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Thursday
Jan312013

Syria Live Coverage: Israeli Jets Strike Inside Syria --- But What Was the Target?

Mass funeral prayer for some of the 80 executed men pulled from the Quweig River near Aleppo on Tuesday


2059 GMT: The Israeli Attack. The White House has given implicit support to the Israeli airstrikes by shifting responsibility to Damascus and invoking the chemical weapons threat.

"We've been very clear that Syria should not further destabilize the region by transferring, for instance, weaponry to Hezbollah," said Deputy US National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. "We also, of course, have been very clear beyond that that we're closely monitoring Syria's chemical weapons as well."

2050 GMT: More On the Israeli Airstrike. According to Now Lebanon, the convoy that was reportedly destroyed was on its way to a well-known Hezbollah arms depot in Lebanon:

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz cited an unnamed Lebanese source who claimed the convoy originated in al-Qusayr, in the Homs countryside, and was headed toward Hermel, across the border. Meanwhile, Sky News reported that the Israeli jets hit the convoy near the Lebanese town of Nabi Sheet – presumably meaning that the trucks were headed there.

Nabi Sheet is known to be the site of Hezbollah weapons depots. Just last October there were “mysterious explosions” in one of those depots, killing three Hezbollah members. Meanwhile, al-Qusayr, whether or not it was the convoy’s point of origin, is the area where Hezbollah has most heavily deployed its forces in Syria. Directly across the border from Hermel in Lebanon, al-Qusayr’s countryside features a number of small Shiite hamlets that have facilitated Hezbollah movement there. Right before the Nabi Sheet blast in October, a senior Hezbollah commander who guided operations in al-Qusayr was killed in action there.

What’s more, border areas like al-Qusayr and the countryside of Damascus along the border with the Beqaa region of Lebanon are the entryways of overland arms smuggling and also the sites of Hezbollah weapons storage facilities, especially since the 2006 war with Israel. This, among other things, explains why Hezbollah has maintained a strong presence there, fighting alongside, or on behalf of, the Assad regime’s forces.

2027 GMT: War Rages On. Away from the headlines, the Syrian airforce has pounded locations across Damascus, Daraa, Homs and Deir Ez Zor Province. Some activists report that a bridge has collapsed in Deir Ez Zor, where Assad is primarily using air power and artillery to try to hold on to his last footholds in the east:

In Aleppo, there are new reports that the rebels have won another victory in the southern districts of the city:

All told, the Local Coordination Committees report that 84 have been killed so far today:

44 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs; 13 in Idlib; 11 in Aleppo; 9 in Homs; 4 in Daraa; 1 in Deir Ezzor; 1 in Qunaitera and 1 in Hasakeh.

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

1905 GMT: Fighting in Yarmouk Refugee Camp. Back from a break from consulting with colleagues to find that there is heavy fighting going on in the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp. According to activists, the Free Syrian Army attacked a military barracks on the outskirts of the camp, and fighting has raged for hours. This video shows fires burning inside the camp:

And this video, posted by the LCC, reportedly shows some of the fighting in the camp earlier in the day:

1629 GMT: The Israeli Attack.. Activist Sofi Haddad tells The Guardian of the Israeli airstrike near Damascus on Wednesday morning:

Jamraya lies on a hill that houses officers and chemical experts who work at the Scientific Research Centre. There are also huge warehouses under the hill that contain all the chemical materials and explosives storage which are used at the centre.

The centre is part of a military industrial compound in a district called al-Fardous in Jamraya. It has many buildings and warehouses. The centre is responsible for developing weapons and military techniques. It is affiliated to the Ministry of Defence.

Yesterday at around 12:30 a.m., we heard a series of explosions. It was like 10 explosions one after another. High clouds of smoke covered the district with orange flame. The fire continued for about 45 minutes before it was extinguished. None of the houses nearby were hit. It was completely dark and none of us saw any of the planes.

1543 GMT: The Israeli Attack.. Syria has summoned the head of the United Nations mission in the Golan Heights, Iqbal Singha, to protest the Israeli airstrikes.

1443 GMT: Sniper Attacked Those Removing Bodies in Aleppo. The New York Times blog The Lede has posted a collection of evidence detailing what they know about the newest massacre in Aleppo where around 80 bodies were pulled from a river.

Graphic video posted on YouTube showed bodies lined up along the muddy riverbank. Many had visible head wounds and lengths of cord wrapped around their wrists. Gunfire echoed in the distance, and at the end of the clip the cameraman broke into a run. “A sniper is firing at us,” he said.

The report gives matches the claim that those trying to remove the bodies from the river were also shot at by a sniper.

1420 GMT: Evidence of Israel's Airstrike. More than 24 hours after the alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria, many questions remain. The initial report was that a convoy had been destroyed, carrying weapons across the border into Lebanon:

Fighter jets struck the vehicles because they were carrying SA-17 missile parts, a Russian-made, medium-range delivery system, and other equipment that could have been used to attack Israel, another source told CNN.

