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Syria Live Coverage: Insurgents Capture Symbolic "Nuclear" Site

Insurgents preparing for an operation in western Aleppo

See also Syria Feature: The Life and Death of a Citizen Journalist
Palestine (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Israel Looks for Calm after Death of Palestinian Detainee
Sunday's Syria Live Coverage: Civilian Deaths in Aleppo

2319 GMT: More Fighting in Damascus. It's late, past 1 AM in in Syria, but there are still fresh reports of explosions and gunfire there tonight. This video was reportedly taken in Baramkeh, in west-central Damascus, not far from Tishreen and the heart of the Assad regime (map):

2303 GMT: Surface-to-Surface Missiles. Tonight there are reports that more "Scuds" have launched from the regime's 155th Brigade base in Quteifeh, northeast of Damascus (map). Last week, when there were similar reports, dozens died in Aleppo province when several missiles hit residential areas, crumbling buildings and trapping residents. Those rockets fell on areas just north of Aleppo's airport, an airport that was reportedly being overrun by rebels. Today the airport was once again under attack. No word yet what was targeted by these latest strikes, however.

Earlier today ballistic missiles were reported in Hama province, and near al Raqqah. It's unclear what model weapon these weapons are, perhaps a Scud, or maybe the medium range Frog 7 which has been used recently in Hama province. However, all of these weapons have one thing in common - they are a terribly expensive way to deliver a payload.

"Scuds," the catch-all term used by Syrians to describe most surface-to-surface rockets, or any other ballistic or artillery rockets in the Syrian arsenal, are only capable of delivering payloads that are similar in size to many bombs that can be dropped by Assad's airforce. However, they cost significantly more money to produce. So why are we seeing so many reports of these being used now?

Desperation - Assad is losing ground in Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor, and Al Raqqah. His airforce is constantly in motion, but has taken more losses recently. Assad's air power is stretched too thin, and it now cannot even reach some areas under rebel control. Long-range weapons like Scuds or Frog 7s can reach some of these areas, potentially destroying rebel forces, punishing civilians in rebel-won areas, or at least spreading fear - both at the launch and the landing sites.

There's another reason - these weapons are primarily useful as a deterrent against foreign invasion because there's nothing to risk once they've been fired. Whether the weapon hits or misses its target, there is no airplane or pilot to lose. Furthermore, though they are expensive, they've already been paid for. And if Assad is really fighting for his survival, he's not worried about the price tag, he's just looking to get every weapon he has into the fight.

While I was writing this update, the LCC has reported that rockets have landed in Al Raqqah, and "ten missiles" have reportedly hit Jisr al Shughour in Idlib province - both rebel-held areas where Assad needs all the help he can get but where he can't spare airplanes. We're not sure if these reports are all related.

2213 GMT: Damascus Car Bombs the Work of Jabhat al Nusra. Jabhat al Nusra has not played a major role in the latest offensive against Damascus. Last week, we posted video of the Free Syrian Army using a remote car bomb to attack a barracks in Jobar. Tonight, with news of a surprise attack in the Syrian capital, we expected to hear that this was also the work of the FSA. However, tonight there are rumors that Jabhat al Nusra has launched tonight's car bomb:

We should stress that at this time this is an unconfirmed report. It's not clear what is happening in Damascus, but reports of fighting continue.

2124 GMT: Rebels Hit Damascus Military Targets. The fighting is still raging in Damascus, and the smoke, as they say, has not settled, but there are already reports that the surprise attack has destroyed at least one hardened checkpoint near the "Tropicana Pool," here on the map - we think.

Now, there are reports, from multiple sources, that the tank storage garage in Jobar (map) has also been destroyed:

2115 GMT: Third Video of Fighting in Damascus. This video was reportedly taken in Al Midan (map), in south-central Damascus. Gunfire is only interrupted by the deep reverberation of larger explosions. From the sounds of it, the gunfire is far away, giving us the sense of heavy weaponry raging in the heart if Syria's capital tonight:

2038 GMT: Heavy Fighting in Damascus. This video reportedly shows the Qaboun district of Damascus. It's notable that artillery and gunfire can be heard. Also notice the "tracer" across the screen from right to left - perhaps some sort of rocket or projectile, though it's impossible to tell. The video was posted 16 minutes ago.

2027 GMT: Fighting in Damascus. It may not be a coincidence that all day the fighting in Damascus appeared confined to the south. A few hours ago, it appeared that the heaviest fighting today may have been in Al Asali, in the southwest (map). The CFDPC has posted a video of some of that fighting. Now there are reports of fighting in the Yarmouk camp (map). Regardless, this fighting appears to have been a surprise attack in the northern and central districts of the capital, timed to catch the regime off guard. The fighting in the south may have been designed as a diversion.

2020 GMT: Video of Fighting in Damascus. This video was reportedly taken tonight in the Ruken al Din district of northern Damascus (map). It is AWAY from the center of the fighting another 2 kilometers to the southeast:

2106 GMT: Artillery Opens Fire on Damascus. Confirmation that Assad's main line of defense in the capital has joined the fight tonight:

Activists and journalists are all reporting that there is intense fighting going on in the Qaboun, Jobar, and Abaseen districts. If artillery is being used to respond tonight, that's a sign of the level of threat the regime must perceive in this area.

