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Syria Live Coverage: Scores Die in Mass Killings and Aleppo Blasts

Men recover bodies from rubble in Rastan near Homs

See slso Syria Feature: US Finds "Assad Forces Probably Used Chemical Weapon" in Homs (Rogin)
Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The US Arms Sales to the Regime
Tuesday's Syria Live Coverage: Deadly Bombardment of Damascus Suburbs Continues

1856 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 142 people have been killed so far today:

41 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 37 in Homs; 25 in Aleppo; 11 in Hama; 6 in Daraa; 15 in Idlib; 4 in Lattakia; 2 in Raqqa; and 1 in Hasakeh.

What's interesting about this number is that it may not include any of those reportedly killed om Idlib's car bomb blasts. The LCC uses their own verification techniques, and they are unlikely to have any access to this site, as it has been controlled by the government since right after the blast. This means that once again the death toll may be nearing 200, an indication of the intensification of the situation in many cities across Syria.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

1838 GMT: Iran and Syria Enter Deal. Reuters reports that according to SANA, "Syria and Iran have agreed a $1 billion credit facility between Commercial Bank of Syria and Export Development Bank of Iran," as well as several other agreements on energy. The announcement is bad news for those who have been happy with the effectiveness of sanctions against the Assad government.

1743 GMT: Fighting in Hama City. There are many reports that there have been intense gun battles in the Aleppo Street (Tareeq Halab) district of Hama city (map). Those reports are now more credible that they are being echoed by the Local Coordination Committees, who post this video (basically audio only because of the dark) reportedly showing the fighting:

Another video claiming to show intense gunfire:

Yet another Youtube channel uploads a similar video which is more than 4 minutes long. This fighting could be significant, as if the rebels are trying to push deeper into the city they will likely try to advance along this road from the north, away from the heavy guns of the military airport to the southwest.

1715 GMT: Free Syrian Army Clashes with Kurdish PKK. Journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg reports that the Free Syrian Army has fought battles against Kurdish YPG fighters (a subsidiary of the PKK) in Ras al Ain, in northern Hassakah province on the border with Turkey:

We have not confirmed that this fighting is going on, but this begs a question - has Turkey encouraged the Syrian rebels to attack the Kurdish group?

1622 GMT: University Classes Canceled. After yesterday's blasts in Aleppo that killed so many students, all universities are closed in mourning today:

Syria's Ministry of Higher Education suspended classes and exams at all Syrian universities on Wednesday, "in mourning for the souls of the heroic martyrs who were assassinated by the treacherous terrorist hand" in twin blasts at Aleppo University on Tuesday, the state news service reported.

The SANA report quoted the minister of higher education, Mahmoud Mualla, as saying Assad had ordered the reconstruction of the university "with the utmost speed".

The regime claims that this attack was the work of car bombs, but we're not sure what caused the attack. This evidence is being carefully reviewed by a team of arms specialists we've consulted as we speak.

The opposition maintains that this twin bombing was the work of Syrian aircraft. Today the LCC released the following statement:

Considering that the date is 01/15/2013, the first day of exams for university students in Syria, it is evident that the timing of the massacre was part of a systematic plan to inflict as many casualties as possible in the university, a source of the student revolt in Syria.

The media was not the last part of the regime's plan. The regime's media arrived in the first seconds after the massacre, claiming that "armed gangs" were behind the bombing, but there was no signs of this information, especially after it was discovered that there were no explosions in the university. So, they rushed and changed the story by replacing the "car bombing" story with a "heat rockets" story.

But eyewitnesses from within the university confirm that they saw aircraft flying overhead and that heat balloons for rockets were launched from the areas of Bani Zaid and Yarmoun as a fear tactic. After less than half a minute from its sound and in 1 hour and 10 minutes, a missile was fired at the roundabout of the College of Architecture and fell in the second unit of the university housing that was crowded with displaced civilians fleeing from the continuous shelling inside the city. Nearly 15 cars were charred by the blast, which denies the regime's story that a thermal missile caused this explosion. It is also confirmed that Syrian regime forces locked the doors of the university before the bombing began and then pulled out of the area so that it could be be bombed immediately after.

There are many interesting aspects of yesterday's attacks on the university. First, pro-regime social media accounts, State media, and Syrian officials have tried to paint a picture of a Syria that is returning to normal. One piece of evidence that they have raised up in order to prove their point is that universities are in fact open in most places. This incident directly undercuts that narrative.

Then there is motive. To be clear, despite what I just wrote, there are plenty of reasons for the regime to resent this university in particular, and for the opposition to respect it. Aleppo University was so rebellious that it had been closed, raided, and teargassed on multiple occasions last spring. In fact, the first Free Syrian Army elements spotted in the city were brought there in order to protect these protests, not in order to take the city, and when the military cracked down and killed many students, the conflict escalated until the Free Syrian Army launched its invasion. But this still does not adequately explain what happened. Why would rebel groups strike this university? Why would the regime ruin its "all is well" narrative? Whoever conducted this attack did so for complicated reasons.

Regardless, one need look no further than Aleppo, today's suspected car bombings in Idlib, the battles between the FSA and the regime in Daraa province, and the intense bombing campaigns in Homs and Damascus, and the evidence is clear - in the last two days this conflict has escalated dramatically. Why now? That's the question that's still unclear.

1554 GMT: Snap Analysis - Chemical Weapons. There is an interesting twist in the revelation, leaked from the State Department, that chemical weapons have been used in Homs on December 23rd.

