jets, though an expected government ground offensive did not materialise. The UN had predicted on Thursday that an attack was imminent. Battles erupted near the heart of Aleppo for the first time in the fortnight-long battle. Rebels claimed to control parts of the northeast, east and south of the city, but western Aleppo remained a regime stronghold.

The battle for Syria's second city appears to be nearing a decisive phase with reinforcements continuing to bolster the Free Syrian Army (FSA) ranks. Several hundred fighters arrived from Idlib and Hama and rebel leaders say thousands more are expected before what they claim will be new phase in the fight sometime next week.

The road northeast from Aleppo through al-Bab to the Turkish border is now in regime hands, securing a vital supply line to Turkey.

This report is somewhat puzzling. Al Bab (map) has been the site of many battles in recent weeks, and the regime has lost a fairly significant amount of armor there. Also, many of the towns further north are not under regime control. Also, areas in southwest Aleppo, which is the most important, have been contested for many days.

We're not sure how to reconcile Chulov's report with other information we know.

1856 GMT: Syria. Tomorrow will mark the second week since the Free Syrian Army began to take territory inside Aleppo city. Despite all the talk of impending Assad military success in the city, the FSA has either gained new territory, or held territory they had already gained, nearly every single day.

The Local Coordinating Committees had this report of fighting in central districts, but other reports suggest new gains near Sallah el Dine:

Fierce clashes between the FSA and the regime's forces near Police Headquarters, the Meridien and Military Court . In addition, gunfire was reported in Farqan neighborhood.

Another report that fits patterns seen elsewhere:

Putting these reports together, it seems that the FSA is making more gains in and around the Saleh el Dine district in west-central Aleppo (map).

1832 GMT: Syria. Deir Ez Zor has been brutally shelled today. This series of videos, shared by the LCCS, show some of the scene (map):

Bodies in the street:

1649 GMT: Bahrain. This picture, shared by a regime supporter on Twitter, is the clearest picture of activist Zainab alKhawaja at last night's protest. Zainab, clearly on crutches, stood in the middle of the road until she was arrested (see update 1404 GMT).

1620 GMT: Syria. BBC reporter Ian Pannell is holding a question and answer session on Twitter. So far, here is his most interesting response:

Want to get involved? The BBC has directions here:

1544 GMT: Syria. On Tuesday we posted a report on the capture of leading members of the al-Berri clan, and the execution of their leader, Zaino Berri. Now, we have an ugly video - the "trial" of Zaino Berri. We'll see if we can find a translation at some point.

1530 GMT: Syria/Jordan/Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are sending a convoy of 43 trucks to Jordan to help with Syrian refugees. According to the Saudi officials, the supplies on the trucks are food and medical supplies.

Just a week and a half ago the Saudis announced the creation of a campaign to supply the refugees fleeing Syria, and already the campaign appears to be taking off.

The campaign raised nearly $125 million for the people of Syria. In addition, large quantities of in-kind donations, including foodstuffs, medicines, medical appliances, clothes, tents and blankets have been collected.

1412 GMT: Syria. 90 people have already been killed by Assad forces today, according to the Local Coordinating Committees:

66 martyrs in Hama most of them were killed in the Arbaeen Neighborhood massacre, 10 martyrs in Idlib, 9 martyrs in Damascus and its suburbs, 3 martyrs in Deir Ezzor, 1 martyrs in Homs and 1 martyr in Daraa.

Hama is, obviously, the key location so far, but things are escalating quickly and dramatically in Damascus. Tadamon has been heavily shelled, and the shelling has reportedly escalated since the last report we posted (map). The Jobar district (map) has also been shelled, and the LCC reports "wareplanes" being used, though these are likely rockets fired from a helicopter (this is a linguistic quirk). The really interesting reports, however, are just breaking and are still unconfirmed, accompanied by few details. Several videos were posted in the last few minutes showing smoke rising from Kafer Souseh (map), reportedly the result of the regime's "bombing," though that is not a particularly specific phrase.

