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Syria Live Coverage: Has the Insurgent Advance Stalled?

Insurgents firing on Taftanaz airbase in Idlib Province

See also Syria Video Feature: The Banners of the Revolution
Bahrain (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Regime Shuts Away Its Political Prisoners
Monday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Assad Remains Defiant

2136 GMT: A Massacre in Idlib? Some sources now suggest that between 50 and 71 people have been found dead in Mastoomeh, just south of Idlib city (see update 1920). These reports are completely unconfirmed, and news is very hard to come by from the town at this moment. So far, there have been no pictures or videos either, but the internet in the town may be cut off.

Here is what we know - Yesterday there were reports that the regime moved forces into the town and crushed the small amount of rebel fighters who had briefly occupied it. Black smoke was reportedly seen rising from the town, and some have suggested that homes were burned by the regime elements.

Since then, reports of executions have been spreading, but few details have been confirmed. Several different activists have told us that sources they trust can attest that bodies have been burned in the streets. Several sources suggest that the number of dead is 70 or more, though several sources have also expressed caution that there is little news actually coming from the town.

Ultimately, there is a worry that either there are wild rumors flying, or that there has been a terrible massacre that will not be covered by the media because of the lack of information.

2055 GMT: Al Nusra Front - The Quilliam Foundation, a group which Ed Hussain used to belong to, has released what they say is an extensive and well researched report on Jabhat al Nusra, the insurgent group placed on the Terror list by the State Department for alleged ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The report traces the groups foundation, organization strategy, membership, and its larger role, relying on anonymous sources described as "jihadists and Islamists, resistance fighters, government officials and experts in recent Iraqi affairs." The entire report can be read here.

According to the report, Al Nusra now contains more than 5,000 fighters (still a relatively small portion of the Syrian insurgency), and is operating to topple the Assad regime while working hard to hide its ties to Al Qaeda, especially to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

CNN's Nic Robertson interviews the primary author of the report, Noman Benotman, who is himself a former Jihadi.

Speaking of Al Nusra, the group was accused today of executing three prisoners for crimes committed before the rebels captured much of Deir Ez Zor:

"The al-Nusra Front executed three regime troops who were captured on January 5 from the technical services building in Deir ez-Zor city," the watchdog said, adding that it was not clear when, exactly, the soldiers were killed.

In a video released by the hard-line group and posted to YouTube by the Observatory, the three men are seated before a black flag bearing the Muslim profession of faith and surrounded by masked men holding Kalashnikovs.

They give their names and hometown while the man interrogating them identifies them as Alawites, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad and his senior officials belong.

One is accused of raping a young woman.

The video then showed the mangled bodies of the men lying in a ditch.

"The dogs of Assad have violated the women of Deir ez-Zor, and this is what will happen to anyone who does such a thing," a man shouted from behind the camera.

1920 GMT: Death Toll Rises - According to the Local Coordination Committees, 101 people have been killed so far today:

45 martyrs were reported in Idlib; most of them in Al-Mastumeh, 28 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 14 in Deir Ezzor; including 9 unidentified bodies that were found in Jbeila, 9 in Aleppo, 3 in Homs, 1 in Daraa and 1 in Hama.

According to the LCC, 35 people were executed and their bodies burned in the streets in Mastumeh, a suburb south of Idlib city (map). The town is on the path between the rebel advance and the last major vestige of Assad troops in Idlib province, and it seems the civilian populace is already paying the price. According to reports, yesterday (we believe) rebel fighters withdrew from the town after encountering large amounts of Assad armor and troops, and since that time reports of a new massacre have been spreading. So far, however, we've yet to see video of the bodies.

The other noticeable spike in deaths is in Deir Ez Zor, which has been heavily bombarded today by both Assad airforce and artillery after an intensification of fighting near the airport which may or may not have resulted in the destruction of what may be a civilian transport jet (see update 1508).

