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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Insurgents Hold Out in Aleppo

A demonstration last night in Nile Street in Aleppo in Syria

1944 GMT: Syria. Yesterday we posted reports that Kafranbel, a town in Idlib made famous for its witty protest signs made in English, was under heavy attack by regime forces (map). At the end of the day, there was little news beyond the report that many shells had fallen and many civilians were injured.

Previous regime incursions into Idlib have ended very poorly, with many destroyed tanks, killed soldiers, and even with large amounts of defectors and armored vehicles falling into the hands of the Free Syrian Army. From the looks of this fight, it appeared different, as if the military were focusing on shelling the city from afar, and were committing far more forces to the fight than before.

However, history repeats itself. News broke today that the FSA had inflicted heavy losses yesterday. One video claimed to show that the FSA had destroyed an armored vehicle and a hospital that had been occupied by the military. Those victories were only the tip of the iceberg. Many videos are emerging, each matching a series of separate activist reports, that show a large amount of destroyed military equipment after heavy battles today:

However, the battle was not one sided, and the town was also continuously shelled and bombed throughout the day:

1911 GMT: Syria. A defected general speaks to Al Jazeera, and he puts the conflict in Aleppo is perspective:

1844 GMT: Syria. According to the activist network LCC, 93 people have been killed so far today by Assad forces:

33 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 22 in Aleppo; 21 in Idlib; 5 in Deir Ezzor; 5 in Daraa' 3 in Hama; 2 in Homs; and 1 in Amouda who was martyred in the Damascus Suburbs.

First, a note about the LCC's data. The LCC reports to use intense verification methods to ensure that they have the names and circumstances of the deceased, and these methods have, in the past, been witnessed in action by Western reporters. However, the LCC's data is a mix of civilians and insurgents, and rarely breaks down the two in these totals. Also, these numbers do not include Assad military losses, as activists cannot confirm those numbers. The regime has also long since stopped reporting its own casualty figures.

1825 GMT: Lebanon/Syria. Earlier, there was quite the buzz when longtime ally of the Assad regime, former Lebanese member of parliament and cabinet minister Michel Samaha was arrested by authorities:

The Daily Star says 64-year-old Samaha was arrested in his pyjamas when security forces arrived at his home in Metn at 2am. A second home in Beirut was also raided.

Lebanese media are suggesting the arrest may be linked to an alleged plot to assassinate Khaled al-Daher, a member of parliament.

Now, it appears that Bashar al Assad himself is applying pressure to the Lebanese government to release Samaha.

1608 GMT: Syria. The Guardian posts a news conference by Assad's chief of protocol, confirming that he has not defected:

The video below appears to show Muhi al-Din Maslamani, President Assad's chief of protocol, denying the FSA's claim earlier today that he had defected.

However, he does say in the video that he was in Beirut receiving medical treatment when the reports surfaced, and that he cut short his treatment and hurried back to Damascus.

1549 GMT: Syria. As of 5 PM local time (less than 2 hours ago) we have videos where the Free Syrian Army strongly refutes reports that they have left Saleh el Dine:

Another video shows FSA fighters reportedly operating in northern Saleh el Dine a few hours before nightfall:

So the FSA has definitely withdrawn from much of the district, but not all of it, and it has withdrawn on its own terms, not the regime's.

1525 GMT: Syria. A source with contacts within the FSA maintains that there are Free Syrian Army units still in Saleh el Dine (map). This matches other reports we've seen:

Clearly, however, most of the units have repositioned.

Also, earlier reports that the FSA had withdrawn from Bustan al Qasr (map) appear to be false. This makes sense, as it is a central area, one not directly threatened by regime troops (yet), and one that has been important to the FSA siege of the city's citadel, a massive fortress where Assad forces have been nearly surrounded for over a week (map).

But Saleh el Dine is just a part of the city of Aleppo. Other parts in the center and east of the city have been heavily bombarded today, but are not directly threatened by regime soldiers. As of now, it is likely that 50-70% of the city remains in at least tentative FSA control.

1509 GMT: Syria. This is the scene in Al Asali, Damascus today (map) ,where shells have been periodically falling all day:

The northern city of Yabroud (map) was also heavily shelled today, according to the LCC.