1404 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:

Footage from Jidhafs last night captures a police jeep seemingly trying to run over a protester:

Meanwhile Zainab AlKhawaja, a leading activist arrested yesterday following a solo protest on a roundabout, has spoken to her family. She was demonstrating on crutches after having been shot by in the leg by a tear gas cannister several weeks ago. Her mother Khadija Almousawi tweets, alledging that Zainab was subject to abusive treatment by police:

My daughter Zainab was taken to Budaya police station last night. As soon as she entered, an officer came to her. He started swearing at her using very bad language. Then he ordered that she be moved to Isa Town Police station. Zainab refused to go before she knows the name of the officer who insulted her. He ordered that she be taken by force. She was handcuffed and dragged on the floor the same way she was dragged at the round about before, but this time with a broken and injured leg. When she called she had lots of pain and was exhausted but sumood [steadfast].

Also, Al-Wefaq has uploaded this video which they claim shows tear gas being fired from a helicopter last night. Beginning around 1:05, several shots, trailing smoke, can be seen however the precise direction of the shot and nature of the weapon is difficult to assess.

The incidents come days after the Crown Prince, seen by some as a "saviour" figure through which the crisis can be ended, called for police to exercise restraint, saying:

Force should not be used unless all alternative methods to the security approach are exhausted, and there should be no discrimination in dealing with all citizens of all affiliation and sect.

1352 GMT: Bahrain. The US State Department has released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2011. It will likely make for uncomfortable reading for the Bahrain regime given their recent efforts to present the Kingdom as a beacon of "regligious tolerance".

The report's extensive section on Bahrain in 2011 notes the following points in its executive summary:

  • In practice, the Sunni Muslim citizen population enjoyed favored status, and the Shia population faced discrimination.
  • There was deterioration in the respect for and protection of religious freedom, including mass arrests and detentions of members of the Shia community and the destruction of Shia religious sites and gathering places.
  • The government overwhelmingly targeted members of the Shia community during the SNS [State of National Safety], including activists and clerics. The government and parastatal companies suspended or dismissed scores of Shia civil servants, as well as parastatal employees, although many were reinstated by year’s end.
  • The government-run state television station broadcast programming that accused Shia citizens of targeting Sunni citizens and questioned the allegiance of Shia citizens, and some political figures used anti-Shia rhetoric and epithets in social media posts.
  • The government specifically limited and controlled the use of mosques or matams (Shia religious community centers) for political gatherings.

1330 GMT: Syria.The Guardian has interviewed a fighter with the Free Syrian Army stationed in Hama. He describes the fighting that has been ongoing for the last two days:

Many soldiers who were guarding checkpoints in Arbaeen, Barazil and Friyia districts defected yesterday. These soldiers had no place to hide after their defection but went to the people living in these neighbourhoods to give them a shelter.

People are in full support of these soldiers and they can't deny them access, so the Syrian army besieged Arbaeen and started to shoot against people. It was like a punishment for people hosting these defected soldiers and FSA men.

The Syrian army used tanks and mortars to attack the neighbourhood and snipers were deployed to control movement on the main streets. They want streets to be empty.

Then they launched a raid on Barazil district and they took most of the men there, suspecting them of being members of FSA. They just knock at the door and as soon as a man shows up they snatch him.

So far, we have 62 martyrs, 45 of them are from Arbaeen...

Arbaeen is in the northernmost tip of Hama city (map), and has long been a hotspot for clashes between the FSA and the regime, and long before that mass protests. Areas north of Hama are contested, and battles and clashes are often reported in the suburbs between Hama and Idlid. Though the regime "controls" Hama, in the sense that the Free Syrian Army is kept in check, popular support in most areas of the city is strongly with the opposition, and the Free Syrian Army appears to be growing increasingly brazen in their resistance in the city and its suburbs.