1639 GMT: Zaatari Refugee Camp - In Jordan, floods have washed through the Zaatari refugee camp, home to nearly 50,000 who have fled the Syrian conflict, and a riot broke out. 7 aid workers were injured in the fighting:

The riot broke out after the region's first major winter storm this year hit the Zaatari refugee camp, home to nearly 50,000 refugees in Jordan's northern desert. Inside the camp, pools and lakes surrounded tents, stranding refugees including pregnant women and infants. Some refugees scurried to evacuate their flooded tents while others used small buckets to bail out the water. Women, children and the elderly whose tents collapsed were hosted at other tents.

Some refugees scurried to evacuate their flooded tents while others used small buckets to bail out the water. Women, children and the elderly whose tents collapsed were hosted at other tents...

Dozens of refugees hit the workers with sticks and pelted them with stones as they distributed bread for breakfast.

An opposition Facebook page posts this picture of the flooded camps:

1621 GMT: Damascus Under Siege - The CFDPC, a coalition of activists working to report on the news from in and around Damascus, posted this summary of today's developments in the capital and surrounding areas:

For the 52nd day in a row, the regime forces continued the attempts to break into Darayya, extensively bombarding the city with missiles and artillery, which caused considerable damage in the residential buildings.

The clashes continued between regime forces and FSA near Tlateen street in Yarmouk Camp, while heavy missile shelling targeted the towns and villages in Eastern Ghouta, especially Kafar Batna leading to many martyrs and injuries.

There are more reports of fighting in Darayya, and one video posted today suggested that Assad tanks were withdrawing after heavy fighting earlier in the day:

Also, in the last hour the LCC has reported that many people have been killed by shelling or bombing in the Yarmouk camp of Damascus. Videos and pictures posted to their Facebook page claimed to show some of those killed, and several videos, including this one, reportedly show smoke rising from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.

1608 GMT: The Conflict Accelerating? According to State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, the pace of the conflict has not slowed down but is in fact speeding up:

QUESTION: But if I could just follow, you seem to have this policy where you’re hoping that the rebels will overtake the regime, yet – and you’re coordinating with others who are doing so, but you’re not doing, in effect, they would claim, enough to help them tip that balance. So you’re hoping that they’ll get the job done, but not giving them the tools to do so.

MS. NULAND: Again, the situation on the ground is changing; it is accelerating. We are still seeing the regime on the defensive. We are seeing the opposition continuing to take and hold more territory. They’ve now grounded his planes in and around Aleppo. The battle for Damascus is engaged. The decision that we’ve made is to continue to coordinate with countries around the world who are providing support. Some of them have made a different decision that we’ve made, but for the United States, our view is that the nonlethal assistance that we are providing is appropriate for us in terms of training, in terms of communications, these kinds of things.

1508 GMT: Shooting at a Civilian Plane - Looking at the video, the plane in question does not appear to be a military transport, but rather a civilian plane. In fact, some of the other rebel entries, and the descriptions of some of the videos, say as much. The claim is that no civilian planes are carrying passengers in and out of the airport, which is now exclusively used for Assad's military defense of Deir Ez Zor (the airport is his last major base in the region).

There have been FSA threats issued against the Aleppo airport as well, briefly closing it last week. The rebels have previously said they will attack anything flying in or out because the planes are used to transport Assad military supplies. Last week there was even footage of the Syrian rebels discussing, and eventually firing upon, a civilian aircraft.

The way we are using the word "civilian" is very specific - an aircraft designed for the transportation of civilians, similar to any one would find at an average airport. We cannot say what is on the planes, or whether they are being used to transport weapons, ammunition, or military personnel. This raises several obvious problems. If we do not know what's on these aircraft, do the rebels? Also, if Assad is moving military resources on civilian planes, is this a clear break in the international rules of warfare?

Also, to be clear, the downing of the plane is not yet confirmed beyond the claims and video posted below.

1454 GMT: Death Toll - According to the Local Coordination Committees, 57 people have been killed so far today:

20 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 17 in Mastoma in Idlib, 11 in Deir Ezzor (including 9 unidentified bodies in Jabela), 8 in Aleppo, and 1 in Daraa.

