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Syria Live Coverage: A Growing Crisis Over Food?

Bread Line in Aleppo, 9 DecemberSee also Syria Exclusive: Definitive Evidence of Regime Airstrikes on Aleppo University

Syria Video Discussion: War Crimes and the "Rules of Engagement"
Jordan (and Beyond) Live Coverage: A Parliamentary Election --- But What Does It Mean?
Wednesday's Syria Live Coverage: Deaths of the Past, Deaths of the Present

2045 GMT: Helicopter Shot Down in Aleppo. The LCC posts this video, which we also saw from other sources, of a helicopter shot down somewhere in Aleppo province. We have not seen this footage, or any similar footage, before, suggesting that this could be new. The description says the aircraft was "brought down by machineguns," presumably anti-aircraft guns:

2012 GMT: 90 Killed Nationwide Today. The death toll has risen to 90, according to the Local Coordination Committees:

40 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs; 13 in Homs, during a raid of Qusair; 12 in Aleppo; 9 in Idlib; 5 in Lattakia; 5 in Daraa; 4 in Hama; 2 in Deir Ezzor.

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.

2003 GMT: More Evidence from Aleppo University. We have posted a new analysis of the bombings at Aleppo University on January 15. According to our latest evidence, and comments by well-placed Western government sources, the explosions that left 80 students dead were the result of a regime airstrike:

See Also Syria Exclusive: Definitive Evidence of Regime Airstrikes on Aleppo University

1624 GMT: Major Defector Reaches US, Assad's Mother in UAE. Major news about two high-profile Syrians:

Makdissi, the former Foreign Ministry spokesman for the Assad regime, has previously stated that he was afraid for his life, and that he has been working with the opposition for some time. The fact that he is in the United states is interesting as the rumors have always been that he fled initially to the UK.

It's unclear why Assad's mother left Syria. Some have speculated that she is seeking a kind of asylum, anticipating the fall of the regime. Bashar al Assad's sister is also reportedly in Dubai.

In September, Syrian residents in the Gulf emirate said that Bushra had enrolled her five children at a private school in Dubai where she had moved.

Makhluf's "departure from Syria is another indication of Assad losing support even from within his family," said Ayman Abdel Nour, head of the newly-formed group Syrian Christians for Democracy and editor-in-chief of opposition news website

Analysts say that Assad is increasingly relying on the tightly-knit circle surrounding him, which includes Maher, his only brother still alive and who commands the army's notorious Fourth Brigade.

Assad's two other brothers Bassel and Majd are dead. The embattled president also relies on relatives from his mother's side, analysts say.

1333 GMT: National Coalition Addresses Syria's Christians. Moaz al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary & Opposition Forces, has been criticized for past statements that seem closed minded or too strongly associated with strict interpretation of Islam. However, Khatib released a statement earlier in the month that was written specifically for the Christians in the Middle East. In the letter he gives both Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad the same greeting ("peace and blessings upon him"), urges all Muslims and Christians to be tolerant, and explains the deep and proud history of Christianity in Syria. In the heartfelt message, Khatib bemoans that harm has befallen some Christians in the region, and in Syria, and accuses dictators of trying to stoke sectarian tensions:

We have lived together as one in good times and in bad, respecting each other’s’ religion, and identifying in each other a vital human component that made Syria the mosaic of the world, and one of its masterpieces. Coexistence also made Syria one of the finest places on earth, not only in terms of sectarian tolerance and compassion, but also in terms of love, security, and tranquility. Defending the dignity, blood, wealth, life, and property of Christians is tantamount to defending our own dignity, blood, wealth, and property. It is shameful that any of them would meet harm among us...

Coexistence is part of our morality and our duty towards God, who ordered us to be kind and live in harmony. Justice among people is the foundation of religion, and justice still exists in our society. We love each other; our elderly treat the young with tenderness; we share in everything, good and bad; we share our neighbor’s joy and cry for his sorrow; we open our doors to them, as they do to us.

The message was the first of several interesting statements from the opposition. The Local Coordination Committees released a statement in the last week denouncing all carm bomb or suicide attacks that could kill civilians, for instance. That statement was seemingly aimed directly at Jabhat al Nusra, a group which they have not publicly and specifically condemned but a group whose actions are now distinctly set against the values of the LCC. Free Syrian Army commanders announced that, during the battle for Idlib city, Al Nusra will be on the sidelines and the FSA will try to take as much territory as they can before the more extremist Brigades are allowed to.

In other words, the formal opposition is more clearly stating that they reject sectarianism and extremism, as well as terrorism and the death of civilians as collateral damage. For obvious reasons this is encouraging, but it also signals that the formal opposition leadership can no longer remain neutral on these questions. This signifies that tensions between Islamic groups like Jabhat al Nusra and the secular groups like the FSA and LCC may very well be near a tipping point.

Regardless, Khatib's powerful words will need to be echoed by powerful actions. Just yesterday, Human Rights Watch warned that some Shia mosques had been damaged and some Christian churches looted. It remains to be seen how much control groups like the National Coalition have over the actions of individuals or Brigades on the ground in Syria.

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

1205 GMT: Refugees. Back from an academic break to find yet another report of the escalation of refugees, with more than 12,000 Syrians crossing into Jordan in the last six days --- 6000 of them in a 12-hour period.

Jordan is now home to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees. While the number is sharply increasing, it is still far below the numbers in Turkey and Lebanon, which now has close to 200,000 displaced Syrians.

0615 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees report that 146 people were killed on Wednesday, including 74 in Aleppo Province and 23 in Damascus and its suburbs.

No explanation is given for the spike in deaths in Aleppo Province.

0610 GMT: Food Shortages. We open with Wednesday's report from the United Nations of the growing crisis over food supplies.

The Food and Agricultural Organization said that output had fallen by more than half in key sectors, such as wheat production.  In areas such as Hama, Homs, and Daraa, supplies of essentials such as poultry, fruit, and cooking oil fell  by up to 60%. Plunges in cotton and fertiliser were also reported.

Dominic Burgeon of the FAO said, after a tour of parts of Syria:

We saw the massive destruction, I think what struck us was the massive destruction to the infrastructure. What particularly shocked me, as an agronomist, somebody who's been working most of his career with poor farmers, are the reports of irrigation infrastructures, irrigation canals, that they've been destroyed, pumps in the rangelands that they've been either stolen or destroyed, knowing that these pumps are essential for the Beduins to water their animals.This is really touching the heart of the livelihood of the Syrian people.

The World Food Program said recently that 2.5 million people inside Syria were in urgent need of assistance, but aid was only reaching 1.5 million.

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