1444 GMT: Syria. Away from Aleppo, Syria is still under siege. Today, the Syrian military unleashed an intense shelling campaign on Al Tal, north of Damascus (map). Remarkably, and with little fanfare, the town has largely been under the control of the Free Syrian Army after a series of upset victories during the battle for Damascus several weeks ago. Today, the shelling started at dawn, and at least 5 civilians have reportedly been killed. This video, one of several we've seen, shows smoke rising above the city:

1425 GMT: Syria. A brief look at the damage in the Saleh el Dine district of Aleppo (map) before the Free Syrian Army withdrew most of its troops:

1330 GMT: Syria. The take-away is that, according to members of the FSA, the regime is destroying buildings and moving through holes in the walls in order to advance in Saleh el Dine. James Foley, from Global Post News, confirms that ground troops have started to move into the district:

Martin Chulov reports that many buildings in the district have been destroyed, so much so that there are not enough buildings for the Free Syrian Army to station troops in, leading to the withdrawal:

As we noted yesterday, Saleh el Dine is a forward position for the Free Syrian Army, one that is surrounded on 2 sides by major military bases (map). Instead of capitalizing on that advantage, the regime is destroying the district, one of the central areas on Aleppo, building by building.

The question remains whether the military will try the same tactic on the rest of the city. 50-70% of the city remains in some sort of FSA control.

1320 GMT: Syria. The Guardian interviews a member to the Fattah brigade in Aleppo as they pulled out to bury their dead in Tal Rifaat:

The Syrian army started to shoot the walls [of buildings] to get through and advance in Salahedin rather than fight face to face in the streets. The Syrian army was coming forward in Salahaddine by blowing up buildings and taking them as bases.

The Syrian army have deployed snipers on the top of buildings. We were completely surprised to find such a large number of snipers deployed in the morning, and they cost us a lot of martyrs.

We have confiscated a lot of weapons out of the battle we had lately in Andan. We are using them in Aleppo. The most powerful weapons we have are RPGs.

The FSA have pulled out of Street 15 in Salahedin today. We have retreated towards the park near Saad mosque. As soon as we left to take the martyrs to Tel Rifaat another brigade came to take our place. They belong to the Tawheed brigade.

Soon, whether the Syrian opposition or the Syrian army controls Saleh el Dine may be a moot point - there won't be much left to control.

1204 GMT: Syria. Some small examples of the least-deadly hardships facing the people of Aleppo:

In Syria's largest city there is a growing sense of discontent. It's not that the people of Aleppo didn't support the uprising, many did, but few of them felt the urgent need for change that was so palpable in Syria's less fortunate cities. Instead, many in Aleppo, and most Syrians across the country, are now in a situation where the regime cannot retake positions from the insurgents, the insurgents are making painstakingly slow progress at gaining new territory, the shells and bombs keep falling, utilities are cut, food prices are exploding, there is no diesel or gasoline, and everyday life, to say nothing of everyday death, is really taking its toll on the Syrian people.

1135 GMT: Syria. The amount of Syrian refugees in Turkey has topped 50,000 after a sudden surge in the last two days, Reuters reports:

There were 50,227 Syrians in Turkey as of Thursday, after 2,219 people crossed the border on Aug 8-9, the state-run Disaster and Emergency Administration said in a statement.

The refugees are housed at nine camps in four Turkish provinces along the Syrian border.

1115 GMT: Syria. Meanwhile, President Bashar al Assad has appointed a new Prime Minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, a Baath party member from Daraa.

The 48-year-old held the post of secretary general of the Daraa branch of the Baath party from 2000-2004. He was appointed head of the doctors' syndicate in 2010.