But the report of mass defection is interesting. Because of the show of force, large-scale defection has not been as frequent in Hama province as it has in Idlib province - yet another trend to watch in the coming days.

James Miller takes over today's coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas and team for taking us to the afternoon.

1223 GMT: Egypt. Ahram Online assesses the new 35-minister Cabinet named on Thursday, focusing on "controversial figures": Muslim Brotherhood member Salah Abdel-Maqsoud as Minister of Information and Ahmed Mekki as Minister of Justice.

1219 GMT: Syria. Today's demonstration in Kafarsita in Hama Province:

Maree in Aleppo Province:

1203 GMT: Syria. Shells have been falling fairly regularly in the al Tadamon district of Damascus (map). Various Twitter reports describe the shelling as extremely heavy, and the Local Coordinating Committees report that at least 6 have been killed and 40 injured so far today, all from falling shells and mortars.

The Tadamon district is between the capital and the Yarmouk Palestinian camps that were so heavily shelled yesterday. It's also worth noting that while the more prestigious Midan district is basically under the control of regime forces, the Free Syrian Army has not been dislodged completely from these neighborhoods, and on several occasions raids into the Tadamon/Yarmouk areas have met fairly significant resistance from the FSA.

After yesterday's strikingly high death toll in and around the capital, things don't look significantly better for the residents of Damascus and its suburbs today.

1152 GMT: Syria. The Free Syrian Army has condemned Tuesday's executions of members of the pro-Assad Berri clan in Aleppo.

"We strongly condemn this kind of irresponsible behavior and call on all revolutionary forces and the fighters on the ground to condemn such acts," the FSA's joint command said in a joint statement. It insisted the killings were "unacceptable, isolated and illegal":

These reprehensible acts do not conform with the ethics of the FSA or the Syrian revolution. We respect international laws and conventions, notably the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners.

Earlier in the week, the head of the FSA's military council and a spokesman for the Unification Brigade in Aleppo had justified the executions, saying the Berri clan had broken a truce and killed insurgents.

1138 GMT: Syria. Local activist Mahmoud Nasar has spoken to The Guardian about the regime shelling of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, killing at least 20 people:

This is the worst accident I’ve seen since the start of this revolution. It was a bloody day. There was blood in the street mixing with the water. Women and children were running on the street afraid.

Nasar denied that the Free Syrian Army had attacked the camp, which hosts Palestinian refugees, or that insurgents were in the area.

1102 GMT: Syria. Austin Tice of McClatchy posts interviews with insurgents who attacked Damascus last month:

Rebel fighters who planned and participated in intense fighting in the Syrian capital two weeks ago say they never intended to capture and hold portions of the city. They view the skirmishing, widely seen as a victory for the government, as just the opposite.

“It was an excellent victory,” said Abu Abdullah, a commander in the unit that exercises rebel tactical control over the western half of Damascus. “We accomplished our objectives, gained experience, and had very low casualties. The Free Army is stronger as a result, and the regime is weaker.”

1048 GMT: Syria. A Turkish official said about 1,000 Syrians, including a defecting brigadier general, have fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours.

The official said there are now 45,500 Syrian refugees in Turkey.

1018 GMT: Syria. Kim Sengupta of The Independent writes from Aleppo about regime supporters fearing reprisals by insurgents:

Sitting in a room in his flat darkened by drawn curtains, Abdul Fawaz al-Jais flinched every time he heard shots. He almost jumped when there was loud and prolonged shouting outside. At the sound of a helicopter, however, he raised his head with a look of almost relief.

The reaction was hardly the normal one in "Free Aleppo", where residents have been subjected to attacks from the air from the Syrian regime while at the same time facing regular salvoes of tank and artillery fire on the ground./p>

But Mr al-Jais, unlike his neighbours, was not looking forward to the triumph of the revolution; 20 hours earlier his brother, Ahmed, and cousin, Jassem, had been dragged away and executed by the revolutionaries.

