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Wednesday
Jan092013

Syria Live Coverage: A Mass Killing in Idlib Province?

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Children play in the snow in Homs

See also Syria and Iran Feature: 2130 Civilian Prisoners To Be Released in Exchange for 48 Iranian "Pilgrims"
Iraq (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Protests Close Border with Jordan
Tuesday's Syria Live Coverage: Has the Insurgent Advance Stalled?


2308 GMT: Summary - The LCC summarizes today's events:

By the end of Wednesday the LCC managed to document 92 martyrs (including 9 children and 4 women), 29 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 27 martyrs in Aleppo, 14 martyrs in Hama, 7 martyrs in Idlib, 8 martyrs in Homs, 4 martyrs in Daraa and 3 martyrs in Deir Ezzor

The LCC also documented 180 points of shelling, 2 points were shelled by warplanes, Cluster Bombs were used in Teftenaz and Omar Oil Field in Deir Ezzor, 86 points were shelled by artillery (the fiercest was reported in Damascus Suburbs), 51 points by missiles and 42 points by mortars

The FSA clashed with the regime forces in 77 locations (the fiercest among them was reported in Damascus Suburbs, Idlib and Aleppo), the FSA stormed several buildings in Teftenaz Military Airport and targeted its main building, the FSA blocked many attmepts by the regime forces to storm Daraya, Mouadamiya in Damascus Suburbs and Basr Al-Harir in Daraa

The FSA also targeted Saman checkpoint in Taibat Al-Imam in Hama and destroyed several military vehicles in different parts of Syria

See our note on the information published by the LCC.

2208 GMT: Images of the Mastoomeh Massacre - The first video claiming to show some of the bodies of those killed in Mastoomeh has surfaced. A source has forwarded the video, though says they cannot confirm its authenticity. The graphic video appears to show 9 men, all dead. Without landmarks, it is impossible to tell where the video was taken, except to say that a video of this nature is unlikely to remain a secret, so we believe it is probably new.

A source has also forwarded us a series of pictures reportedly showing more bodies. The pictures do not appear to have been posted elsewhere online, so it is also possible that they are new. The men in those pictures also appear to be executed. All told, the pictures seem to show another dozen dead.

We cannot confirm this evidence, though our gut tells us that they're genuine pictures of the dead of Mastoomeh. The town was briefly captured by rebels two days ago, but soon was stormed by Assad soldiers. According to activists, pro-Assad forces then executed between 30 and 70 men in the village. Activists tell us that Internet service has been cut, however, and all news out of MAstoomeh has come via telephone, or by residents who have snuck in and out of the town.

1925 GMT: Assad Bombs his Own Base - In the past, when Syrian rebels have overrun Assad military bases, artillery and airstrikes have been launched against the bases in order to destroy any spoils that the rebels may capture. A reader points out a video that appears to show a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb right on the Taftanaz airbase, overrun today by rebels (note the helicopter near where the bomb falls):

Another source shares this video of a large cloud of smoke rising from the base:

A source also provides 2 videos (1, 2) reportedly showing a field hospital in Binnish (map).

1916 GMT: Death toll rising - According to the Local Coordination Committees, 77 people have been killed by the Assad regime so far today:

28 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, including 10 in Mouadamyeh due to the explosion of a booby-trapped car; 22 in Aleppo, including 12 found in the Scientific Researches area; 13 in Hama; 6 in Idlib; 4 in Daraa; 2 in Homs and 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.

1707 GMT: Aleppo's Bread Crisis Over? This week, Yara Bayoumy wrote a piece for Reuters about the struggles of Syria's largest city, Aleppo. A main theme was the lack of supplies, the result of the fighting in the city. However, another theme was the rise in corruption among rebels who occupy large parts of the city:

As government forces fight on in parts of Aleppo, in large areas that have been under rebel control for six months or more complaints are getting louder about indiscipline among the fighters, looting and a general lack of security and necessities like running water, bread and electricity in districts that have been pounded by tanks and hit by Assad's air force.

Recognizing that mistrust, rebel units have set up command and policing structures they see forming a basis of institutions which might one day run the whole country and which, meanwhile, they hope can show Arab and Western supporters that they have the organization to handle aid in the form of money and weapons.

