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Syria Live Coverage: The End of the Brahimi Mission?

See also Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: An Activist Tries to Re-Enter the Kingdom
Thursday's Syria Live Coverage: The Insurgents Capture a Major Airbase

2024 GMT: State Department Weighs In. The US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, said that the capture of the Taftanaz airbase is a significant development:

"They are taking credit now for having taken the air base," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Friday. "And, as you know, we consider this significant on two fronts.

"First of all, to ground some of the air assets of the Assad regime that they've been using against civilians. And, secondly, to break their ability to resupply in the north."

There is a problem with statements like these - Taftanaz was captured primarily by Jabhat al Nusra and the Ahrar al Sham brigades, two Jihadi groups, and the State Department has already place Al Nusra on the terror list.

Meanwhile, as if to answer criticisms that the US is not doing enough to help the Syrian refugees affected by the worst weather in decades to hit the region, the State Department was pushing a summary of the humanitarian aid donated by the US government.

2000 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 81 people have been killed nationwide so far today:

40 martyrs were reported in the massacre of Naheyet Al-Houl in Hasakeh, 11 in Hama, 9 in Aleppo, 9 in Damascus and its suburbs; 6 in Daraa, 4 in Idlib, and 2 in Homs.

In Naheyet Al-Houl, dozens have reportedly been killed in airstrikes over the last two days. The town just east of Hassakah (map) may be the latest target of Assad's revenge as the rebel forces advance from the east.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) is an activist network operating both inside and outside of Syria. They claim to use stringent verification processes to ensure that a member of the LCC can vouch for any information posted either on their Facebook page or their website. The LCC also populates a database of those killed in the Syrian conflict, which can be seen at the website for the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria.

The LCC's casualty figures are a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

1945 GMT: International Developments. Despite being recognized by many in the international community, there are several key steps that have not yet happened for the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition. For starters, while the Assad government has been removed from the Arab League, the National Coalition has not yet been admitted to the group. The NC has petitioned the Arab League to change this and admit the opposition's main leadership into the group:

The group, which has been widely recognized by Arab and Western nations as the sole representative of the Syrian people, also asked to be given regime assets frozen as part of international sanctions on the Damascus government.

In statement late Thursday the coalition urged "the international community to end all legitimacy of the Assad regime by granting Syria's seat at the UN and Arab League to the transitional government" being set up by the opposition.

Meanwhile, several key European Union nations have urged that Syria be referred to the international criminal court:

"Horrendous crimes have already been committed during the conflict in Syria, but there have been no consequences for the perpetrators," the foreign ministers of Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Slovenia wrote in the letter.

"In view of the grave concerns mentioned above, and the lack of prosecution in Syria, we call on the UN Security Council to urgently refer the situation in Syria to the ICC," they added.

"A referral to the ICC would make clear to every fighter on all sides of the conflict that the gravest crimes will eventually be punished," whether they are rebels or government forces, the ministers went on.

1901 GMT: Worst Weather in Decades. This week's storms are being called the worst weather to hit the Middle East in decades. In this video posted by The Guardian, snow covers ruined buildings and tanks, and a resident of Azaz describes the terrible conditions:

It's once again snowing tonight in southern Turkey, but relief is on the way. Temperatures should rebound for most of the area in the next few days, going into the mid to high 50s. Hopefully, this will give aid agencies and foreign governments a chance to redouble their efforts in helping Syrian refugees.

1832 GMT: Fighting in Damascus and Al Raqqah. Over the last hour there have been a steady flood of reports about fighting or shelling of various areas all across Damascus's suburbs. Assuming for a minute that the news about the convoy being attacked were true, this might be the Assad regime trying to send a message. Then again, it could just be another normal day in Damascus, as the capital and its suburbs have accounted for a large amount of the casualties in recent weeks. Still, beyond its importance to the civilians who live and die depending on where the shells fall, it's especially worth noting today how things develop inside the capital.

Another interesting story is breaking - the LCC posts several updates suggesting there is heavy fighting in Al Raqqah city as the FSA (according to the reports) may have launched an attack on the city. Earlier they reported that the regime had dropped cluster bombs on a nearby village (video) that contained "white phosphorous," though experts we've consulted suggest that they are more likely thermite bomblets from ZAB cluster munitions.

1647 GMT: Brahimi. United Nations envoy Lahkdar Brahimi, after meeting high-level US and Russian officials in Geneva, was perfunctory and downbeat:

We stressed again that in our view there was no military solution to this conflict. We underscored the necessity to reach a political solution based on the Geneva communique of 30 June 2012....

