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Syria Live Coverage: Hezbollah Emerges in the Conflict

See also today's Lebanon (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The US Goes After Hezbollah
Sunday's Syria Live Coverage: Insurgents Take Another Major Airbase Near Aleppo

2336 GMT: Scud Strikes - Aleppo City. This video, one of several similar, reportedly shows part of one of the buildings that collapsed in the Jabal Badro district of Aleppo, reportedly after the fall of at least one SCUD missile:

2315 GMT: Scud Strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has released a statement about tonight's alleged SCUD attacks:

8 civilians, including a child, were killed by the bombardment on Jabal Badro, in the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo. It is thought that the bombs were a surface-to-surface missile. the number of dead is likely to rise due to the large amount of casualties and that there are several people still under the rubble of destroyed buildings. An SOHR activist in the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood witnessed the desperate cries of a man who had 15 of his family members under the rubble of their house; he also reported witnessing the body of a child being pulled out of a building, the head was detached from the body. Violent clashes are taking place by the police branch in the Zebdiya neighbourhood, also clashes in Bustan al-Qasr. The Jazmatiya neighbourhood was bombarded by the airforce.

In Reef Aleppo a large explosion rocked the town of Tel Rif'at, it is thought to be the result of a surface-to-surface missile, initial reports of dead and injured.

It's worth noting that the LCC seems to have stepped back, though not withdrawn, their statements that 50 are dead in Aleppo. Their latest assessment says that 99 have died nationwide, and 23 in Aleppo, though this number will almost surely rise:

30 martyr in Damascus and its Suburbs, 23 martyrs in Aleppo, mostly in the shelling with Scud missile on neighborhood of Jabal Pedro, 12 martyr in Idlib, 10 martyrs in Homs , 8 martyrs in Daraa, 7 martyrs in Hama and martyr in Raqqa.

2304 GMT: Scud Strikes in Aleppo. It's not just Aleppo city that has been hit by ballistic missiles tonight. Tal Rifat, north of Aleppo (map), for instance, has also been reportedly hit by at least one heavy projectile, perhaps a SCUD. Our correspondent John Horne finds this video reportedly showing the scene:

Another video from Tal Rifat, but we've already seen perhaps a dozen like this:

2255 GMT: SCUD Strike Near Aleppo Airport. As you can see from this map, the area where the SCUDs have reportedly fallen is just north of the Aleppo Airport - in other words, if these were indeed SCUD missiles, then they were launched, reportedly from Damascus, in order to hit positions that were close to where the rebels were attacking from:

View Syria - 2013 February 18 - EA Worldview in a larger map

2244 GMT: SCUDS Reportedly hit Aleppo. The latest report from the LCC:

The fall of 50 martyrs and destruction of 7 buildings due to the fall of a surface-to-surface missile on Jabal Bedro neighberhood was reported.

It's no coincidence that the SCUDs are reportedly hitting, while other activists are reporting that they are being fired from the Damascus military bases:

One Youtube channel has posted many videos of rubble, and reported victims. The Aleppo Media Center has posted many pictures, including the one below, as well as the names of some of the dead and wounded. The story is growing by the minute:

2233 GMT: Aleppo Airport Under Siege. Aleppo airport is under attack. Last week the base of the 80th regiment fall to Syrian rebels. Today, the Al Nayrab base, on the northwestern edge of the airport, is under attack and reports are growing that rebels may be through the perimeter. One video, similar to what Scott Lucas started the day with, shows rebels peering into the al Nayrab base from the outside. Then there is this video, reportedly showing a BMP armored vehicle, belonging to the Tawid Brigade, firing into the airport:

Looking at the map, it's obvious that with the 80th regiment base fallen, and the Nayrab base fallen, the rebels would have the ability to easily launch an assault on the airport itself:

There are also reports of SCUD missiles falling all over Syria's north (update coming soon). Is it a coincidence that the regime is using ballistic missiles tonight, as rumors that one of its most important base near Aleppo may be falling?

2204 GMT: More Fighting Near Al Safira. For a week or so there has been fighting between Al Safira and Aleppo, in a town called Tel 'Arn (map). Assad appears to be making the town a priority, one of the few locations in Syria that the military appears to be so dedicated to holding that it is willing to take heavy casualties to keep the rebels out. The rebels have destroyed perhaps dozens of tanks, but it's unclear if they have the firepower to either hold Tel 'Arn or to make significant gains in Al Safira.