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

Airplane shot down? Earlier, there were reports of an intensification of fighting near Deir Ez Zor airport, and an intensification in the regime's bombing campaign against the city as a result. However, the LCC has just posted this dramatic claim:

A warplane that contains ammunition for regime forces got burned before it landed in Deir Ezzor Military Airport because it was targeted by the Free Syrian Army.

In fact, this first video does appear to show a plane landing while it is on fire (the video cuts right as it lands, which is curious) and many videos claim to show smoke rising from the airport as a result:

1443 GMT: Refugee Watch - Two children, a 5 year old and a 15 year old, were killed in a fire in a refugee camp in Turkey:

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told reporters the fire was apparently caused by the refugees' "illegal use of electricity" that is provided for radiators used to heat the tents.

For those inside Syria, things may be worse. Even though the U.N.'s World Food Programme hands out rations to 1.5 million people inside Syria, they report that another million may run out of food, and a total of 4 million need urgent humanitarian aid.

Long lines in front of bakeries are now normal in many parts of Syria and there are reports of shortages of wheat flour in most parts of the country due to damage to mills, most of which are located in the embattled Aleppo area, she said.

"WFP is making arrangements to import fuel for humanitarian use, to resolve the impact of a significant fuel shortage throughout the country that has been affecting the agency's ability to move food on time - from the port to packaging facilities - and to find trucks to dispatch food for distribution," she said.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, bad weather has damaged many tents, and The Guardian reports that there have been riots and a "stampede" in the Zaatari camp after the entire camp appears to have been flooded by the rains.

Even facing such life-and-death obstacles, the establishment of democracy is towards the top of the desires for Syrian refugees. In the Killis camp in Turkey they are preparing to hold their own elections to govern the camps:

Refugees aged 18 and over at the Kilis camp housing more than 13,000 Syrians on the Turkey-Syria border will be able to vote on Jan. 17 for leaders of different sections of the camp and for an 18-member administrative council, the Turkish government said in a statement.

The elections are aimed at "introducing Syrian citizens to democracy and aim to provide the opportunity to gain experience in this field", it said.

A total of 42 candidates, who are required to be over the age of 30, will be able to launch election campaigns with bi-weekly speeches. They will be provided with flags, placards and technical support. Each of the six sections in the camp has to have at least one female candidate.

1426 GMT: Weather Report - The weather is a key player in what will happen in Syria over the next several months. The rain clouds and cold weather have become the backdrop for the struggle in Syria, as food and medical supplies drop, prices for everything including heating oil skyrocket, and many are living as refugees in tents or damaged housing. For months many have warned that winter could have a devastating impact on the civilians affected by this conflict, and now that winter has arrived.

However, there's a sign that every cloud has a silver lining. Yesterday we reported that the death toll was lower than in recent memory, especially since perhaps 12 people were killed in a single explosion, a reported rocket strike, in Aleppo. Now we have a reason. The Strategic Research and Communications Centre, an opposition group working to report on the conflict, says weather is one factor for the lower death toll.

Defections and weather conditions help Syrians against air strikes: A relatively low number of casualties was reported on Saturday and Sunday, this was due in part to weather conditions that helped reduce the number of air raids by Assad’s Air Force.

As for today's weather, in Damascus there was a high of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 32, with rain, snow, and wind forecast. Idlib is predicted to be about 5 degrees colder. The chance of rain or snow across Syria is between 90%-100%.

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

1149 GMT: The United Nations World Food Program has said that it can only assist 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Syrians who need assistance.

WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs says the lack of security and its inability to use the Syrian port of Tartous for its shipment means that a large number of people will not get aid. A briefing note added:

WFP is unable to further scale up assistance due to the lack of implementing partners on the ground and challenges reaching some of the country’s hardest hit areas. Our main partner, the Red Crescent, is overstretched and has no more capacity to expand further

The note continued:

A bread crisis is hitting various governorates across the country due to insecurity, a shortage of fuel necessary for bakeries, damage to bakeries and an increasing demand from new internally displaced persons. Long queues in front of bakeries are now the norm in many parts of Syria.

