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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Iran's Political Diversion

See also Bahrain 1st-Hand: A Protest Weekend in Sanabis
EA Special: Mitt Romney's "Deviant" Politics, a Slain Ambassador, and the Death of American Objectivity
Wednesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Grind of the Conflict

2011 GMT: Syria. While violence is still reported in Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ez Zor, it appears there has been a last-minute escalation west of Damascus. Artillery fire, coming from the Mezzeh military base, has reportedly targeted Moudamya. Four people have been killed there, and many wounded, as a result of the shelling.

This video reportedly shows fires burning in Mezzeh, the result of shelling. Obviously, because of the darkness, there is no way to verify the location:

1809 GMT: Syria. The LCC has raised today's death toll to 203:

55 martyrs were reported in Raqqa due to warplane shelling at Ain Easa and the number is expected to rise, 49 in Aleppo, 37 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 33 in Homs, 15 in Hama, 6 in Deir Ezzor, 5 in Idlib, and 3 in Daraa.

See our note about the death toll figures put forth by the LCC.

If the last report is to be believed, then this total is at least 15 short. Also, the level of violence in many areas of the country is still very high, indicating that the total number could rise much further.

There is a trend to how the LCC reports their numbers. Due to their verification process, and ongoing violence, it often takes hours for the most accurate numbers to come in. This means that the total number of deaths today could easily reach 250, or even 300, or even more, even without a last-minute escalation or an additional high-casualty event.

1754 GMT: Syria. The Guardian has spoken to a member of the Free Syrian Army who was present when Assad airstrikes hit a petrol station in Ein Issa (map), in Al Raqqag province, killing at least 70. Below is a partial transcript:

Today at 11.30 in the morning, the Syrian army started to bring reinforcements from Al-Riqa province to Tal Abyad town [close to the Turkish border]. Tal Abyad town was liberated two days ago by the FSA and its border crossing is under the control of the FSA.

Fighters of Ma'awiya Ben Abi Sufyan brigade were able to block the road in front of the reinforcements heading to Tal Abyad. Heavy clashes erupted with the Syrian army and five of them were killed. The convey of the reinforcements could not keep going and they pulled out.

Soon afterwards, a MiG-23 began to strike Ain Issa (which is partly liberated) and Tal Abyad town. A petrol station in Ain Issa was hit and a massive fire broke out. The petrol station had more than 40,000 litres [of fuel].

He says they have removed 70 burned bodies, and another 80 people have been injured. He also says he was shot by Assad forces in the battle nearby.

The LCC reports that protests have started in Ain Issa, and the town is now under attack as a result of the overall opposition to the Assad regime.

The takeaway - just a few days ago there were no reports of heavy fighting in Al Raqqah, and now a border crossing has fallen to the FSA and a town on the highway has shown enough resistance that the regime had to bring in MIGs to try to break the FSA. Al Raqqah has been off of the radar screen, but we may be seeing the opening of yet another significant front.

Or not. The bottom line is that the regime is fairly strong here. However, if this resistance lasts more than a few days, then trends tell us it may become another hotly contested area of this conflict.

1620 GMT: Syria. I've collected a series of videos claiming to show a battle in Aleppo on September 18th. Those videos are available here.

1608 GMT: Syria. The LCC now reports that 131 have been killed by regime forces so far today:

35 martyrs were reported in Aleppo, 29 in Homs, 20 in Raqqa due to warplane shelling at Ain Easa and the number is expected to rise, 21 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 13 in Hama, 6 in Deir Ezzor, 5 in Idlib, and 2 in Daraa.

See our note about the death toll figures put forth by the LCC.

That number is likely low, as reports of bombing campaigns in Aleppo are recently breaking, and the full count of those killed in the bombing of the petrol station in Al Raqqah may not be reflected in these numbers. Regardless, that's a high number in and of itself.

1516 GMT: Syria. This video reportedly shows an L-39 jet making bombing and strafing runs against the National Hospital in Aleppo (map). We cannot 100% confirm the location based on the video, but the landmarks in the video and the architecture of the hospital itself appear to generally match. The bombs have already fallen by the time the video starts, but we are hearing many reports that the standards practice is to drop the payload and then strafe, and just before the jet screams overhead a series of loud gunbursts can be clearly heard:

1505 GMT: Syria. Another report of a "barrel bomb" dropped by the regime airforce in Aleppo. The Guardian interviews a resident of Al Bab, where a bombing raid has reportedly killed for than a dozen civilians:

They committed a massacre by killing 13 civilians and wounding more than 32 people. Some of the bodies are still under the rubble, people are trying to get them out. A family in a single house were killed together – seven of them killed and two others wounded. They are from al-Mashhoud family.

The warplanes dropped a few barrels with TNT explosives. Many houses were levelled completely. There used to be more than 150,000 people living in the town but most of them fled to Turkey owing to the daily shelling by the Syrian army.

1500 GMT: Syria. The Associated Press is also noting the story about the petrol station bombing in al Raqqah province, and Guardian is noting that the petrol station is close to the border crossing where battles raged for several days:

AP says Ein Isa is about 25 miles from the Turkish border. It gives the death toll as at least 30 people, citing activists.