For those who fear the worst for Syria now that the revolt has unleashed long suppressed ethnic and sectarian rivalries, however, evidence in Aleppo that these new institutions have had little practical impact on often rival rebel groups is ominous.

And all the while relations grow testier between the rebels and Aleppines, for whom many fighters harbor some disdain after the urbanites' failed to rise up on their own against Assad.

Certainly, these themes have been echoed by journalists since the summer. Large parts of Aleppo were not necessarily pro-Assad before the rebels invaded, but they were on the fence. While Aleppo was host to huge protests in the spring, many in Aleppo had made the decision that whatever the politics, joining either side was not worth the fight. Then, the fight came to the city anyway.

However, the "testy relations" are nothing new, and there has yet to be an explosion of these tensions. In fact, evidence suggests that as the Free Syrian Army established checkpoints and police forces to cut down on looting, things were improving gradually in Aleppo (though some of this progress has certainly been erased by the weather, and general supply problems that threaten all of Syria).

However, despite the best efforts of the FSA commanders, another force has proven far more powerful in Aleppo at actually ending the food crisis - the rise of Jabhat al Nusra. As the suspected Al Qaeda affiliate has gained more power in the city, they have brought with them order and bread, two things that the residents of the city has craved since the fighting drew on in the fall. Arwa Damon now reports that Al Nusra's efforts have been so successful that it is now safe to call the bread crisis "over."

This raises another obvious problem - what does this say about what happens after the Assad regime falls if the only group that has been able to win the respect of Syria's largest city has just been branded "terrorists" by the United States?

1538 GMT: Brahimi Giving Up? UN Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has condemned the speech that Syrian President Bashar al Assad gave on Sunday (see the speech and read the full transcript here and Scott Lucas's analysis here). Brahimi said that it was even more sectarian than previous speeches and "at the moment there is no political process. Syrians are speaking two totally different languages."

I'm afraid what has come out is very much a repeat of previous initiatives that obviously did not work ... it's not really different and perhaps is even more sectarian and one-sided.

The time of reforms granted magnanimously from above has passed. People want to have a say in how they are governed and they want to take hold of their own future.

The question, though, is what will Brahimi do about it? Despite the fact that it has been obvious for some time that a political solution was unlikely, a political dialogue is the only solution that the UN, and the United States, has pursued. Will Brahaimi continue to pursue a process that he has now stated is dead in the water?

The BBC has posted a video interview of Brahimi's "lament" over Assad's "lost opportunity."

1528 GMT: Activist Freed - The Dean of the European College in Damascus, 38-year-old Dr Zaidoun al Zoabi (Zed), disappeared last month, and many have been suspicious that he may have been captured by the secret police. However, according to Tim Marshall of Sky News, Zed has now been released:

We asked Marshall if this was part of the prisoner release were 2130 Syrians were released in exchange for the 48 Iranian prisoners (see separate feature), but Marshall said that this detail was not yet known.

Still, this is a small piece of good news in a conflict that knows so little.

1508 GMT: Snap Analysis: Taftanaz - The Guardian reports that the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham brigades were the primary rebel forces assaulting the Taftanaz airbase. According to sources, the entire base, except the main building which is surrounded, has fallen to the insurgents.

However, the nearby town of Taftanaz, little more than a village, has been heavily bombed today, according to sources. One source reports they have just received news of a barrel bomb dropped on the town just moments ago, though we've yet to independently verify this. This video claims to show some of the destruction earlier today:

This is important for two reasons. First, the pattern continues - when rebels win victories, the Syrian regime punishes civilians. Secondly, however, it raises a question - if there is Assad air power in range to hit Taftanaz, why were Assad's aircraft NOT attacking the rebel forces to defend the base? The answer may lie in the fact that much of the equipment used in the siege of the Taftanaz airbase was captured from nearby Assad bases, including the headquarters of the 46th regiment just southwest of Aleppo (see separate feature). Included in this arsenal were many anti-aircraft machineguns, but it has been well-documented that there were also MANPADS, shoulder-fired surface to air missiles, captured from the base. Perhaps Assad's military commanders believed that they could not hold the base and it was not worth risking aircraft to even try?

1435 GMT: A War Crime Documented - This video is graphic. It shows an elderly man who appears to be dead, lying on the ground and surrounded by soldiers. The description of the video says that this is Darayya.