1059 GMT: Syria. The newest reports from The Guardian, who has a reporter on the ground in Aleppo, Martin Chulov, suggest that overnight the Free Syrian Army staged a tactical withdrawal from two fronts in Saleh el Dine, the embattled district of Aleppo where the FSA won an improbable and one-sided victory yesterday (map). This sounds like a reversal in fortune, but the key sentence is that the Syrian ground troops have not moved into the district (making just about every mainstream headline about this completely misleading). The decision to reposition was made last night after hours of intense shelling and gunfire, not after the FSA was dislodged by ground troops. Furthermore, it looks like the FSA has some presence in Saleh el Dine, according to the AFP:

"The FSA has withdrawn from two streets where there has been fighting in recent days," said Hossam Abu Mohammed, commander of the Dara al-Shahbaa Brigade. "The fighters are withdrawing to [nearby] Sukari district, where they are preparing a counter attack against the army."

"A large number of civilians were killed, as were some 40 rebels," said Abu Mohammed. "Forty buildings have been flattened."

Another FSA commander in Salaheddin confirmed that the rebels are staging a tactical withdrawal.

"We will open new fronts in Saif al-Dawla and Mashhad districts," to the east of Salahedin, said the FSA's Wassel Ayub.

Some reporters' tweets suggest that the pullback was more than partial. However, the same confusion happened yesterday, so we'll have to wait and see.

James Foley also reports that the FSA has withdrawn from Bustan al Qasr (map). But the FSA also reportedly prepared for a counterattack by moving fighters into the Sukkari, Said al Dawla, and Mashad districts. Said al Dawla is directly east of Saleh el Dine (map), perhaps more sheltered from artillery, and with fresh buildings from which to fight in. Al Sukkari (map) is much further southeast, and poses a second front for Assad's military, as it flanks a major military base that has been instrumental in this assault on the city (map).

Yesterday, the Assad regime may have proven that it cannot militarily confront the FSA in the narrow streets of Aleppo. We always expected a second assault, however. But it appears, thus far, that they are treating their richest city, their largest city, and one of the oldest cities in the world, the way they treated Baba Amr in Homs - they may level every building before advancing troops to capture what's left.

But we'll have to wait and see.

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

0917 GMT: Bahrain. The Information Affairs Authority has responded to this month's report of the Physicians for Human Rights, "Weaponising Tear Gas":

The Government of Bahrain denies and condemns the use of lethal force or unlawful means in controlling demonstrations in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Any means that have been exercised by security forces adhere to international standards of riot control. Suggestions that the use of tear gas in Bahrain is severely injurious or even lethal is simply not backed up by any research or proof.

Physicians for Human Rights had found, after more than 100 interviews, "The Bahrain government’s indiscriminate use of tear gas as a weapon has resulted in the maiming, blinding, and even killing of civilian protester."

The IAA said, "A more detailed study will be taken before making further comments."

0907 GMT: Syria. Martin Chulov of The Guardian reports:

Al Aan's Jenan Moussa is blunt:

Moussa wrote 45 minutes ago, "We are trying to get out of #aleppo. Very difficult. Planes in sky."

0904 GMT: Syria. The Free Syrian Army is claiming that the chief of protocol at the Presidential palace has defected.

The insurgency said Muhi al-Din Maslamani is in a safe place in Syria.

0856 GMT: Turkey. Kurdish insurgents have reportedly attacked a Turkish military bus on its way to a naval base in the western province of Izmir, wounding several troops.

Some reports said one soldier was killed. Dogan news agency said Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels had detonated explosives on the road before opening fire on the bus near Foca, a small resort town on the Aegean coast.

0853 GMT: Syria. CNN's Ben Wedeman speaks with fleeing residents and insurgents in Aleppo:

0846 GMT: Syria. Insurgents have described the deception and disinformation around the defection of Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, ensuring he was able to leave the country.

The sources said Hijab hid in safe houses in Syrian border towns after he fled Sunday night, even as the opposition said he was in Jordan. The Prime Minister finally reached Jordanian territory on Tuesday.

“Because of the announcement of the defection, the shelling decreased, and so did the Syrians’ alertness,” spokesman Mohammad Otari said. “The most important thing is that the prime minister, the head of government, has defected, regardless of when he reached Jordanian land.”

0839 GMT: Syria. Hadeel Al Shalchi of Reuters posts a first-hand account of a regime warplane's raid on Tel Rifaat:

The jet make at least a dozen rounds of the village of a few thousand people, 35km (20 miles) north of Aleppo city, firing missiles and mounted machine guns.

