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Thursday
Aug302012

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Assad Says, "The Situation on the Ground is Better"


See Also Wednesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Disputing a Car Bomb in Damascus

2134 GMT: Syria. US journalist Austin Tice is still missing in Syria, and his news agency, McClatchy, has released a statement that it is now believed that Tice is in the custody of the Assad regime:

Statements in recent days by Czech diplomats, information from Syrian rebel supporters and reports from people inside Syria indicate that the 31-year-old Houston native, who contributed to McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and CBS News, was detained by Syrian government forces near the Damascus suburb of Daraya, his last known location.

The U.S. State Department says the Syrian government has not responded to inquiries about Tice that were made through official channels and that U.S. diplomats were “working through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get more information on his welfare and whereabouts.” A Syrian official in the United States declined to comment Thursday...

On Monday, the Czech ambassador to Syria, Eva Filipi, told a Czech television interviewer in Prague that “sources” had informed her mission that Tice was in detention, though further information had been hard to come by because of an Islamic holiday at the time. The Czechs, who oversee U.S. interests in Damascus because the U.S. closed its embassy there in February, sent a formal diplomatic note about Tice to Syrian counterparts, she said.

“Our sources report that he is alive and that he was detained by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels were fighting government troops,” Filipi said in response to a question about Tice. “Our additional steps were halted by the fact that the report came at the beginning of the final holidays of Ramadan and therefore we had a week off in Syria and some our contacts were not in Damascus.”

Reporters Without Borders has called for the immediate release of Austin Tice.

2018 GMT: Syria. Two additional (and unverified) videos from Abu ad Duhur, where the Free Syrian Army has reportedly shot down a fighter jet. The first video shows a machine gun that was used in the attack against the base. As a plane flies overhead, several guns, including this one, can be heard opening fire. It's not known what brought down the plane, however.

This video reportedly shows the wreckage. Comparing it to the other videos, you get more of a sense that the landscape is generally similar between the videos:

2002 GMT: Syria. The hodge-podge of weapons used by the Free Syrian Army has been noted. Often, the FSA uses handmade weapons, a tribute to their skills and also their lack of supplies. But this is a unique claim:

1859 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 94 people have been killed by regime forces so far today:

26 martyrs were reported in Idlib; including 9 women and 8 children, 26 in Damascus and its Suburbs; including 5 unidentified martyrs, 17 in Daraa; including a child, 11 in Homs; including three martyrs who were confirmed today and 3 who were martyred in Damascus Suburbs, 3 in Hama, 7 in Aleppo, 3 in Deir Ezzor; including a woman, and 1 in Tartous.

See our note on the LCC's casualty figures.

1831 GMT: Syria. Danny al-Baaj, a former Syrian diplomat working with the UN mission in Geneva, says that he has been working with the opposition for a long time while still claiming to be working for the Assad regime. Furthermore, like many defectors, he says that there are many diplomats, regime officials, and military officers who are in the same boat:

Al-Baaj told reporters that he remained in his role as long as he could since he had decided he could be more useful to the opposition by doing so.

“(There are) a lot of other Syrian diplomats, a lot of other Syrians, even officers in the army, who feel that they can help from the inside,” he said.

1809 GMT: Yemen. Four people, claimed to be suspected Islamic militants, were killed earlier today in a US drone stike in the Hadramout province in eastern Yemen. Reuters cites residents who say that the car carrying the citizens "was struck by one of three missiles fired from a plane".

Later, in the capital Sanaa, a Yemeni intelligence officer was shot dead by an assailant firing from a motorbike.

1745 GMT: Syria. Despite concerns about refugees in Turkey and Jordan, and statements from France's President suggesting that a no-fly zone should be established and a transitional government recognized, the international community still appears reluctant to start talking about military intervention in Syria, as UK's Foreign Secretary illustrated today:

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned on Thursday that it would be hard to convince the UN Security Council to approve the idea of humanitarian safe zones for Syrian refugees.

Ahead of a meeting of the Council, Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius played down expectations. "We are excluding no options for the future," Hague said, adding there are "considerable difficulties with such an idea".

1656 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 67 people have been killed so far today by the Assad regime (see our note on the LCC):

23 martyrs were reported in Idlib, including 9 women and 8 children; 14 in Damascus and its Suburbs, including 5 unidentified; 11 in Homs, including 3 whose death was made sure of today and 3 martyred in Damascus Suburbs; 8 in Daraa, including a child; 3 in Hama; 4 in Aleppo; 3 in Deir Ezzor, including a woman, and 1 in Tartous.

