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Monday
Jan212013

Syria Live Coverage: The Battle for Idlib Begins?

See also Algeria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: At Least 81 Killed in Gas Plant Siege
Sunday's Syria Live Coverage: "Darayya is Being Pounded to Dust"


Opposition Commander Ayachi Abdel Rahman2136 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim 92 people were killed today, including 27 in Aleppo Province and 24 in Damascus and its suburbs.

1946 GMT: Russian Evacuation. Moscow is sending two planes to Lebanon to evacuate more than 100 Russians from Syria.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said the planes would fly to Beirut on Tuesday to carry more than 100 Russians from Syria.

1629 GMT: Regime Attack on Darayya Continues. Regime airstrikes and artillery heavy bombarded the city of Darayya, just southwest of Damascus, for yet another day. This video and several others claim to show smoke rising above the city:

This video shows 3 tanks and a BMP in the city of Darayya today. As you can see (see our update at 1424) they are not accompanied by infantry. The destruction of the facades of the buildings is also apparent:

1618 GMT: Massive Blackout in the Capital. While rolling power outages are nothing new, even these have been more rare in the more central and sensitive areas of Damascus. However, last night's power outage, part of which continues currently and much of which lasted well into the morning, was both massive and unique in scale:

At its height, the outage engulfed all of Damascus and extended to an area at least 50 kilometers (31 miles) north to the town of Zabadani and across the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida that abut the Jordanian border.

By midday Monday, power had returned to more than half of the capital, and Electricity Minister Imad Khamis said authorities were working to restore it in other areas.

1525 GMT: 1st Patriot Missiles Arrive in Turkey. The 1st 6 NATO missile batteries have reached Turkey. They have been deployed from Germany, not the US, but their arrival has sparked some protests, according to Reuters:

Dozens of camouflaged German military vehicles carrying the batteries disembarked at the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. About 150 Turkish Communist Party supporters fired pink smoke grenades and burned an American flag at a port entrance.

1515 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, at least 50 people have been killed so far today:

17 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 14 in Aleppo; 8 in Hama; 5 in Idlib; 3 in Homs; and 3 in Daraa.

However, it's unclear if the people in this video (warning, strong images) have been counted in this tally. The video reportedly shows several children, apparently dead, and other adults injured or killed, reportedly the result of a shell that fell in the narrow street.

1459 GMT: Another Checkpoint Captured By Rebels Near Idlib. A rebel brigade posts this video, showing a reported victory on the road between Ariha and Jisr Al Shughour (map). These checkpoints are important because they provide new attack routes to the city of Idlib, and open supply lines for the rebel forces.

Zilal provides this translation of the following video.

The video shows the rebels attack a significantly defended town on a tall ridge. However, the rebels hit the town with heavy machineguns, mortars, multiple-launch rocket launchers, and lots of infantry. In the video it is clear that they capture several armored vehicles and destroy at least 1 BMP. Caution - there are several dead Assad soldiers visible in the video.

It's a video made by Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade and it shows their attack to the southern checkpoint in Basnkoul village located on the road Ariha - Lattakia; they say that gained ammunitions for BMP vehicles and machine guns. They say to have destroyed a T72 tank and a number of vehicles at the northern checkpoint and that they killed dozens of members of regime forces. They also say that they have lost some fighters (Bilal Assi, Ibrahim Azzawi, Mohammad Ashdibar, Ayman Abu Al-Hasan. Maher Abdelghani).

1424 GMT: Assad Running Out of Infantry? In the late summer and early fall, Assad was losing troops to defections at a rapid rate. The Syrian Military responded by deploying large amounts of tanks into cities, especially into southern Damascus, with little to no troop support. The result was disastrous for the military, as insurgents easily destroyed dozens of tanks each day with RPGs, improvised explosives, and other weapons. Since then, Assad has sent more loyal troops to accompany his tanks, a tactic which has been more successful but which has meant that some of his most loyal forces were now suffering casualties.

Several military and arms specialists have forwarded us this video, which was reportedly taken in Damascus (Zilal forwards us this video which says it was taken in Darayya on January 16). In a dramatic scene, two tanks fires at the lower levels of the buildings.

We can't verify the date or location of the video. One activist we spoke to said this was Damascus.

Both of the specialists who sent this video had the same reaction - this is a textbook example of how NOT to use tanks in a city. For starters, there are no ground troops for support. Without those troops, these tanks are vulnerable not only from attacks from above, but also from RPG or other explosive strikes from street level. Furthermore, as long as the men filing, and any insurgents nearby, don't enter the ground floor, they will be safe from these tank blasts which can neither hit them nor knock down the buildings.

This is a reversion to the behavior we saw months ago in several cities, including in Hajar al Aswad and other districts in Southern Damascus. Those tactics ended in disaster then, and if this video really was taken recently, then they won't work now either. This is not the only video in the last week or so that shows tanks fighting alone. This begs the question - is Assad running out of infantry?

1417 GMT: Weather Update. If there's been any good news on the humanitarian front, it's that the weather has significantly improved over the last week and a half. Today's highs will be above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows just above 40, and no precipitation on the radar. The bad news is that 40 degrees is still extremely chilly for people living in tents.

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

1354 GMT: Military Campaign. Karen Leigh, writing for Syria Deeply, speaks to an insurgent military commander about the impending "Battle for Latakia":

 

We’re three kilometers from the front and 35 kilometers from Latakia City, a stronghold of the privileged Alawite sect and their leader, beleaguered President Bashar Assad. He’s the most hated man on this hill. For much of the last 21 months of fighting, the FSA and what’s left of a rapidly depleting Syrian Army have been waging a bloody guerilla war in the mountains that border the city....