See slso Syria Feature: US Finds "Assad Forces Probably Used Chemical Weapon" in Homs (Rogin)

Specifically, the claim made is that Agent 15, a hallucinogen, was used in Homs that day. For the record, I am not a chemical weapons specialist nor a medical professional, but I did watch and carefully analyze all of the videos taken on that day, and I remember them clearly. At the time, the first suspect was Sarin gas or some other nerve agent, but it was clear that a nerve agent, certainly one as lethal as Sarin, was not a likely candidate. In fact, the strong smell and respiratory problems suggested that either Chlorine gas (or some variant) or a weaponized teargas (though some of the victims said it was not this either) were to blame. Reviewing the visual symptoms, Chlorine remains a suspect in my opinion, though there is no clear answer.

Hallucinogens, however, were not suspected by me or anyone else who I initially consulted about the incident. Some of the respiratory effects seen in the videos would not have necessarily been caused by such a drug, and the only erratic behavior seen from the victims could have easily been caused by lack of oxygen to the brain, which could have been caused by respiratory problems, especially as they were only obvious in the most severe cases.

Regardless, that this was not a nerve agent is now fairly clear. However, this means that what we saw could have been a test, not of some weapon, but of the resolve of the Obama administration. If this is not a chemical that is necessarily lethal, then is it really a weapon that crosses Obama's "red line" that was established late last year? That's unclear.

What's also interesting is that while the White House has had no problem lobbing some loosely-backed claims of Assad's wrongdoing, as well as accusing him of crimes based on very established evidence, the White House is running from this claim and denying that it is even true.

Did Assad used a less potent chemical weapon just to see if the Obama administration would hold him accountable? If so, it seems that the test worked, Obama failed it, and barring another more deadly chemical weapon attack, the Obama administration doesn't look like it will be talking about "red lines" being crossed any time soon.

1524 GMT: Car Bombs. State news agency SANA says suicide bombers killed 22 people when they blew up vehicles packed with explosives near security targets in Idlib Province.

A Syrian official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were three explosions, with SOHR claiming 24 deaths.

1507 GMT: Aleppo 1st-Hand. The Guardian's Martin Chulov speaks about the continuing speculation over who was responsible for Tuesday's deadly double explosion at Aleppo University. He then describes the state of the conflict in Syria's largest city, with regime trying to advance from west and east --- but barely advancing --- and with insurgent morale “not too bad”:

They do anticipate that this is going to be a long war. It’s not going to be over any time soon. However, a large influx of fresh fruit and vegetables has made it to Aleppo this week for the first time since July, since the city was stormed, and there is basic life which is starting to return to the streets of a city which has been pretty well empty and abandoned for so long now. There are all sorts of marketplaces have sprung up --- everywhere you turn there appears to be a vegetable stall --- which is slightly encouraging in some senses. Food had been in desperately short supply.

1348 GMT: Homs Heavily Bombed for 2nd Day. The LCC reports that 6 people have been killed and dozens buried in the rubble in Rastan, north of Homs, after a series of airstrikes. To the south, the villages around Homs have reportedly been hit, and there are more reports of heavy airstrikes inside Homs. This comes a day after dozens were killed in Homs and in the villages to the west, including Houla.

This video was reportedly taken today in the Jobar district. At least 6 explosions go off in a row, and the bombs can be clearly seen falling from the sky (hat tip to Peter Bouckaert from Human Rights Watch):

1318 GMT: Weather Update. In Damascus, today's high temperature was 54 degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of 39. In Idlib it is a bit colder, with a high of 59 and a low of 32. Zero chance of precipitation is great news for a region that has been suffering from the worst weather in decades, but even 54 degrees feels cold for those with inadequate tents and a shortage of good blankets or winter clothes.

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

1300 GMT: A Chemical Gas Attack?. We have posted a separate feature, "US Finds 'Assad Forces Probably Used Chemical Weapon' in Homs", based on a State Department cable which claims the poison gas "Agent 15" killed five people and injured more than 100.

Nstional Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, in a convoluted statement, has distanced the White House from the document:

The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons programme. If the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons, or fails to meet its obligation to secure them, the regime will be held accountable.

1200 GMT: Casualties. Back from an academic break to find the Local Coordination Committees claiming 37 people killed today, including 22 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0630 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim 237 people were killed yesterday. The activist groups writes that 99 of the deaths were in Aleppo Province, including the more than 80 who perished in the Aleppo University blasts; 65 of the dead were in Homs Province, including mass killing in Haswiyah and Houla; and 31 were in Damascus and its suburbs.

0610 GMT: Casualties. Tuesday was marked by rolling news of deaths from violence across the country.

The headline incident for most media were the two explosions at Aleppo University, which reportedly killed more than 80 people, but there were also claims of mass killings in two villages --- Haswiyah and Houla --- near Homs.

There are a swirl of conflicting claims over what happened in Aleppo. State media declared that insurgents had fired two rockets at the university, where some of the 30,000 students were sitting their first day of examinations, while witnesses and opposition activists asserted that regime warplanes had launched two missiles or bombs on the campus. A military official in Aleppo told AFP that one of the explosions occurred after insurgents tried to shoot down a warplane with a missile, but failed to hit their target. 

Opposition activists claimed that entire families in Haswiyah were slain by regime forces who raided the village. In Houla, where more than 100 people were reportedly killed by pro-regime shabiha militia last spring, at least 13 people, including eight children, were said to have perished.

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