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Wednesday
Sep052012

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Free Syrian Army Tries to Re-Structure and Assert Control

Insurgents on the road in Deir Ez Zor Province in Syria

See also Bahrain Live Coverage: Shutting Away Political Prisoners, Shutting Away the News
Tuesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: At Least 250 Civilians Die on Monday
Tuesday's Bahrain Live Coverage: Will High-Profile Activists Receive Court Verdicts Today?


2112 GMT: Syria. In recent weeks France has significantly stepped up its rhetorical attacks on the Assad regime. President Hollande has even moved for the recognition of a transitional government, and has asked for an internationally imposed no-fly zone.

Originally, most scoffed at this as a political move to make Hollande look strong, since there is no international appetite for such moves. However, Reuters now suggests that France is supporting local governments in 3 Syrian provinces, and is even considering supplying artillery or other weapons to enable rebels to defend Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir Ez Zor from Assad forces:

Paris said last week it had identified areas in the north, south and east that had escaped President Bashar al-Assad's control, creating a chance for local communities to govern themselves without residents feeling they had to flee Syria.

"In zones where the regime has lost control, such as Tal Rifaat (40 km north of Aleppo), which has been free five months, local revolutionary councils have been set up to help the population and put in place an administration for these towns so as to avoid chaos like in Iraq when the regime pulls back," the source said.

2100 GMT: Syria. Since this morning we've been watching the LCC's death toll rise. Now, as we could have anticipated based on other reports we've seen, the number has hit 260, and could easily continue to rise:

The number of martyrs in Syria has risen to 260 thus far, among them more than 100 martyrs due to aerial shelling (more than 30 of them are children). 115 martyrs were reported in Aleppo, 67 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 30 in Deir Ezzor, 15 in Homs, 14 in Idlib, 8 in Daraa, 7 in Hama, 1 from Raqqa who was martyred in Aleppo and 1 in Lattakia.

See our note on the LCC and their casualty figures.

As predicted, the numbers are so high because of the bombing, shelling, and tank attacks against Aleppo and Damascus's suburbs, with the primary difference between today and most days being the amount of air strikes reported. Most of the deaths, at least in these two cities, appear to be civilians.

Recently, we've seen a lot of "red line" reports from Washington in particular, where powerful foreign parties continue to reiterate their opposition to intervention. Many activists have suggested that this has given the regime a green light to use air strikes against the cities, and that idea is certainly supported by a correlation in a rise in casualty figures in recent weeks, suggesting that at the very least the Assad regime isn't deterred by the threat of foreign intervention.

However, what's really driving this number up are two factors much closer to home. First, the Syrian Army has still not recaptured Aleppo, is still facing firefights in Damascus, and is still losing battles in Idlib, Deir Ez Zor, and now Lattakia. This is likely driving Assad to increase his reliance on air power. Despite a few jet fighters that have been shot down, the majority of his fighters carry out their bombing missions with no real direct threat, making their success rate much higher than the Syrian ground forces which continue to suffer defeats.

Secondly, Assad's air bases have come under attack. As we've noted today and in the past few weeks, the FSA has launched strikes on air bases in both Damascus and Aleppo, and has devastated several key air bases in Idlib province, and now near Al Bukamal in Deir Ez Zor. In this sense, if Assad can't use air strikes to stop the advance of the insurgents, there remains a possibility that his air forces may be destroyed while they are still on the ground.

1858 GMT: Syria. A video posted by the LCC shows a shell falling on Dael, Daraa, reportedly earlier today:

Yesterday, the Local Coordination Committees released a statement, calling Dael a "disaster-stricken city":

On June 24, 2012, the city was subjected to fierce shelling that has not stopped since. The regime is using tanks, artillery, and aerial attacks.

The daily shelling has resulted in the complete destruction of more than 50 houses, and the partial destruction of, at minimum, another 200. In addition, most of the shops along Al-Awsat Street and all the shops at the Souk Roundabout have been destroyed. Regime forces targeted the field hospital and sealed the medical warehouse, killing more than 50 people and wounding hundreds of others.

In addition, the ongoing cutoff of water, electricity, and communications in all neighborhoods has led to a severe shortage of food and medical supplies. The Daeel Coordination Committee issues an urgent appeal to relief agencies and medical organizations to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the city.