 

“The [rest of the] fighting will be in Latakia, because the regime’s power is all in Latakia,” says Major Abu Suheil, head of the provincial military council. “If we finish them there, we win. Latakia’s fighting will stretch on longer than anywhere else in Syria.”

Confident that they have sufficiently weakened the regime in the mountains, FSA leaders in Latakia Province plan to march to Latakia City, in a final battle that Major Suheil says will be “bloody.” About 10,000 of the FSA’s fighters from Turkman and Akrad will join the urban battle.

“All of the Alawites who support Assad live just outside the city, in the suburbs,” he says. This includes Qardaha, the president’s ancestral homeland. “So that’s where most of the fighting will take place. It will be face-to-face.”

They will make their move once they have the necessary supplies and when Aleppo, now a disputed city, is fully under rebel control. His strategy will be to control the roads leading from the mountains to Latakia City, ensuring that regime forces and shabiha cannot retreat back into the woods.

 

1307 GMT: Destruction. Claimed footage of the Irbeen suburb of Damsscus after air raids this morning:

1200 GMT: Problems for Students Overseas. The Financial Times reports that many of the 650 Syrian university students in Britain are "trapped...without money to pay fees or meet their living costs because of the civil war in their home country".

The British Council has negotiated deals with eight universities to ensure that students on the main Syrian government scholarship scheme are not removed from courses. A hardship scheme is currently supporting 58 candidates.

1020 GMT: The Blackout of Damascus. More on the overnight power cut in the capital....

Minister of Electricity Imad Khamis as saying that the outages were caused by "an armed terrorist attack on the main feed line".

Khamis said authorities were working to restore power. Damascus residents say electricity had been returned to limited areas early Monday.

0851 GMT: Aerial Attacks. Al Jazeera English's Sue Turton reports from Idlib Province, where local people fear a new regime missile which "offers little advance warning before it strikes":

0759 GMT: Opposition. The opposition National Coalition has confirmed its delay in forming a transitional government, following a two-day meeting in Istnabul.

The talks reportedly foundered on a dispute over the Prime Minister-in-exile, with some of the 70 members reportedly objecting to the selection of Riad Hijab,

Hijab was briefly Prime Minister under President Assad until he defected last August.

The Coalition said a five-member committee would put forward proposals on a government within 10 days. It would "consult opposition forces and the Free Syrian Army and friendly states to get their opinion about forming the government and the extent to which they can honour the necessary commitments for its financial and political viability"/>[?

Sources at the negotiations in Istanbul said Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib had flown to Qatar to secure promises of financial aid for a transitional government in insurgent-held areas.

0653 GMT: Destruction. CNN's Ivan Watson files a video report on the "state of shock" in Azaz, a town on the Turkish border, more than a week after a devastating regime aerial attack.

0643 GMT: Humanitarian Situation. Ola Salem opens her first-hand report for The National:

 

"Come see how we are living," Osama Salamat says. "I swear if you come and see this you will see a real catastrophe. People are now wishing to die."

 

Osama and his wife and nine children are among the 50,000 Syrian refugees at Al Zaatari camp on the Jordanian border.

The camp was lashed last week by three days of rain and a fourth of snow, turning it into a muddy swamp of waist-deep, freezing water. For many, what few possessions they managed to save as they fled their homes in Syria have gone.

Osama saw children almost drowning in the floods. His own were taken to the nearby Moroccan field hospital. "Children are walking bare foot on the snow," he said. "My children."

It has been two weeks since his family were given food. "We used to be given breakfast and dinner. For 15 days now we get nothing," he said.

 

0640 GMT: Blackout in Damascus. An EA source reported last night that Damascus had suffered a major power outage: "You can tell when power is out -- even before Twitter tells you there is a problem --- because Syrians drop off Facebook."

Bill Neely of Britain's ITV later sent the message:

 

 

0550 GMT: Attacks and Casualties. We begin with a first-hand report by Tracey Shelton of the Global Post:

A coordinated attack on seven prime military checkpoints on the western border of Idlib city signaled the beginning of the “War for Idlib,” according to opposition commanders who led the attack Sunday.

The ambush opened a key route into the city and isolated the Almarkazi Prison, which is under siege by rebel forces tonight as the Syrian conflict nears its two-year mark.

The attack was the first in a series designed to penetrate Idlib city, the last major stronghold of Syrian regime forces in Idlib [Province].

Even more interesting than the claimed attack is the implication that it is partly motivated by the split between the Free Syrian Army and other opposition factions such as the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra, which reportedly has claimed a series of car bombs in and near Idlib:

[Suqur al-Sham Brigade Commander Ayachi Abdel] Rahman stressed the need to push the siege of Idlib forward after two car bombs exploded near a government security facility killing 22 on Wednesday.

“We don’t know who made that explosion but it is a terrorist act,” he said, condemning the action that took the lives of at least six civilians. 

“We have to hurry to take the city to prevent any further attacks. Maybe they killed 16 shabiha [pro-government militia], but if even one civilian was killed in this action it’s negative overall. Step by step we can make the same action without killing the innocent.”

Meanwhile, regime forces continue to bombard suburbs of Damascus in the weeks-long attempt to break the insurgency or at least keep it at bay. Footage on Sunday showed shelling of Jobar, with unconfirmed claims of a large number of casualties.

The Local Coordination Committees reported that 132 people died on Sunday, including 11 women and 10 children. Fifty of the dead were in Damascus and Damascus Suburbs, 26 in Homs Province, 21 in Aleppo Province, and 17 in Idlib Province.

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