However, the Syrian government stated that a military research facility only 5 miles from the Presidential palace, and a long way from the border, was destroyed in the early morning hours. Investigative journalist Felim McMahon of Storyful has collected evidence that the the Syrian government's claim that a research facility was attacked:

Long before the first reports emerged of an Israeli attack on a research facility near Damascus, media activists associated with the adjoining neighbourhood of Hameh (الهامة) and the surrounding areas posted videos and reports suggesting such a site had been hit. Activists filmed strikes and described loud booms at the ‘scientific research facility’ from shortly after midnight on Wednesday, January 30. Later reports described heightened security in the area.

McMahon has posted the videos, a timeline of the eyewitness reports, a summary of the media reports, and a map of the suspected site. Read his investigation here.

The report about the convoy being attacked, on the other hand, so far relies on unnamed sources and leaks from various governments.

So what happened? Storyful's investigation is compelling, but there remains that possibility that the attack on the research facility is the work of an insurgent attack (this is speculative, and no such claim has been claimed). There also remains the possibility that both stories are true, and Israel has hit both the Jamraya facility and a military convoy further northwest on the border of Lebanon.

One thing is clear, however. This is not the first time that Syria has been successfully attacked by the Israeli airforce. Michael Weiss called Syria's air defense a "paper tiger" back in October, and that was before the rebels dismantled the air defense network in Idlib, most of the network in Aleppo, and large parts of Assad's defenses around Damascus. This strike proves, once again, that Assad is vulnerable to foreign air strikes. That much, at least, is clear.

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

0851 GMT: Mass Killing. Ruth Sherlock of The Daily Telegraph posts a first-hand report about the 80 executed men and teenagers found in a river near Aleppo on Tuesday:

The 14-year-old was excited to be leaving Syria. The war had ravaged his home neighbourhood in Aleppo, his school had shut, and much of his family had already escaped.

In just over a week, his uncle had promised, he would be joining his parents, already abroad and working in Libya. Instead, 1,000 miles from his mother and father, Amnajid became the youngest target of a mass execution, the 100 victims of which continued to be lifted from a river in the city.

Like many of the victims, Amnajid and his uncle, Majid, who died with him, had been carrying out the ordinary tasks of civilian life despite being in the middle of a city at war.

"They disappeared three days ago," Majid's brother, Ahmed, said. He asked for the family's full name not to be given because his home was in government-held territory. "Majid had a shoe shop in al-Azizia, which is under the regime's control. He closed the shop last month because there are no customers, but he still went to check on the store every few days.

"We told Amnajid that he shouldn't go. But he insisted. He was a strong boy."

0846 GMT: Fighting in Damascus. In a powerful set of 14 photographs for Reuters, Goran Tomasevic documents an insurgent attack on a regime checkpoint in the Ain Tarma section of Damascus, with the Syrian military counter-attacking with tanks and snipers:

0834 GMT: The Israeli Attack. Hezbollah has issued a statement condemning Israel's airstrikes inside Syria and expressing "full solidarity" with Syria's "leadership, army, and people".

The Lebanese organisation called for political dialogue to end the "criminal" war.

0830 GMT: Insurgent Advance. Free Syrian Army fighters celebrate after taking over the village of Aljanodiya in northwestern Idlib Province (Photo: AFP):

0805 GMT: The Israeli Attack. Russia's Foreign Ministry has condemned any Israeli airstrike inside Syria, "If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

0755 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claims that 144 people were killed on Wednesday, including 42 in Damascus and its suburbs, 39 in Aleppo Province, and 27 in Homs Province.

0715 GMT: Mass Killing. The Foreign Ministry has sent letters to the President of the United Nations Security Council and UN Secretary General following Tuesday's discovery of more than 80 executed men in the Quweig River near Aleppo:

An armed group of [the Islamist faction] Jabhat al-Nusra perpetrated a new massacre in Aleppo on Tuesday. The terrorists carried out mass executions against scores of Syrian abducted civilians in a cold blood, throwing their bodies in Quweiq river.

Opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army, and activists claim the men were killed by regime forces, probably dumped upstream from where they were found. Families of the dead say some were slain as they travelled to renew identity cards, following the killing of several soldiers in the area by insurgents.

0550 GMT: Israeli Attack. After a day of rumours and chatter, the Syrian army confirmed last night that Israeli jets had struck inside the country.

That, however, is far from the end of the questions, notably: What was the target?

President Assad's military said the jets had attacked a "military research centre", in Jamraya near Damascus, "in charge of raising our level of resistance and self-defence".

Other indications, however, were that West Jerusalem's target was a military convoy laden with arms. A Western diplomat said the trucks were moving to Lebanon, with other sources saying that the cargo may have included SA-17 anti-aircraft systems destined for Hezbollah.

A US official confirmed the attack. Other American officials put the stories together, and said the Israelis had struck both the convoy and the research centre.

Earlier rumours said the convoy was carrying chemical weapon stocks, but these claims dissipated during the day.

Some of the confusion may be because of the juxtaposition of two attacks on Syrian forces. EA's James Miller established that, on Tuesday, insurgents had destroyed part of a convoy at Al Safira, southeast of Aleppo. Al Safira hosts a military base which holds chemical weapons, but Miller, with the help of arms experts, confirmed that the weapons destroyed were conventional.

The Israeli attack, according to a source among insurgents, occurred around dawn (0430 GMT) on Wednesday, about five kilometres south of where the main Damascus-Beirut highway crosses the border.

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