If you are asking whether there is a solution around the corner, I'm not sure that is the case.

1613 GMT: Brahimi Joins International Anti-Syrian Conspiracy. According to SANA, a Syrian State press outlet, UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's latest statements indicate that he has joined a vast international conspiracy to bring down Assad and interfere with the will of the Syrian people:

An official source at the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said that Syria finds the statements made by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, very strange, adding that they have deviated from the essence of his mission and clearly unveiled his bias towards circles known for conspiring against Syria and the interests of the Syrian people who have not read the political program for solving crisis objectively...

The source added, "If Brahimi inferred that the situation in Syria is moving from bad to worse, which we won't argue about its veracity, everyone knows that the ongoing violence and terrorism is attributed to the international community's failure in obliging certain regional and international countries to stop funding, hosting and smuggling armed terrorist groups."

The source stressed that Syria is still hopeful that Brahimi's mission will be met with success and will continue to cooperate with him for that end as part of its understanding of a political solution to the crisis, which is based on the principles and goals of the UN Charter, the international law and Geneva statement, which all stressed that the solution should be one among Syrians and led by Syria.

The article then consists of a detailed claim that Turkey has assisted terrorists in the looting of factories in Aleppo and the smuggling of illegal goods.

1600 GMT: Damascus. We're still seeking more details and more confirmation about our previous report. In the meantime, let's recap what happened in Damascus today. Perhaps some of the larger context, and some of the other unconfirmed reports, will give us clues as to what happened.

First, this video reportedly shows the scene on a major highway running south from the capital into East Ghouta in the eastern suburbs of Damascus:

Second, the CFDPC (a network of activists who report on Damascus and its suburbs) have tow interesting reports. The first, that Mouhajrin (map), a region just east of the Presidential Palace(map), has been the site of many arrests:

The Muhajirin area is witnessing a wide campaign of raids carried out by a large number of elements of the 40th branch; during the raids some people have been arrested.

The second report suggests that a nearby military airport (map) has heavily bombarded the closest rebel stronghold of Darayya (map):

These all could be unrelated. But perhaps this report is not. An activist who has sometimes been reliable posts several claims that to the west of here, in Yafour (map), her sources indicate that the FSA conducted a different attack. This report is unconfirmed and should be treated as a rumor, but an interesting rumor in context, a context of which she is aware:

So perhaps this report, if true, is also unrelated?

It's worth noting that one highly-reliable contact, Zilal , who is affiliated with the CFDPC, first heard about the claimed assassination through reading EA Worldview.

And now some more context - if the claim is true that a convoy has been attacked, or destroyed by a bomb of some sort, on the road leading from the Presidential Palace, news may not be easy to come by. The area is heavily controlled by Assad troops, and is far away from residences. It should be noted, though, that while we still don't have confirmation of any details, or that the attack even occurred, we also have no confirmation of the location of the claim.

1455 GMT: RUMOR OF THE DAY. Usually we don't post unsubstantiated rumors, but this one is so hot that it could be extremely significant. According to activists, there was a coordinated assassination of several Iranian and Russian Generals as they left the Presidential Palace. We must stress that this report should be treated as unconfirmed and should be treated with EXTREME caution:

More details if and when we get them.

1440 GMT: Friday Protests. Every Friday since March 2011 has been host to widespread protest across Syria. Every Friday's protests have a theme. This week, the theme is "Refugee Camps of Death," or "Death Camp Friday," a reference to the terrible conditions facing Syrians who have been displaced by this crisis. Despite pledges of international assistance, conditions are deteriorating in the camps, not getting better - and very little aid is actually penetrating Syria's borders and making it to the Syrian people.

Today's protests are, like on many other Fridays, duel-themed. The implication is that Assad's war has brought this suffering on the Syrian people, but the other implication is that the world has done nothing to either stop the war or help those affected by it.

This protest was reportedly held today in Kafer Zita, one of the towns in Hama province captured by the rebels in the last two weeks:

The LCC posts this photo, reportedly taken today in Jabal Zawiyah, for all intents and purposes the heart of rebel territory in Idlib province. The sign reads "Be careful not to underrate the Syrians and their power - So the revolution movement is going to continue in Al Zawiyah Mountain untill falling the regime":

This video reportedly shows today's protest in Al Dar al Kabara, Homs. It is led by a child, a young girl who, if we are not mistaken, has led protest chants before:

In Irbin, an important suburb just northeast of Damascus, protesters gather in a side street, which offers some protection from the bombs, shells, and gunfire that so often fall:

This is an interesting video - the sign says Mohassan, Deir Ez Zor, an area overrun by Jabhat al Nusra weeks ago. In broken English it reads "Bashar.. In the bast [sic] there was a door... buy naw [sic] there is no door?" This is likely a reference to last Sunday's speech that Assad gave in Damascus where he sounded more defiant than ever.