What's even more interesting, however, is the last paragraph of the statement, a challenge to the most established opposition organization to act:

The Daeel Coordination Committee is also demanding that the Syrian National Council, which has been absent thus far, assume its responsibilities toward this disaster-stricken city.

Why is this significant? The Local Coordination Committees has stayed largely apolitical, in the sense that they have not pushed for an insurgency, and have not tried to position themselves as a transitional government. However, the LCCs have a presence in every major city, and the LCCs are organizing the majority of the largest protests. If the LCCs are challenging the SNC, as they have in the past, this may be a sign that the leadership of the SNC is due for another shakeup.

Also, while the LCC has stayed neutral, and has not backed a particular candidate, for instance, there are LCC members inside the SNC, and the LCC has been posting more "guiding principals" lately for the entire opposition to follow.

Stay tuned.

1836 GMT: Syria. We continue to be surprised at the advance of the anti-Assad insurgents in Lattakia province (see update 1255). The Guardian has interviewed a commander in the Ahrar al-Sahel brigade who describes the most recent attack (partial transcript below). According to Lieutenant Colonel Abu Ahmed, large areas of the Lattakia countryside are now in insurgent hands after this week's offensives:

We have two military [observation] towers for the Syrian army in Latakia countryside which are used as bases to attack and shell people living in villages nearby.

There were six tanks at al-Qassab tower and another six at al-Barouda tower. These 16 tanks claimed the lives of many civilians and wounded many of them, in addition to the great damage they caused to the houses. They were based on high hills and overlook wide areas.

We as the revolutionary military command in Latakia decided to launch an operation against these towers to curb their damage. We did the required intelligence and reconnaissance secretly before the operation and chose the brigades to carry out the operation last Monday at four in the morning and with more than 650 fighters.

We were able to get control of al-Qassab tower completely and destroy five of the tanks inside, except for a tank and rocket launcher which are under a siege by our fighters. We were engaged in clashes with the Syrian army in control of al-Barouda tower and were able to push them backward.

As a result of the attack, we lost 28 martyrs and 40 wounded while the Syrian army lost 70 soldiers and 120 wounded. We were able to capture 11 members of the Syrian army and took them as hostages.

1821 GMT: Syria. According to Al Jazeera, a major military airport, Hamdan, near Al Bukamal and the Iraq border, has all but fallen into the hands of the Free Syrian Army:

"The airport has effectively fallen after many soldiers defected," Nawaf al-Bashir, a senior tribal figure from Deir ez-Zor who is in contact with rebels, said from Istanbul.

Abu Teif Ziad, another opposition campaigner from Deir ez-Zor, said that the airport was the last base where government forces were present in Albu Kamal after rebels overran several army compounds in the town, which is situated on the Euphrates river a few kilometres from a crossing point with Iraq.

"If the Hamadan airport falls, Albu Kamal will come completely under rebel control," he said.

Attacks by rebels have already rendered two military airports in the northern province of Idlib - Taftanaz and Abu Thuhur - inoperational, according to an opposition source and diplomats.

Snap analysis - The role and importance of foreign fighters has been dramatically overplayed by the media, with the exception of in Deir Ez Zor which the media has largely ignored. Evidence we've collected suggests that the major challenge to Assad in the east began when FSA fighters returned from Iraq with fresh weapons, supplies, and even some reinforcements. These fighters raced towards Deir Ez Zor, and the regime was forced to significantly juggle its deployments elsewhere in the country. The result was that the regime was stretched thin, while the FSA still managed to score large victories in the east.

A victory in Al Bukamal opens up that supply route even more. Furthermore, with Al Bukamal effectively in FSA hands, the insurgents would have the ability to send reinforcements north, potentially finally pushing the Assad army out of Deir Ez Zor. With an effective stalemate in Aleppo, the eastern provinces likely offer the FSA the "next domino" in their fight for the country, allowing the FSA to refocus resources to the north.