Villagers panicked --- some tried to escape on motorbikes while other crammed belongings and bread into three-wheeled vans. They were unsure of where was safe to go.

Loud explosions rang out and black smoke billowed from an olive grove. A 12-wheeler truck was engulfed in flames.

Six children and a crying woman fled their tiny home. One woman held the Koran above her head, kissing it, and another banged her head in her hands.

Men came out of their homes to stare at the sky and throw their arms up in despair.

Abu Hassan, a rebel fighter from the Liwa al Fatah brigade, said the jets were targeting rebel bases in the area. "Four of our bases have been hit so far in and around Tel Rifaat," he said. Three rebels fighters fruitlessly fired an old anti-aircraft gun and a rifle at the speeding plane.

0746 GMT: Bahrain. Amnesty International has called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of 13 political prisoners, whose "final verdict" will be announced on 14 August.

The 13 men were sentenced by a military court last year, with seven receiving last terms. One of the defendants is Abdulhadi Akhawaja, the former President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who staged a hunger of more than 100 days earlier this year.

Eleven men, accused of the attempted murder of an officer of the Bahrain Defense Forces during protests last year, have had their sentences reduced. Four others have been cleared.

The 15 men were imprisoned for 15 years each. Five will now serve two years, and six will be released, having served sentences of between six and 12 months.

0729 GMT: Bahrain. In a strongly-worded statement, the opposition society Al Wefaq confirmed that it met with the Minister of Justice on Wednesday at his invitation, but denied that these were negotiations:

The meeting had nothing to deal with the dialogue nor with resolving the political crisis in Bahrain, as explicitly declared by the Minister in the meeting, nor was he w mandated to do so as he clarified . It is more to merely communicate and deliberate some affairs which related to the political societies.

Meanwhile we remain waiting for serious and meaningful meetings, not just simply PR exercises for the regime.

Former MP Ali Alaswad said the talks were “nothing more than a show”:

We have a responsibility to respond positively to any approaches from the Government, but it became very clear very quickly that this was no serious attempt at moving the country forward and out of the current crisis.

We will walk through any doors that are opened but cannot let any door close behind us. Our priority is to improve Bahrain, not to strengthen our hand or the Government.

Alaswad put forth a fundamental demand, "The people of Bahrain are looking for a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute monarchy, and any attempts to mislead the international community and co-opt the opposition will fail."

0720 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees claim 167 people were killed by security forces on Wednesday, including 44 in Aleppo Province and 30 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0550 GMT: Libya. The interim National Transitional Council has handed power to a newly-elected assembly in a late-night ceremony in Tripoli.

The transfer to Mohammed Ali Salim, the assembly's oldest member, took place late on Wednesday because it is Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. In Tripoli's Martyrs Square, hundreds of people held candles symbolising reconciliation.

The 200-member assembly will later appoint a government, which will rule until new elections after the drafting of a new Constitution.

0510 GMT: Syria. Wednesday was dominated by attention to the regime effort to drive the Free Syrian Army from the Salaheddin section of Aleppo. Most of the day was shrouded in uncertainty but by the evening there was confirmation that --- despite the insistence of State media that President Assad's military had triumphed --- the insurgents had counter-attacked and held their positions in the district.

Martin Chulov of The Guardian, reporting from the ground, summarised, "Government claims to have conquered the enemy stronghold were false, as were the rebels' later claims to have breached regime lines. Nothing seems to be going to script in this war," while James Miller offered this analysis:

Today's attack was led by tanks, despite the fact that this tactic has already failed the regime many times throughout the country....Assad appears to be facing a major defection crisis, and today's fighting likely proves that he believes he cannot trust his soldiers to retake Aleppo without quitting.

If this large-scale, two front, air-supported tank offensive has failed, it is very unlikely that it will work at a later date, at least not in Saleheddin. In fact, the opposite is likely true.

Chulov's headline "stalemate" captures the military situation, but it may not be adequate for the political battle --- if the Syrian military, despite its advantage in firewater, cannot reclaim the country's largest city and financial pinnacle, how long can the Assad regime convince supporters, let alone the opposition, that it still has authority?

Anita McNaught's report for Al Jazeera English earlier in the day:

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