The attack comes after a battle for control of nearby border point at Tal Abyad. Turkish officials said the Free Syrian Army rebels took full control of the crossing yesterday after clashes with Syrian troops, but there was speculation that Kurdish activists were also involved in the battle.

And now this unconfirmed report from an activist:

1452 GMT: Iraq/Bahrain EA's John Horne reports:

Bahrain's national airline Gulf Air resumed flights to Iraq today. The airline, which has been struggling financially, announced in August that it would be resuming flights Iraq and Iran aftering stopping flights to those destinations in March 2011. Whilst the airline cited "operational regions", many linked the move to Bahrain's unrest given Iran and Iraq's predominately Shia population. In November, Gulf Air reinstated 136 workers it had sacked for their participation in pro-democracy protests.

The resumption of the service hasn't gone smoothly. Najaf provincial council in Iraq has anncounced it will be banning all future Gulf Air flights from landing at Najaf airport. In a statement, the council said:

The committee formed to oversee the airport decided to ban the Bahraini company Gulf Air from conducting flights to Najaf in solidarity with the Bahraini people who are subjected to repression by authorities there.

Mohammed al-Khuzaie, a spokesman for the council, added that the ban was to support "the oppressed people of Bahrain."

1438 GMT: Syria. A freelance reporter says he witnessed another reckless airstrike over Aleppo:

Two bloggers, Bjoernen_dk and Brown_Moses, who closely follow such stories had follow up question, as it seems the Syrian airforce is using homemade petrol/TNT "barrel bombs" to inflict massive amounts of damage on the populace without sacrificing some of the more expensive military-grade munitions:

Pelda also said the plane strafed the scene after releasing the bombs. In unrelated news, he found bodies nearby:

1430 GMT: Bahrain.. The King's son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, has proclaimed that Wednesday's report of the United Nations Human Rights Council is "a real victory and a historic achievement added to the kingdom's human rights record...thanks to the care and support of the wise leadership and the dedicated efforts of the Bahraini people".

Shaikh Nasser declared that Bahrain is taking major and unprecedented steps in protecting human rights and preserving achievements made in this field.

Many countries at yesterday's discussion of the Universal Periodic Review criticised the regime's failure to fulfil recommendations of last November's report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The US, Britain, and Austria led calls for the release of political prisoners and pursuit of meaningful reforms.

See Bahrain Feature: Today's United Nations Review of the Regime and Human Rights

Shaikh Nasser has denied the claims of detainees that he was involved in their abuse last year.

1426 GMT: Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British based group, reports that 54 people have been killed, and perhaps more than 50 have been injured, when a government air strike hit a petrol station in Al Raqqah. Several activists shared this video below which claims to show the scene.

1415 GMT: UAE. United Arab Emirates authorities have arrested 60 local members of the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing them of belonging to a clandestine group with a military wing that seeks to overthrow the regime .

Officials said defendants "confessed that they found a suitable opportunity in the Arab Spring to carry out their activities....The leaders of the military wing had to contact retired officers to prompt them to join the organization."

The Brotherhood is illegal in the UAE.

1308 GMT: Pakistan. News of the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" has reached Pakistan, where a crowd of protesters have gathered in Islamabad and things have just turned violent. BBC reports:

Live rounds have been heard and tear gas has been fired as police struggled to contain the crowd of about 1,000 people.

Multiple sources suggest that the army has been called to stop the bloodshed:

EA's John Horne is watching live footage on Sky news and says the scene is not too chaotic now. "Tear gassy but looks like its dampening - crowd is pretty calm..."

1255 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 82 people have already been killed today by Assad forces, a startlingly high death toll for this early hour:

28 martyrs were reported in Homs, 26 in Aleppo, 14 in Damascus and its suburbs, 5 in Deir Ezzor, 5 in Hama, 2 in Daraa and 2 in Idlib.

See our note about the death toll figures put forth by the LCC.

What's striking is that while the death toll has been consistently in the 140-220 range for two months, with frequent occasions where the numbers are even higher, the actual patterns of violence are far more random. For instance, at the end of the day yesterday the LCC had only confirmed 1 death in Homs, and today Homs is leading the way with 28 dead. What this means is that the violence is extremely widespread, and each areas death toll is largely independent from the rest. What this means is that it's entirely possible that multiple regions could spike at once, shooting the death toll even higher.

Also, if the Syrian Army has lost a helicopter in Damascus because insurgents shot it down, expect reprisal attacks to start immediately. In Douma, where the incident happened, we believe there are still significant numbers of insurgents. This could easily be the catalyst for escalation east of the capital, and if that happens be prepared for a very bloody few days.

1248 GMT: Syria. Syrian State TV has confirmed that a helicopter has crashed near Douma, Damascus, though it doesn't say that it was shot down. AP reports:

Syria's state-run TV says that a military helicopter that crashed near Damascus had clipped the tail of a passenger jet with 200 people aboard.

The TV says the jet landed safely at Damascus airport Thursday and that nobody was injured.