Another sign in Arabic reads:

"Heroes of Facebook & Skype: Doctors, lawyers, engineers, media, students...! Come on the ground that needs more your heroic acts..."

These are just a few protest videos. Despite the cold, and despite the extreme risks, we've seen dozens of videos of protests held across Syria so far today.

Thanks to Zilal for translation help.

1345 GMT: Weather Report. The rains have stopped in parts of Syria, but the temperatures are still cold. According to some sources, however, this is a welcome trade, though the cold is still a serious problem.

In Damascus, highs were 39 degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of 31. Further north, in Idlib and southern Turkey, light rain and snow could fall. Southern Turkey is expecting about an inch of overnight snow. The best news is from Jordan, where floods wiped out many refugees camps. Chance of precipitation is zero today and tonight, with highs in the mid 40s and lows just above freezing. That's a significant improvement, but the conditions are still dangerously cold for so many refugees who are still sleeping in tents.

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

1244 GMT:Taftanaz. Claimed footage from Thursday of captured regime troops in the Taftanaz airbase:

The men say they are all Sunni and most of them are conscripts. They claim most Alawite officers and soldiers had fled a few days earlier.

1229 GMT:Refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries has soared by over 100,000 in the past month to at least 612,134.

The UN warned that it expects refugee figures to rise to 1.1 million by June if the war continues.

1145 GMT: Protest. The weekly rally at Kafranbel in Idlib Province features a message to Britain, "UK: Too much talk. Too little action. Live up to your history":

(Hat tip to Guardian Middle East Live)

0945 GMT: Taftanaz. A series of videos confirming that insurgents have taken full control of the regime airbase after a protracted sieges --- opposition fighters load up trucks with seized weapons and ammunition:

Claimed footage of the insurgent Ahrar al-Sham Brigades:

Claimed video of opposition fighters in the headquarters of the airbase:

A short clip claims to show insurgents inside a weapons depot.

0915 GMT: The Fight Within the Insurgency. Thaer al-Waqqas, northern commander of the Al-Farouq Brigades was shot dead Wednesday at an insurgent-held position in the town of Sermin, a few kilometres from Turkey, early on Wednesday morning, according to opposition sources.

The sources said Al-Waqqas was suspected of involvement in the killing in September of Firas al-Absi, a leader in the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra.

One fighter said, "The assassins came in a white car, disembarked and riddled Waqqas with bullets as he was at a food supply depot. Absi's brother is a commander in Homs. He vowed revenge for Firas, and it seems that he has carried out his promise."

The insurgent predicted, "Farouq is in a period of mourning now. But it seems a matter of time before the clashes with Nusra erupt in Bab al-Hawa [a crossing on the Iraqi border]."

0840 GMT: Another Mass Killing. The Local Coordination Committees are claiming another mass killing: the opposition group says 40 people, including several women and children, have been slain in the village Nahet Alhoul in Hasakeh Province in northeast Syria.

If true, the death toll will almost match Thursday's total of 46 across the entire country. According to the LCC, 22 of those killed were in Damascus and its suburbs.

0550 GMT: Summary. As Syria enters another Friday of protests, doubts escalate over whether the mission of United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has any prospect of continuing, let alone succeeding.

On Thursday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry --- first through anonymous comments to a pro-regime newspaper, then through an on-the-record statement --- said Brahimi had removed his "mask of impartiality" to reveal himself as  "a tool for the implementation of the policy of some Western countries". He was now "flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".

The catalyst for the attack was Brahimi's interviews with international media on Wednesday, in which he said --- for the first time --- that President Assad could not be part of a transitional government:

In Syria...what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long. President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it.

Brahimi's hope, possibly his last one, lies in a meeting today with high-level US and Russian officials in Geneva. This is the second meeting of the group after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov launched the initative in a hastily-called meeting in Dublin last month. 

So far, Moscow has refused --- at least publicly --- to give up its support of Assad staying in place during the transition, an unacceptable condition for the insurgency and much of the Syrian opposition. Will Brahimi's apparent shift lead to an even more significant one from the Russians?

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