But there's trying, and as the video below suggests, the rebels won't let Assad keep the towns without a fight:

At this hour, the rumors of heavy fighting at Aleppo airport are flying. There is even a rumor that the rebels have breached the perimeter of the airport. The question becomes whether Assad can continue to fight for Al Safirah and Tell 'Arn if he's close to losing his most important base in the north. Will he sacrifice Aleppo to save his chemical weapons base and stave off Obama's "red line?"

2040 GMT: Intense Shelling in Damascus. This video, really only valuable for its audio, is still very powerful. It was reportedly taken in the Mleiha district of southeastern Damascus tonight, and while we obviously can't verify it, the amount of shelling reported in Syria's capital is noteworthy and elevated:

There are two more posts of particular interest on the LCC's page right now, both of which went up at approximately the same time. The first:

Aleppo: Marea: A huge explosion rocks the entire town from unknown source.

The second:

Damascus Suburbs: al-Qalamoun: Two Scud missiles were launched from the 155th Brigade and the 568th Battalion in al-Naseriyeh towards northern Syria

2019 GMT: More Rebel Advances in Daraa. Last week, rebels made some advances into Daraa city, but the southwestern quadrant known as Dar'a Albalad. However, now the rebels appear to be attacking the city from the east or southeast as well. A source sends us a video showing rebels capturing a checkpoint on Dam Road, which runs from the southeast and into the center of the city (map). Another video shows smoke and fire in the streets, reportedly the result of a BMP shell landing near the camera. Rebels are winning victories on all sides of Daraa city, so it's no surprise that the fight is now being brought into the provincial capital. However, Daraa city has not been host to the kind of intense fighting that we've seen elsewhere. Now, however, it is clear that this is the new front lines of Syria's fight for the south.

1923 GMT: Fog of War? A source forwards us this video, reportedly showing destruction after regime airstrikes in Jobar, east of Damascus - but in the wreckage is the gun turret from an armored vehicle. According to the source, the narrator says regime warplanes attacked an Assad military convoy, thinking that it was in the possession of rebel fighters. According to the narrator, it was not (there's some dispute about whether this translation is accurate):

There's no way to confirm that this is a friendly-fire incident, and it would be the first on this scale that we've seen evidence of.

1913 GMT: Kidnappings in Idlib. Late last week, dark rumors of mass kidnappings began to emerge from Idlib, and soon there were reports that reprisal kidnappings were occurring near Damascus. The New York Times reports:

The tit-for-tat kidnappings of more than 140 people have provoked fears of expanded sectarian conflict in Syria’s northern Idlib Province in recent days, but one set of hostages was released in good condition on Saturday after negotiations between residents of two of the affected villages, according to a rebel commander...

The first kidnappings took place on Thursday, when 42 minority Shiite Muslims, mainly women and children, were taken from a bus traveling to Damascus, the capital, from their villages, Fouaa and Kfarya, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment watchdog group based in Britain with a network of activists in Syria....

Later on Thursday, scores of people, mostly women from the mainly Sunni town of Saraqeb, were kidnapped by Shiite gunmen, apparently in retaliation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel commander, who was reached in Turkey. The group reported that 300 were taken hostage, while the commander said about 100 were abducted.

In other words, opposition forces believed that pro-Assad militia were conducting kidnappings in Idlib province, and then residents from those Shia villages were reportedly kidnapped as well.

Today, we received from from a contact in Binnish, in Idlib province. Despite a terrible internet connection, we pieced together his story. Apparently, Shia from the town of Alfoah (map) have been kidnapping people inside Idlib city - a city under regime control - but when they tried to reach Binnish, an opposition stronghold, they were stopped by the Free Syrian Army.

This source, an opposition activist, also denied claims that the Free Syrian Army was conducting kidnappings of their own.

We're not in a position to confirm the story, but the conversation, which was disrupted by a failed internet connection, certainly echoes the sectarian fears that are growing near the conflict's front line. Also, just as we see in the Homs/Hama area, those fears, and sectarian incidents, are more likely to occur in areas where neither the rebels nor the government have total control.