The family are part of the Al-Barre tribe whose militia had entered the fray pledging their loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad. Their first act was an attack on opposition positions near the airport in which 15 revolutionaries were killed, some, it is claimed, shot with their hands tied behind their backs.

The reaction was an assault in the Sher Osman neighbourhood where part of the clan are based, with about a dozen killed and 20 arrested.

1010 GMT: Sudan. At least eight Sudanese protesters killed were shot dead with "military-style ammunition", Amnesty International has said.

The eight died during a demonstration on Tuesday sparked by high prices in the South Darfur state capital Nyala.

"Medical staff at Nyala Public Hospital told Amnesty International that the wounds inflicted on the eight bodies admitted to their morgue were consistent with those caused by 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm automatic rifles," the human rights organisation asserted.

1000 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees claim the deaths of 67 people at the hands of security forces so far today, including 62 in the early-morning mass killing in the Arabeen neighbourhood in Hama.

0910 GMT: Iraq. At least 12 people have been killed in attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk.

Seven died in Baghdad's north-eastern district of Husseiniya when two bombs exploded simultaneously at an open-air market just minutes before sunset on Thursday.

In the city of Kirkuk, militants reportedly raided the home of a Turkoman family, cutting the throats of a father, mother, and two daughters.

July's death toll of 325 was the highest since August 2010.

0850 GMT: Syria. Scott Peterson, back from Aleppo, reports on the insurgents who --- despite the evidence of US covert efforts to aid their fight --- see Washington as a backer of the regime:

"We all believe the US and all Western countries want Assad to stay in power," says the coordinator for the Revolutionary Council in Aleppo, who gave his name as Abu Thaier.

"I believe that Syrian intelligence up to this moment is cooperating with the CIA," the wizened revolutionary told the Monitor. "The Westerners are afraid of the destiny of Israel; this is what stops them. Assad takes advantage of that, and says, 'These terrorists [rebels] will go to Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and we must crush them.'... Western countries gave up on the Syrian people because they believe most demonstrators are Islamists," he says.

0710 GMT: Bahrain. Ahlam AlKhuzaie, the head of women's affairs for the main opposition society Al Wefaq, was arrested last night at the airport on her way to a conference in Tunisia. The reason for the detention is unknown.

Al Wefaq responded, "We express our deep concern about the detention of Mrs.Ahlam AlKhuzaie and the decision to ban her from travel."

Ahlam's arrest comes a day after former AlWefaq MP Matar Matar testified before a US Congressional hearing considering human rights in Bahrain.

Six human rights organisations have written to French President François Hollande, following his meeting last with with the King of Bahrain. The letter expressed concern over the "quasi-secret character" of the meeting, noting that no official announcement was made of it and alleging that "journalists were also not aware" of it, continuing:

We wonder if the secrecy around this visit signals political embarrassment on your part — embarrassment that may be warranted given the continuing repression by Bahrain’s ruling family, whose security forces in the past received training and assistance from France. In this regard, the announcement, relayed by the Bahrain News Agency, according to which bilateral military cooperation will be consolidated, is of great concerns.

The signatory organisations call on your office to issue a statement clarifying France’s stance in the meeting with King Hamad, and to state clearly that France deplores Bahrain’s failure to date to implement the most important recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, namely to free those jailed solely for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, and to hold accountable senior officials implicated in torture and other serious human rights violations.

0659 GMT: Syria. Rania Abouzeid, who has been posting a series of hard-hitting articles from insurgent-held Saraqeb in Idlib Province, opens her latest piece, "The Cadence of War":

The three little girls crouched in their starting positions, each placing one leg in front of the other, ready to pounce on the count of three: “One, two, three!” their aunt said as the sisters, all under 10, raced some 20 meters to the top of their narrow lane, giggling, before turning around and sprinting back toward their aunt, seated outside their front door. It was a stiflingly warm night, near pitch black. The electricity was out and the family had moved outside, the pleasant breeze providing a little respite from the heat.