A source, Zilal, provides a translation:

The cameraman says, "He wants freedom, a pig," [in reference to the dead man]. Another voice says back, "you brought him freedom." Afterwards, the cameraman tells the soldier to "put your boot on him." Then there are some bad words in general on sisters and so on... then one of them said that it's better if he doesn't film these scenes.

Rarely are the faces and facts so clear. If this man is really dead, the men on the video take credit for it, and their faces could, hypothetically, be identified in the future.

1415 GMT: Taftanaz Airbase Mostly Taken There are reports, and videos to back them up, that the Syrian rebels have made it onto the Taftanaz airbase, though it's still unclear as to whether the main building has fallen. Looking at the evidence, this 23+ minute livestream of the siege of the base was posted 4 hours ago:

The rebels' big guns fire on the base:

This video, forwarded by a source, shows an FSA tank firing at the main building on the base from just outside the fence - note all the helicopters seen on the tarmac that do not move, suggesting that either they are damaged, they are out of fuel, or their pilots are just unwilling to fight:

Preparing to take the base:

Rebel troops and vehicles finally break through:

Then there is this video, which appears to have been taken on the base itself. In the video, fighting continues as it appears the main building is still occupied by Assad troops at the time of filming:

This base is immensely important. Taftanaz airbase is located east of Idlib city (map), and once it has fallen the city of Idlib will be close to surrounded by rebel forces. Yesterday we reported on the claims of a massacre at Mastoomeh (see opening entry), which is just south of Idlib city (map). Not only is this city the capital of Idlib province, but it's fall would mean that the Syrian rebels are only a few towns away from controlling all of Idlib province. Such an accomplishment would free up the bulk of the rebel forces to concentrate on Hama to the south and Aleppo to the northeast.

1344 GMT: Weather Report - With the refugee camps overflowing, heating oil scarce and expensive, and housing for those remaining in Syria sub-par, the weather is now the key obstacle facing many affected by this crisis. Today's weather in Damascus only reached 41 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures will drop to 27 degrees, and snow showers and a high humidity will chill the residents of central Syria to the bone. In Jordan, where floods have ripped through refugee camps, more rain and snow is expected.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage from Scott Lucas.

1248 GMT: Russian Foreign Ministry official Mikhail Bogdanov has said that his second round of talks with United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and US Undersecretary of State William Burns will take place Friday in Geneva.

1037 GMT: Al Jazeera English reports on Syrian Kurds risking trips to and from the bordering Kurdish region in Iraq to get essential supplies:

0612 GMT: A Minister in the Assad Cabinet has condemned his son, killed while fighting against the regime.

"I disapprove and condemn whatever my son did," said Mohammad Turki al-Sayyed, Minister of State for the People's Assembly Affairs. "I said it before and I disavow him again, fully even after his death."

Bassim al-Sayyed reportedly joined demonstrators at the start of the uprising in 2011 and later fought for the Free Syrian Army. He was killed at the end of December, in a battle for the police institute in the northern city of Sarmada. Mourners at his funeral praised him and chanted, "God is mightier than any tyrant".

The Minister countered:

The homeland is above everyone and when it comes to Syria, all the titles, relations and even the personal emotions mean nothing when it comes to the nation. When it comes to choosing between terrorism and the homeland, the minister always chose the homeland and disavowing himself from everyone who wants to stir evil in the nation even if it was his own son.

0610 GMT: The Local Coordination Committees report that 124 people were killed on Wednesday, 47 of them in Idlib Province and 35 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0555 GMT: The developing, but unclear, story on Tuesday was the claim of a mass killing in Mastumeh, just south of Idlib city in northern Syria. A death toll of up to 71 circulated --- the Local Coordination Committees initially said 35 people had been slain, but revised this at the end of the night to "47 martyrs...in Idlib [Province]; most of them in Al-Mastumeh".

The circumstances of the deaths are also contested. Regime outlets say that the dead are insurgents, while opposition activists imply that the casualties are civilians. EA's James Miller --- while cautioning that "hard" news was scarce on the incident --- offered a summary combining the two claims:

[On Tuesday] there were reports that the regime moved forces into the town and crushed the small forces of insurgent 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.

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