Snap analysis - if the opposition is claiming that a helicopter has been shot down, and the government is claiming that one crashed, then in all likelihood an Assad helicopter has likely been shot down in the skies over the eastern Damascus suburbs.

Also, the initial government reports are hedging their bets - the government is reluctant to show that the insurgents are powerful, but at the same time there is an urge to paint the picture as dyer, a fine line that the Assad government has been walking for months. The claim that the helicopter his a plane in the air (a plane which then safely landed) is also suspect. First of all, why would a commercial plane ever be flying directly below a military helicopter? Secondly, it's hard to imagine a helicopter could hit a plane in mid-air and have that plane safely land. It is possible, however, that the helicopter could hit a plane that was already on the ground, or perhaps even one that was taking off. It's also possible that this is in the report just to heighten the "emergency" factor if the media decides to go that route.

As per the significance, the Assad helicopter force has taken a severe punishment in recent weeks. The most crucial question, however, is what weapon brought the helicopter down. It's possible that heavy anti-aircraft machineguns could have done the job, but if the insurgents used more powerful surface-to-air missiles, MANPADS, then this development is far more significant.

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

1203 GMT: Syria. The United Nations envoy on children in conflict, Leila Zerrougui, has said that the UN is investigating both sides over attacks targeting children.

However, Zerrougui said that Russia, China, Pakistan and Azerbaijan have tried to restrict the enquiries, refusing to back a UN Security Council resolution condemning the use of child soldiers and the deaths of children in conflict.

Zerrougui said UN agencies had “documented government attacks on schools, children denied access to hospitals, girls and boys suffering and dying in bombardments of their neighbourhoods and also being subject to torture, including sexual violence".

1113 GMT: Syria. State news agency SANA is putting out the story that regime forces have killed more than 100 "Afghan terrorists" near a school in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo.

1101 GMT: Syria. Apologies for devoting space to what, at this point, is a propaganda effort by Western agencies, but it is getting wide circulation in the media after Reuters posted it as an "exclusive" last night:

Iran has been using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to Syria to aid President Bashar al-Assad in his attempt to crush an 18-month uprising against his government, according to a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters.

The report, provided by an unnamed United Nations source and coming from an unknown agencies, asserts:

This is part of a revised Iranian modus operandi that U.S. officials have only recently addressed publicly, following previous statements to the contrary.

It also flies in the face of declarations by Iraqi officials. Planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting against the rebels....

[Iran is] "continuing to assist the regime in Damascus by sending trucks overland via Iraq".

The issue is not the claims in the report --- US officials put out the "information", denied by Iraq, earlier this month through The New York Times, and Reuters admits the allegation in its "exclusive" is "not new". Instead, it is the presentation and recycling of the report as established reality, rather than as part of an "information" campaign waged by the unnamed agencies.

1100 GMT: Syria. Back from an academic break to find an activist supporting a story, circulating all morning, that insurgents have downed a regime helicopter near Douma, east of Damascus, following a night of bombardment by Syrian forces. He told Matthew Weaver of the Guardian:

This morning at 9.30am the Free Syrian Army manage to shoot down a helicopter. But until now there is no brigade that has claimed responsibility for this operation.

I can’t confirm that 100%. This is what I got to know from eye witnesses in the area. It is not a guess. They say that the helicopter was hovering over the area when members of the Free Syrian Army targeted the helicopter using light weapons. They managed to shoot it down.

0700 GMT: MENA. Israel has rejected an Arab initiative, supported by the Obama Administration, to hold a conference on the possibility of a nuclear-free Middle East.

The conference is proposed for Helsinki at the end of 2012 or early 2013. However, Shaul Horev, director of the Israeli Nuclear Energy Committee, said Wednesday at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency:

In order to realize this idea there is need for prior conditions and a complete reversal of the current trend in the area. This is an idea born in other areas and alien to the reality and political culture of the area. Nuclear demilitarization in the Middle East, according to the Israeli position, will be possible only after the establishment of peace and trust among the states of the area, as a result of a local initiative, not of external coercion.

0520 GMT: Syria. For some in the media, Wednesday began and ended with the exaggeration of a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Salehi to Damascus, where he saw President Assad.

Incorrect reports circulated in the morning that Salehi was bringing a nine-point plan, agreed by the new Iran-Egypt-Turkey-Saudi contact group. In fact, the group's meeting on Monday had fizzled when the Saudis pointedly declined to send anyone, let alone their Foreign Minister, and no agreement was reached on the Iranian proposal.

Even though references to the plan disappeared during the day, mainstream outlets continue to feature headlines such as "Iran Seeks Solution to Syria Conflict". That narrative converts rhetoric from Syrian and Iranian State media --- such as a settement coming "only in Syria and within the Syrian family" --- into the prospect of a resolution. 

It also fails to see that Tehran undermined its latest effort even before it began --- Sunday's declaration by the head of the Revolutionary Guards, confirming that members of the Quds Forces were advising the Assad regime, sabotaged the Islamic Republic's line that it was standing against foreign intervention, especially military support.

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