1709 GMT: Libya. Footage of Abdullah al-Senussi, the head of intelligence in the Qaddafi regime, as he arrived in Tripoli after extradition from Mauritania (see 1053 GMT):

1636 GMT: Syria. The LCC offers two videos of the fighting in Damascus. The first claims to show clashes between insurgents and regime forces at the Yarmouk Palestinian camp (see update below):

Video claiming to show regime "snipers" firing indiscriminately at "passers-by" in Douma:

1615 GMT: Syria. Shells are falling at an rapid rate in parts of Damascus, likely accounting for the rapid rise in the death toll there. Videos show shells landing on many neighborhoods, and there is more news of clashes between the FSA and the Syrian regime in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camps as well (map).

The situation in Zabadani, in the northwest mountains near Damascus, is incredibly desperate, however. Reports suggest it has been bombarded for the 60th day today, and this video claims to show smoke settling above the city after more shells fell:

1521 GMT: Syria. Activists have been reporting that the mosque destroyed in Aleppo (see update 1354) was hit by tanks today. Part of the problem is that activists often use the word "shell" or "shelling" to mean either mortars, artillery, or tank fire. However, we didn't know there were tanks in this district.

Until now - the video below claims to show the FSA knocking out a tank with an RPG today in the same neighborhood. There is very little visual information in the video to help verify the location, however:

1505 GMT: Syria. I don't recall the death toll ever rising this fast. According to the LCC's latest, 173 people have been killed so far today:

80 martyrs were reported in Aleppo, 40 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 23 in Deir Ezzor, 10 in Homs, 10 in Idlib, 6 in Hama, 3 in Daraa and 1 in Raqqa; who was martyred in Aleppo.

What's obvious is the suddent surge in deaths in Damascus, and the continuing violence in Aleppo. What isn;t quite is obvious is the fact that, if the LCC numbers are to be trusted, the violence in many areas is surging.

1430 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 111 people have been killed so far today:

57 martyrs were reported in Aleppo, 20 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 16 in Deir Ezzor, 10 in Homs, 5 in Idlib,2 in Hama and 1 in Raqqa; who was martyred in Aleppo.

First, see our note on the LCC and their casualty figures. Secondly, note that the LCC just posted that 66 were killed in Aleppo - we're not sure why there is a discrepancy, except that it's a sign of how quickly the death toll is rising.

And there's another thing to note - according to the LCC, at least 25 children are among the dead already today.

1354 GMT: Syria. The LCC reports that warplanes are bombing the Arqoub district of Aleppo (map). The video below shows what appears to be an L-39 making a bombing strike (also note the FSA fighters running after what may have been a sniper shot).

So far the LCC says that 66 people have been killed in the city today. In one of the latest strikes, 6 were killed and 15 injured in the Al Sukkari district (map), and this video, also posted by the LCC, shows the collapse of the minaret on the Al Rasheed Mosque in the Itha'a district of Aleppo (map, see picture of the mosque below):

https://ssl.panoramio.com/photo/47189329

Every corner of the city is being shelled by artillery and mortars, and/or bombed from the Sky today, and the civilian casualties are extremely high.

1322 GMT: Syria. Earlier, Scott Lucas reported that the US has accused Iran of flying weapons to Syria over Iraqi airspace (see update 0620). Now, the Iraqi government denies these reports, saying that the flights contain humanitarian supplies and it's up to the US to prove otherwise:

An Iraqi government spokesman responded by saying Iran has told Baghdad the flights to Syria are only delivering humanitarian aid. He said the onus is on the U.S. to offer up proof that Tehran is shipping weapons.

Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut, said Iraq's failure to stop the flights could threaten the long-term relationship with the U.S. as well as aid Iraq could receive as part of a 2008 strategic pact between the two nations.

"Bottom line, this kind of problem with these Iranian overflights can make it more difficult to proceed with the Strategic Framework Agreement in the manner that the prime minister and we would like to see happen," Lieberman told reporters in Baghdad. "So I hope this is cleared up quickly."

1255 GMT: Syria. I've been having a conversation with a loyal and helpful reader about Lattakia, where there are reports of clashes between the Free Syrian Army and Assad security forces and Alawite militia's. What's different about these reports is that they claim, as Al Jazeera did late last week, that the FSA was striking at Alawite villages in the region.

Now, The Guardian reports that 31 were killed in Lattakia province, particularly in the villages near Salma (map):

The campaign group Avaaz claims that 27 rebel fighters were among 31 people killed in the shelling of Esterbeh and Doreen in Latakia province.