1625 GMT: Significant Rebel Victory in Daraa. Over the last several days the Syrian rebels appear to have won a significant victory in Zeizun, northwest of Daraa city (map). Many Assad tanks and BMP armored vehicles appear to have been destroyed, but several others appear to have been captured. The video below, left in the comments section and dated yesterday, appears to show 2 BMPs and a T-55 tank, destroyed by the Syrian opposition:

A BMP, reportedly captured from the town yesterday:

But this video may be the most interesting. It was reportedly taken today, and shows a group of armored vehicles that the rebels have "repaired" and are now back on the road. Another video, dated yesterday, appeared to show the Free Syrian Army towing the vehicles and preparing to repair them:

The fighting in Daraa province has been largely to the east, and to the north, or Daraa city, though rebels are also attacking the city itself from the south. This victory suggests that Assad's forces were taken off guard, and the rebels are much stronger northwest of the city than he anticipated. Daraa city is closer than ever to being cut off and captured by the surging Free Syrian Army. This would be a significant blow - rebel reinforcements sent north to Damascus, with a direct supply line to Jordan, could significantly tip the balance of power there.

Damascus, however, now appears to be Assad's primary focus. More on that later.

1515 GMT: Another Rebel Victory in Hama. In Kafr Nabouda (map), in western Hama province, rebels from the Jisr al Shughour area of Idlib province have moved south a destroyed many regime tanks in several battles. This video shows many destroyed tanks, as well as dead bodies that the fighters in the video claim are dead "shabiha," pro-regime militiamen. Some of the claimed shabiha were apparently taking refuge in a large home, a home that is full of fire, bullet holes, and bodies. Another video reportedly shows the rebel assault on the home. Yet another video is unclear, but may show the rebels taking an Assad soldier prisoner.

1451 GMT: EU to Extend Arms Embargo. According to Guardian:

EU governments have agreed to extend all sanctions against Syria for another three months – including the arms embargo. But they will amend the embargo to provide greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians, Reuters reports. More details soon ...

1418 GMT: UN Report - Snap Analysis. A quick look at the 130+ page UN report on rights abuses in Syria reveals an interesting distinction between the rebels and the government. As stated, both sides are blamed, in one way or the other, for various misbehavior. However, there is a clear distinction drawn between the two.

The armed opposition groups are accused of many crimes. There are allegations of the use of child soldiers (we've seen videos that support this). However, multiple investigations into this charge have pointed out that unlike in some other conflicts, the children are not being forced to fight, but have volunteered. This is still a major problem, and a violation in the eyes of the international community, however it is on a lesser order than forced service. In fact, it's also the source of the problem - some Syrians see no harm in a child volunteering to fight. There are also several reports of individual crimes, like looting, targeted assassination, and other violations. Of all the accusations, it appears that only looting could even approach a systemic level of behavior.

On the other hand, many of the allegations against government forces are very different. The document includes findings about multiple "massacres," for instance, and finds that not only was the government responsible, but that the armed forces coordinated efforts with the offenders, and sometimes government forces directly took part. In Tremseh on July 12th, Jedaydet Artouz on August 1, Daraya on 25 August, Harak on 18–26 August, Deir Baalbeh during 22–30 December, and in the Al-Mastomah massacre of 7 January 2013, government forces were the ones implicated in part or all of the massacre, operating alongside "shabiha" or in some other ways directly participating in war crimes or providing military and/or logistical assistance to the crimes. It appears that not only are particular individuals suspected of committing crimes, but that a pattern has been established, by the government itself, in how to commit these crimes.

The primary crime committed by the rebels, according to the report, is the fighting in civilian neighborhoods that brings the fighting into areas where civilians are killed. In several of the instances named above, rebels fighting in the area drew the government forces into the fight. However the report is clear on the instances cited above - the massacres were committed after the rebels left, and were conducted under the charge of the Syrian Arab Army or other Assad government forces. Also, in non-massacres related to civilian casualties, the report repeatedly mentions the indiscriminate nature of the use of airstrikes and artillery - in other words, while the rebels are at fault for fighting in Syria's cities, according to the report, many civilian casualties are the government's retribution, not accidental collateral damage.

Ironically, the report ends its investigation on January 15th, the very date of two dramatic events in Syria - the twin bombing at Aleppo University, and the Al Hasiwiyeh massacre in Homs. EA is still working hard to sort both of those stories, and we hope the UN is as well.

1404 GMT: Fight for Aleppo Airport. James Miller reports for duty. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.

The Syrian rebels are making more advances with the aim of taking Aleppo's airport which is now the largest Assad base of operations protecting what was once Syria's largest city. The Guardian reports:

Activists say Syrian rebels have captured a government checkpoint on the main road to the airport in the northern city of Aleppo as opposition fighters press their campaign to capture the strategic facility.