The numbers reflect a shift from earlier in the week. For more than a week, the fighting in Damascus has been raging. Today, that violence seems to have receded, at least for the moment, potentially because the regime is focused on fighting in Idlib, where Assad's air force has been conducting reprisal attacks on many towns.

According to the LCC, a massacre has taken place in Abu ad Duhur (map), an apparent reprisal for the insurgent attack on the nearby air base that knocked a Syrian fighter jet out of the sky (see earlier updates below). Buildings have reportedly collapsed, the reported result of bombing raids.

1432 GMT: Syria. A BBC report on who controls parts of Syria:

While we agree with the report, it's missing a few key facts. First of all, there is no mention at all of Deir Ez Zor or the Hassakeh governorate in the north and east, areas that have fallen into insurgent hands but areas that have pockets of resistance. In fact, almost no media attention has been paid to Deir Ez Zor, though I believe that it is perhaps the key to understanding how quickly things have changed in Syria. Just days before the initial fighting in Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor was largely peaceful, but in a sudden collapse the regime has lost much of the province and is now fighting in desperate and ugly combat in many areas. Because of the fighting in Aleppo, Damascus, and now Daraa, the regime is struggling to keep supplies and troops in Deir Ez Zor - a far-flung province with either opposition-held territory or desert between it and the regime strongholds in the west.

Furthermore, the Lattakia province is not the regime stronghold that many have considered it. The Lattakia mountains are barely on our radar screen, because it is so remote and so hard to pull reliable data from. So when Al Jazeera's Sue Turton reported from there (see update 1105) she dropped a bomb shell that we did not know. According to Turton, reporting from Salma (map), the town of Al Haffah was recently under full FSA control for 9 days. Al Haffah is less than 15 miles from Lattakia (map). In other words, even in the heart of the Assad stronghold, the insurgents are eating away. While a Free Syrian Army victory in Lattakia is not likely, if the fighting is occurring there, and the military has to divert resources to win there, then the military will have less resources to fight in places where it has major disadvantages (Idlib province, Homs, and Deir Ez Zor), and fewer resources to fight where it is deadlocked in stalemate (Aleppo, Hama, Daraa).

1356 GMT: Bahrain. EA's John Horne reports:

The Prime Minister yesterday hailed the US Fifth Fleet as a "vital force" whose presence "dynamises bilateral co-operation", according to the front page story in the pro-regime newspaper Gulf News Daily. The comments were made in a meeting with Fifth Fleet Commander Rear Admiral John Miller and US Ambassador Thomas Krajeski. They suggest an attempt by the Prime Minister to deflect growing US pressure on the regime to reform, whilst also perhaps exploiting divisions over US policy towards Bahrain between State and Pentagon.

Krajeski also met with Minister of State for Information Sameera Rajab,. Sameera has been leading the efforts to publicly justify the regime's sentencing of Nabeel Rajab (her cousin) to three years for protesting, a sentence which the State Department has raised concerns over, calling for it to be "vacated" on appeal.

1336 GMT: Syria. The director of the regime's Tishrin military hospital in Damascus has stated that over 8,000 regime personnel have been killed since the conflict started last year.

"Every day, we receive an average of 15 to 20 bodies of soldiers and members of security forces, with the numbers increasing since the beginning of the year," he told an AFP reporter.

Tishrin received 47 bodies on Wednesday, but in late July—when fighting raged in the capital as the rebels tried to seize control—"we received more than 100 people daily for three days," the doctor said.

What's shocking about the number is that the opposition is only claiming that 2342 insurgents have been killed so far (according to the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria. Does this really mean that the insurgents are killing the regime forces at a rate of nearly 4 to 1?

1305 GMT: Syria. Now, a video that claims to show the body of the pilot of a jet shot down in Idlib (see below), and claimed footage of the wreckage:

1249 GMT: Syria. The Syrian fighter jet that was reportedly shot down was destroyed near the Abu Al-Thuhour Military Airport in Idlib province (map). However, this is part of a wider insurgent campaign that is now starting to resemble a major offensive. Yesterday, insurgents attacked a major military base just north-east of here, destroying 10 helicopters and perhaps several armored vehicles, a major blow that could mean between 7-15% of Assad's attack helicopters have been destroyed in the last week (see a map of the base, and EA's coverage of events yesterday). There were unconfirmed reports of insurgent attacks on other bases in the area. Today, a prominent activist posts this video, reportedly showing the attack on the Abu Al-Thuhour Military Airport last night.