It quotes an activist named Ahmad, as saying: “The regime forces tried to storm into the villages of Doreen and Esterbeh, and clashes erupted between the FSA and regime forces, before the shelling started on a rate of eight bombs per minute, killing three children, a woman and 27 FSA fighters and injuring 45 FSA fighters, 16 of them are critical.”

Dr Abu Rahal from a local field hospital told the group that 15 people were injured in Doreen. He also said the field hospital suffered minor damage in the attack.

What's interesting is that last week's reports focused on fighting near Al Haffah (map), where the FSA held the town for 9 days but was forced to retreat because of the threat from the Alawite villages that ring the town.

Here is another report of fighting in Lattakia, shared by Catmari in the comments section. No specific area is mentioned, so it's hard to triangulate the reports:

Reports from local activists speak of an ongoing battle between rebels and loyalists over control of the northernmost coastal strip separating Syria and Turkey. In the course of the battle and for the first time since the beginning of the revolution, Alawite villages were targeted by rebels using mortars confiscated from loyalists in previous clashes. For the first time since the beginning of the revolution, loyalists were forced to flee their villages. Rebels seem adamant on having their own access to the sea.

The takeaway - this region is supposed to be the heart of Alawite rule, and area that the Assad family calls their ancestral home, and a region that many have speculated Assad could withdraw from. This is another "home front" for the regime, and any fighting here could pose an unwelcome distraction in Assad's attempts to keep his forces focused on fighting in Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor, Hama, Daraa, and Damascus. Beyond this, it's a sign that even the strongest parts of the regime are not terribly strong. Most importantly, though, it shows that even if the Assad regime were content with withdrawing to Lattakia, the Free Syrian Army may not be so willing to let the region go.

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

1113 GMT: Yemen. Amidst the controversy over Sunday's attack by a US drone, which reportedly killed 14 civilians (see 0659 GMT), another strike today has slain five suspected insurgents, according to a Yemeni security official.

The attack targeted a house in Hadramut Province. The official said three men were injured and managed to escape.

1059 GMT: Libya. Gunmen killed a colonel in the Palestinian security forces this morning in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.

Hisham al-Rukh was attacked as he was driving home from the Jenin refugee camp, the focal point of a sweep by security forces since May after an upsurge of violence allegedly involving criminal gangs and corrupt security officers.

The incident follows an attack last month in the centre of Ramallah, when gunmen opened fire on Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's offices.

1053 GMT: Libya. Mauritanian authorities have handed over the former head of intelligence of the Qaddafi regime, Abdullah al-Senussi, to Tripoli.

Al-Senussi fled to Mauritania in April and was arrested for entering the country illegally.

1038 GMT: Syria. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has used a speech to repeat last week's line from the Non-Aligned summit in Tehran, "I say to the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to stem the bloodshed.....This is the time for change in Syria."

At the same time, Morsi said that his proposed four-nation contact group, which includes Turkey and Iran, is about to meet to discuss the crisis.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claiming that President Assad has created a "terrorist state", has said, "It is impossible for Turkey to remain indifferent to what is going on in Syria."

0933 GMT: Syria. Tom A. Peter of the Christian Science Monitor reports from a village 30 miles northeast of Aleppo:

Fighters in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) --- and many who wish to join it --- say their progress against government forces has been hindered by a shortage of weapons. What they've managed to gather, mostly basic rifles and machine guns from defected government troops, is little match for the Army’s air force and tanks. In some places, opposition forces have even started manufacturing homemade weapons as a way around the shortage.

In Akhtrin, an extremely limited number of weapons are available for sale, but prices range from $1,500 to $2,250 for a basic AK-47 rifle. Mr. Hassan says he’s even heard of some rifles selling for as much as $3,000 and bullets going for $2 each.

“Right now we have more people who want to fight than we have weapons,” says Ahmad Ibrahim, a senior member of the FSA in Akhtrin.

The opposition has had little success getting weapons or military support from nations who support it. Although American officials have publicly called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United States has offered only limited assistance to the rebels and no weapons.

The supply has also dried up in Turkey. At one illegal transit point along the border, an FSA member who asked to be referred to only by his nickname Abu Sufian said he was unable to smuggle in any weapons.

“All the weapons we get are from the Assad army,” he says. “If there aren’t enough fighters we bring them in from Turkey. In the refugee camps inside Turkey there are people with a lot of military training so we help them come back.”