Two nights earlier, another family — the Breks — had done the same thing. They lived in another neighborhood in this town of some 40,000 in central Idlib province. The young children were playing outside. Their mother Sakina had just finished boiling tea and was bringing it outside when the rocket landed in their street. She was killed along with three other women from their family. Her young son, no more than eight or nine, was already dead when he reached the Hassan Hospital. His bright red t-shirt was stained a deeper shade by his blood. His baby sister Suheila, dressed in a blue t-shirt and white shorts, her pudgy toddler legs covered in patches of blood, no longer had a face. Her head was an indiscernible mashed up pink blob of flesh and blood.

The Brek family tragedy wasn’t lost on the aunt as she watched her young nieces playing, but faith and fatalism were like soothing balms. “They were sitting here just like us,” she said. “It’s frightening what we have gotten used to. Death will find us if it wants to, if God wills it, but we are changing, becoming harder as human beings.”

0650 GMT: Bahrain. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has expressed concern over the continued detention of juveniles, citing the recent arrests of 15-year-old Ahmed Hilal and 16-year-old Ali Al-Aradi.

0631 GMT: Syria and Turkey. On Thursday, we featured Ali Yenidunya's analysis, "Ankara Looks to Iraq's Barzani Amid the "Kurdish Spring". The Kurdish site Rudaw follows up with news backing Yenidunya's assessment, "Turkey will have 'no red lines' about a settlement, provided the plans dealt with the position of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)":

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Kurdish president Massoud Barzani during a meeting yesterday evening that his government does not oppose Kurdish unity and rights in Syria but warned about the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria....

Davutoglu who met with Barzani in Kurdistan’s capital city, Erbil, said the Democratic Union Party [PYD], a Syrian Kurdish party, is exploiting the weakening and expected collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its goals.

Iraq's central government was not impressed. The Foreign Ministry said Davutoglu's visit to Kirkuk was "not appropriate" and an "interference in the internal affairs of Iraq", warning Turkey would "bear the consequences".

0625 GMT: Bahrain. News flared last night in the Kingdom, with police making mass arrests in Bilad Qadeem --- a photo from EPA:

Said Yousif of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights posts a picture of a protester wounded in the back by birdshot.

Activist Zainab Alkhawaja --- detained this spring, then wounded seriously in the leg by police fire --- staged a personal demonstration at a roundabout.

0515 GMT: Syria. The headlines in the world's press this morning will be of the resignation of United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan after six months of efforts for a political resolution. Annan's mandate was not due to expire until 31 August but he said that he was leaving now amid difficulties such as "finger-pointing and name-calling" in the UN Security Council.

Our argument, however --- put forward in an audio feature to be posted this morning --- is that Annan's decision is no more than a sideshow. His high-profile six-point plan for a transition and end to violence, set out in April, never had a hope of succeeding. The UN quarrelling was only a secondary reason; instead, the initial barrier --- never lowered --- was the refusal of the Assad regime to pull back forces and cease attacks in Syrian cities.

Meanwhile, Thursday's real headline story was the continuing mass killings. The day started with news of two assaults in Damascus suburbs, Jdeidat Artouz and Yalda, which activists said killed at least 85 people; it ended with claims of more than 50 deaths in the Arbaeen neighbourhood of Hama. The Local Coordination Committees asserted, "Rocket launchers were erected near the roundabout, snipers were deployed atop the surrounding buildings, and...the international road Aleppo-Hama [was] sealed off by tanks."

And medical sources say at least 20 people were killed and 65 wounded on Thursday when Syrian security forces fired three mortar rounds at the Yarmouk camp, home to Palestinian refugees, in Damascus.

Witnesses said the mortars hit a busy street as people were preparing an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast.

"I saw it all, I was going to my house when the first round hit the street, people ran to check the damage when the second one hit the same area," a resident said. "Many people were killed immediately."

Yarmouk camp is home to more than 100,000 people.

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