The insurgents are on the advance in Idlib province.

1237 GMT: Afghanistan. A US drone strike has killed an insurgent leader who is also son of the founder of the Haqqani network, according to PAkistani officials:

Badruddin Haqqani, who has been described as the organization's day-to-day operations commander, was killed on Aug. 24 in one of three strikes that hit militant hideouts in the Shawal Valley in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, said two senior intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The presence of the mostly Afghan Haqqani network in North Waziristan has been a major source of friction between Pakistan and the U.S. The Obama administration has repeatedly demanded Pakistan prevent the group from using its territory to launch attacks in Afghanistan, but Islamabad has refused – a stance many analysts believe is driven by the country's strong historical ties to the Haqqani network's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

1226 GMT: Syria. The fighting continues in Aleppo, particularly in the Saleh el Dine district, the area that the regime was supposed to have "liberated" weeks ago. But the fighting in Aleppo, Syria's largest and wealthiest city, it's "New York," has entered its second month, and the regime has almost no control over the majority of the districts.

The Telegraph's Michael Weiss points out the common misunderstanding of the situation there:

Several new videos give insight into how the fighting is shaping up. In the first, the cameraman claims that these fighters are making IEDs in the Saleh el Dine district:

This video shows FSA fighters moving through holes in the wall of a building yesterday. The regime forces blew most of these holes in the walls when their initial tank offensive on the Saleh el Dine district was beaten back with heavy losses. Since then, however, the FSA has been using them, and the holes have reportedly given them a strategic edge over the regular army:

A video claiming to show FSA fighters attacking regime troops last night in the Saleh el Dine district:

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

1212 GMT: Bahrain. The pro-regime Gulf Daily News is blunt in its portrayal of the killing of 16-year-old Hussam AlHaddad on 17 August by security forces: "Self-Defence!":

The website draws on the Public Prosecution's statement to claim "the agony of a policeman...forced to open fire in self-defence after a group of 25-30 rioters ignored warning shots and continued throwing flaming firebombs directly at him at very close range".

The statement of Nawaf Abdulla Hamza at a press conference appeared to clear the policeman, whom he said had initially been charged with murder pending further inquiries.

Curiously, Hamza said that examination of AlHaddad's body showed bird shot pellets were found on his chest, back and right hand and blood on his mouth but "we have found no injuries caused by physical harm in the deceased".

Hamza claimed forensics teams found traces of petrol under the AlHaddad's fingertips, which were a positive match with a crate of Molotov cocktails at the scene.

See also Bahrain Interview: The Life and Death of 16-Year-Old Hussam AlHaddad

1107 GMT: Syria. Footage of the burning wreakage of the regime jet fighter which insurgents claim they shot down in Idlib Province this morning:

1105 GMT: Syria. Al Jazeera English's Sue Turton reports from Salma in western Syria on young men taking up arms against the regime:

1100 GMT: Syria. While denying he walked out on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's speech at the Non-Aligned Movement's summit (see 0750 GMT) --- he said he had just gone to meet a journalist --- Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem denounced the "interference in our internal affairs".

1053 GMT: Syria. There were indications this summer that Western countries were promoting defected General Manaf Tlass as the leader of a transitional government. The former close associate of President Assad is given a platform this morning in an interview with David Ignatius of the Washington Post, "A Syrian Defector's Mission":

“My main work is to convince the Alawites that they do not have to commit suicide along with the regime,”,..

Tlass said that before there can be a political transition, there must first be a channel of trust between the opposition Free Syrian Army and reconcilable members of the military who are ready to break with Assad as Tlass did. Without such links, he said, Assad’s overthrow would plunge the country into a period of anarchic violence, and Syria’s chemical weapons would be up for grabs.

“Today, many Alawites are not happy with what’s happening on the ground, but where is the safe zone for them?” he said. “Alawites need to know that there’s a strong side that will guarantee their safety if they defect.”

Though Tlass is a Sunni Muslim, he commanded a unit of the Special Republican Guard, which is about 80 percent Alawite, the ethnic minority from which Assad and his inner circle are drawn.