The rebels are pushing to seize Aleppo's civilian airport, and captured a base responsible for protecting it last week. Intense clashes also have raged around the nearby Nairab military air base.

1140 GMT: Electricity Problems. Speaking to the National Assembly after last Saturday's blackout of Damascus and southern Syria, Prime Minister Wael al-Halki has admitted "a reduction in the percentage of meeting the needs of electricity per day from 80-90% down to 50-60%".

Al Halki blamed "increasingly frequent and more systematic" targeting of the service sector by armed groups.

1120 GMT: War Crimes. United Nations investigators say they have identified Syrians in "leadership positions" who may be responsible for war crimes, along with the units accused of perpetrating them.

Both regime forces and insurgents are committing the crimes, including killings and torture, and spreading terror among civilians.

Read full text of the UN report

The investigators' latest report, covering mid-July to mid-January, is based on 445 interviews conducted abroad with victims and witnesses. The UN personnel have not been allowed into Syria for their work.

The team, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, called on the UN Security Council to "act urgently to ensure accountability" for grave violations, possibly by referring the violators to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

Karen Konig AbuZayd, one of the four commissioners on the team, said, "We have information suggesting people who have given instructions and are responsible for government policy. People who are in the leadership of the military, for example."

The list of suspects, to be given to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, remains secret.

The report claimed regime forces have carried out shelling and aerial bombardment across Syria: "In some incidents, such as in the assault on Harak [in Daraa Province], indiscriminate shelling was followed by ground operations during which government forces perpetrated mass killing." It continued:

Government forces and affiliated militias have committed extra-judicial executions, breaching international human rights law. This conduct also constitutes the war crime of murder. Where murder was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with knowledge of that attack, it is a crime against humanity.

Citing attacks on bakery queues and funeral processions, the investigators asserted, "Syrian armed forces have implemented a strategy that uses shelling and sniper fire to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of areas that have fallen under anti-government armed group control."

The report said war crimes by insurgents include murder, torture, hostage-taking, and using children under age 15 in hostilities: "They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives inside civilian areas....[Insurgent snipers caused] considerable civilian casualties."

However, the UN team added, "The violations and abuses committed by anti-government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia."

1020 GMT: Will Europe Lifts Its Arms Embargo on Insurgents? Today European Union foreign ministers will discuss a proposal to lift its arms embargo on Syrian insurgents.

Wide-ranging EU sanctions against Syria expire on 1 March, and some British and French officials had indicated that this would be an opportunity to endorse weapons to the insurgency, while maintaining restrictions on the Assad regime.

However, last week French President Francois Hollande said the embargo would only be removed "if we're sure there are no further possibilities of political dialogue".

An internal paper from the office of Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, tells the Foreign Ministers, "Delivering arms might bring about a new military balance on the ground. But it could also fuel further militarisation of the conflict, increase risks of dissemination among extremist groups and of arms proliferation in a post-Assad Syria."

"There is a real question here," said a senior EU diplomat. "But is this the right moment, given the current efforts to push a political settlement?"

0830 GMT: Insurgents and Regime Airbases. Claimed footage has been shown of insurgents taking another position in or near regime bases in Aleppo Province, this time close to the Kwers military airport and the Nairab airbase.

Last week, the insurgents took over the as-Safira complex.

0600 GMT: Hezbollah v. Insurgents. For months, there has been chatter about the involvement of Lebanon's Hezbollah, fighting for the Assad regime, in the war. The Free Syrian Army declared that it had proof of the organisation's presence, and Hezbollah made indirect allusions to this in the funerals of its fighters who had been killed in Syria.

In the last week, the chatter has escalated. Insurgent groups now claim that Hezbollah is controlling up to eight villages inside Syria on the Lebanese groups and assert that the Lebanese force is attacking others nearby. They said on Sunday that at least one Hezbollah fighter and five insurgents had been killed in clashes, some of which involved heavy weaponry.

Hezbollah is still just short of an open acknowledgement; however, it did say on Sunday that two Lebanese men had been killed and 14 wounded, acting in "self-defense" against Syrian insurgents. It made no specific referece to the villages that it supposedly controls.

The Local Coordination Committees claim 120 people died on Sunday, including 46 in Damascus and its suburbs, 29 in Aleppo Province, and 18 in Hama Province.

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