There are reports of shortages of wheat flour in most parts of the country due to the damage to mills, the majority of which are in the Aleppo area, lack of fuel for delivery, road closures and difficult access.

Where fighting is taking place, food prices are reported to have almost doubled and there is a shortage of cooking gas.

Byrs also said that the agency has temporarily pulled its staff out of its offices in the cities of Homs, Aleppo, Tartous, and Qamishli due to rising dangers.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for a Jordanian charity said a riot in a Syrian refugee camp over harsh winter conditions injured seven aid workers.

Ghazi Sarhan said dozens of refugees, frustrated that their tents fell or were swept away in howling winds overnight, beat Jordanian aid workers with sticks and pelted them with stones as they distributed bread on Tuesday.

1029 GMT: US officials hand the story of last month's chemical weapons scare to The New York Times:

In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.

Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria’s increasingly desperate president, Bashar al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.

What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.

The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.

Then the officials make sure they put out the message that the threat is not over: "But concern remains that Mr. Assad could now use the weapons produced that week at any moment. American and European officials say that while a crisis was averted in that week from late November to early December, they are by no means resting easy."

0848 GMT: Writing for Vice, Emma Beals summarises the humanitarian situation, "Syria's Refugees Face a Deadly Winter":

Displaced Syrians fleeing the violence are now living in schools and sheltering within communities throughout the country, but thousands live in makeshift camps, like the Bab al-Salam transit camp in Azaz, just inside the Syrian border, which is now home to several thousand internally displaced people (IDPs). Chaotic and dirty, with just one Turkish NGO struggling to manage operations at the camp, residents are suffering. Temperatures plunge to below freezing every night, and two children have died from the cold and related health complications in recent weeks.

0840 GMT: Claimed footage of insurgents holding a "trial" for men accused of the killing of French photojournalist Gilles Jacquier. Apparently, the insurgents will hold hearings in advance of turning them over to international authorities.

Jacquier was slain in January 2012 during a rocket attack in Homs. At the times, insurgents and the regime blamed each other for the assault.

See EA Video Feature: A Tribute to Journalist Gilles Jacquier

0640 GMT: The Local Coordination Committees report that 72 people were killed on Monday, including 29 in Aleppo Province and 26 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0610 GMT: One of the themes in much of the mainstream media since the New Year has been that the insurgents have stalled in their military challenge, or even that the regime is making gains with its airstrikes, for example, on Damascus suburbs.

On Monday, EA's James Miller closely reviewed developments. He noted that, far from stopping, the insurgents were continuing to lay siege to key airbases in the north of the country and then analysed:

Why does it appear that rebel progress has slowed to a crawl?

The first reason is the false expectations of the media. In previous wars, professional armies have often taken a year to advance several hundred kilometres. This rebel advance has been sudden, especially when one considers the amount of firepower Assad is still dropping from the air.

The second reason, however, is that the rebels are not choosing to press the attack against locations they know will eventually fall. If the rebels can surround a base and shell it for weeks with little to no counterattack by the regime, where is their motivation to risk defeat by attacking at a faster pace?

History tells us that the rebel forces have advanced in fits and spurts, wearing down Assad's defenses before overrunning positions. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of military discipline. Assad has not launched effective counteroffensives in Idlib, Aleppo, or Deir Ez Zor, it is unlikely that what appears to be a pause will result in any shift in momentum. There is no pause in the fighting, only in the headlines.

However, there is another reason for the slower rebel advance. Rebel forces have had to take their time to conserve ammunition and not risk losing heavy equipment. Each base contains many supplies that help fuel the rebel advance, but rebel leaders have always been cautious to ensure that they do what they can to conserve.

The tactic of whittling away at Assad's defenses has been effective, if slow, but when these two airbases do fall to the rebels, this will free up a significant amount of rebel resources which can then be put into the fight in other areas.

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