Tlass, 49, spoke movingly about his break from Assad, who, he said, has so bloodied his name that he will never be able to rule Syria effectively again. It began in the spring of 2011, when protests were spreading and Tlass offered to meet with demonstrators. He told Assad about an April meeting in Darayya with young rebels, whose fathers were silent but obviously proud. “This is the revolution of the fathers through their children,” Tlass warned, noting that such a conflict would be impossible to win by force.

1044 GMT: Syria. Insurgents remove the barriers to al-Atareb in Aleppo Province, now held by the opposition:

1040 GMT: Syria. A building burns in the Damascus suburb of Sayf al-Dawla, Aleppo, amid regime shelling:

1032 GMT: Syria. Human Rights Watch has accused regime forces of dropping bombs and firing artillery at or near at least 10 bakeries in Aleppo Province over the past three weeks, killing and maiming scores of civilians who were waiting for bread.

HRW suggested that the "recklessly indiscriminate" may have deliberately targeted civilians.

One attack in the city of Aleppo on 16 August killed up to 60 people and wounded more than 70. Another attack in the city on 21 August killed at least 23 people and wounded 30.

HRW researchers visited six of the sites and interviewed witnesses for the report.

1022 GMT: Syria. The new UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, hopes to visit Damascus within the next three weeks, accoridng to his spokesperson.

Ahmad Fawzi said Brahimi, who officially takes up his role on 1 September, will have a handover meeting with outgoing mediator Kofi Annan in New York next week.

Brahimi has been in New York for the past week for talks with UN leaders and senior diplomats from member nations. He plans to go to Cairo "soon" for talks with Arab League officials, Fawzi said.

1020 GMT: Syria. Back from a break to find reports that insurgents have shot down a regime jet fighter near the town of al-Thayabiya in Idlib Province. close to the Turkish border --- an image of the burning wreckage plane:

Video of the ejected pilot parachuting to earth after the plane is struck:

0750 GMT: Syria. In Iran Live Coverage, we have been noting Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's hard-line speech about Syrian "bloodshed", with support for the opposition, at the Non-Aligned Summit in Tehran. A possible explanation:

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi agrees that there can be no political solution for Syria unless President Bashar al-Assad leaves power, the French presidency said Wednesday.

In a statement issued following a telephone conversation between Morsi and French President Francois Hollande, the Elysee said: "The two heads of state mainly raised the situation in Syria and observed that no political solution is possible without the departure of Bashar al-Assad."

During the call, Hollande reiterated "his commitment to provide effective support for the Syrian opposition, including on the ground."

He also said he "hoped that, at the appropriate moment, it [the opposition] can form a provisional, inclusive and representative government, so that the new Syria can have legitimate authorities."

Morsi had made similar comments to Reuters in a Monday interview:

0718 GMT: Syria. Martin Chulov of the Guardian posts a lengthy report from Aleppo which is in stark contrast to President Assad's optimism:

With all of Syria's cities now under siege, its capital Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo engulfed in violence, Syria seems well past that proverbial point [of no return]. Defections have whittled down the strength and numbers of the country's vaunted military and destruction and misery is seriously testing the resolve of both regime supporters and those who want Bashar al-Assad gone.

The country's economy has been under the anaconda-like grip of international sanctions, which have ground industry to a halt, crippled trade supply lines, battered the currency and shattered confidence. In the hard-hit north, little works any more. War has seen Syrian society, already stuck --- seemingly permanently in 1973 --- wound back even further. There are more donkey carts than cars on the streets of some towns between Aleppo and the Turkish border. Clapped-out tractors belch fumes from precious fuel that is sold in two-litre bottles on rubbish-strewn roadsides for around $8 (£5).

0530 GMT: Syria. We open by noting last night's broadcast on Addounia TV of an interview with President Assad earlier this week. Well, not as much an interview as a series of set-up questions such as "There are rumours that you are not really in Syria. Can you tell us where you are right now?" (Assad, smiling, "I am speaking to you now from the Presidential Palace.")

The take-away line of the presentation was the President's combined assurance/injunction: "We are progressing, the situation on the ground is better but we have not yet won. This will take more time."

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the "better" situation included a dramatic attack on a regime airbase in northern Syria that destroyed about 10 helicopters and protests in the Damascus suburbs that have been shelled and invaded, often with deadly effect, by the Syrian military for days.

The Local Coordination Committees reported that 136 people had been killed by security forces, including 66 in Damascus and its suburbs. They declared Zamalka "a disaster-stricken city" after three days of shelling and a ground assault that had slain at least 50 and wounded hundreds.

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