0910 GMT: Syria. Activists claim 19 people, including at least seven children, have been killed by overnight shelling in Aleppo.

The Local Coordination Committees has even more striking figures, claiming that of 75 deaths so far today, 54 have been in Aleppo Province.

0859 GMT: Syria. A reminder of Tuesday's summary by James Miller of claims by insurgents that they had downed a MiG-21 fighter in Idlib Province, drawn from Brown Moses:

0659 GMT: Yemen. Authorities have sent tribal representatives to investigate civilian deaths in an apparent US drone strike targeting insurgents on Sunday, according to an official.

Three women and a child were among 14 people killed in Sunday's strike near the town of Radaa, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southeast of Sanaa.

The attack on two vehicles reportedly targeted an Al-Qaeda militant, Abdelrauf al-Dahab, who escaped unharmed. Some officials initially said that five of the dead might be insurgents, but other local and tribal representatives said all the slain were civilians.

Officials also put out the story on Monday that the attacking plane was Yemeni, rather than a US drone.

The suspected drone fired two rockets, one of which missed the vehicle carrying Dahab and the second of which hit a following minibus killing all those inside. Angry relatives of the dead blocked the main road linking Radaa to the town of Dhammar and the capital Sana'a.

The Common Forum bloc of former opposition groups, now in the national unity government, condemned the "killing of civilians by a drone".

0623 GMT: Syria. New United Nations-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has told the General Assembly that he will go to Damascus "in a few days" and said that a united international stance on Syria is "indispensable and very urgent".

Brahimi said, in a situation which was "deteriorating steadily", "The death toll is staggering, the destruction is reaching catastrophic proportions and the suffering of the people is immense."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon accused Syrian forces of indiscriminately shelling densely populated areas with heavy weapons, tanks, and military aircraft; however, he also criticised abuses by the insurgency:

Prisoners on both sides are subject to harsh treatment and, often, torture. There have been alarming reports of summary executions on both sides....

Government forces and the armed opposition have clearly failed to protect civilians and respect the rules of international humanitarian law.

0620 GMT: Syria. "Senior American officials" use the New York Times to press allegations that Iran has resumed shipping military equipment to Syria over Iraqi airspace.

The officials indicate that objections by the Administration, expressed to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, had halted the shipments, but that the flights resumed in July.

An official said that US Vice President Joe Biden raised the issue in a phone call with Mr. Maliki on 17 August, but the leak to the Times suggests that the conversation has not had an effect to date.

(Cross-posted from Iran Live Coverage)

0515 GMT: Syria. "The 47th" is a prominent activist on social media, a must-follow because of his combination of news and promotion of the opposition. Last night he announced:

What followed was a detailed description of the Free Syrian Army's effort to re-structure, beginning with the assurance,"Announcement of the creation of the 'Syrian National Army' under the command of Maj Gen Mohammad Hussein Haj Ali is big....[It] commands major FSA factions across all Syrian Governorates....Over the next few days...the Syrian Nat'l Army will announce its new structure & what it encompasses (brigades + leadership)."

The news was not all upbeat promotion. There were admissions that the Al Farouk Brigade, which has been criticised for abuses during the insurgency, still wants to follow a separate military command --- "It has become like a successful franchise, arming & training franchisee brigades in Rastan, Qusoor & elsewhere" --- and this concern:

Talks with FSA factions fighting in Edlib are ongoing (a little tough), given their track record, it is hard to convince them 2 change. Also, Edlib FSA factions usually have different financiers, so they can't be enticed to join Syr Natl Army via financial motives.

Overall, however, the message was of a developing, organising insurgency accompanied by the proclamation that the regime's military is in serious trouble:

Assad forces land supply lines are like walking on thin ice, almost every convoy is attacked. Tanks can't be moved, no air freight. That's why youu c more & more jets dropping barrels filled w/ screw drivers, metal shrapnel & TNT, Assad no longer cn transport big bombs remotely....

Troops...mostly cannot leave their bases. They can only shell towns from their new basis, and majority of these troops haven't taken a break off their tour since deployment.

In short, Assad Army morale is at an all-time low, latest losses (inc. jets & military bases) have increasd defections & are slowly getting desperate.

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