2000 GMT: Damascus. We've updated the map with the latest news from Damascus. We've only posted reports from the LCC that have been posted in the last 35 minutes or so. The map is interactive, with links to the original reports.

From what we can tell, rebel forces have struck Qaboun and the northeastern districts of Abaseen, pushing deeper than they have pushed before in a series of surprise attacks. There have also been car bombs and other explosions, though the details are murky. Needless to say, this is a developing story:

View Syria- 2013 February 25 - EA Worldview in a larger map

1949 GMT: Heavy Fighting in Damascus. The map below above shows some of the areas where the heaviest fighting inside Damascus is reported. As you can see, it is central areas of the capital that are engaged in fighting tonight:

There reports vary, but it appears that a car bomb, artillery shelling, AND gunfire can all be heard:

1931 GMT: Heavy Fighting in Damascus. Rumors of heavy fighting and intense explosions in Damascus are spreading rapidly, and some of them are coming from respected reporters:

Then there are many unconfirmed reports that sound like the one below. According to Al Arabiya, the Revolutionary Council in Damascus is also reporting explosions in Abassiyeen:

We'll track these reports and see if we can get verification.

1904 GMT: Heavy Rebel Equipment in Aleppo. This video, sent to us on Twitter, reportedly shows some of the heavy weaponry used against the Police Academy in southwest Aleppo:

What's interesting is that I was expecting a video of this gun to surface. Since the fall of the nearby base of the 46th regiment (map), this weapon is routinely present in rebel offensives southwest of Aleppo. It is part of a collection of field guns, artillery pieces, mortars, tanks, armored vehicles, and machineguns that have traveled as a unit, picking off base after base. Now, these weapons are focused on southwest Aleppo.

There are rumors that the Police Academy has fallen and many prisoners have been taken. This video reportedly shows fighters from the Al Farouq brigade on the campus of the academy, though it's unclear if the whole base has fallen.

1840 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 96 people have been killed so far today:

32 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 22 in Aleppo, 10 in Idlib, 9 in Homs, 7 in Daraa, 7 in Deir Ezzor, 7 in Raqqa, 1 in Hasakeh and 1 in Hama

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 often a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

1559 GMT: Helicopter Down in North Aleppo. A second video, from a second angle, appears to confirm what we reported earlier - that rebels have shot down a Syrian helicopter near Menneg airport (map, see update 1449):

Below is a collection of screenshots from the original video:

The weapon used to shoot down this aircraft does appear to be the Chinese FN-6. The FN-6 was specifically designed to hit low-altitude vehicles, such as helicopters or jets in the midst of dive-bombing or strafing attacks, and is resistant to flares and other possible interference:

The FN-6 is a third generation, passive infrared,[1] man portable air defence system (MANPAD). It is equipped with a digital infrared seeker with a strong resistance to flares, solar heat and heat from the ground. The pyramid shaped nose of the missile houses the four unit infrared seeker. The handle of the launcher houses the batteries and cooling system. An IFF antenna and an optional clip-on optical sight are fitted on to the laucher.

The weapon seems perfectly designed to counter some of Assad's most potent threats. After all, his helicopters, though waning in numbers, have a fearsome reputation, and we still see many videos of Assad's jets swooping low to bomb rebel positions, likely because as far as we've seen at higher altitudes they appear to be extremely indiscriminate in their targeting.

The FN-6 also has a maximum range of 6000 meters, which would not hit a typical commercial airliner flying at cruising altitudes.

In other words, if a foreign supplier wanted to give the rebels a weapon that could counter Assad's airforce while still posing the smallest threat if it landed in the hands of terrorists, the FN-6 would be a good choice.

1552 GMT: Heavy Bombing in Deir Ez Zor. The fighting in Deir Ez Zor is not new. Away from the headlines, as the media focuses on Damascus and Aleppo, Jabhat al Nusra and other rebel brigades have been hammering at Assad positions in the largest city in the east, and Assad's airforce has wreaked devastation in many embattled areas. Today there are reports that the rebels are attacking the the outskirts of the city, a network of bases held by the regime's 113th Brigade (map). Meanwhile, just several kilometers away, the LCC reports that Assad warplanes and artillery have struck the Old Airport district in the center of the city (map).

In a surreal report, Global Post has published an account of the local elections that have been held in rebel-controlled areas of the city. Despite the chaos, rebel districts have already started to democratically choose their own leaders:

"For the first time in 40 years, we are voting freely," said Khodr Orfali, a former lawyer who became politically active during Syria's 23-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

On Sunday, Orfali became one of five local council chiefs elected in Deir Ezzor by residents of rebel-held areas, following a model of local leadership set up in several towns and city districts across the country in past months.

"It's a historic day for all residents of Deir Ezzor. People feel free to choose the person they see most fit to help them," the council member-elect told AFP.

Read the entire story here.

1449 GMT: Rebels Reportedly Shoot Down Helicopter. The rebels have had the Menneg Airbase, north of Aleppo (map), surrounded for quite some time. Today, they reportedly shot down a helicopter there. This video appears to show a rebel using a Chinese FN-6 MANPADS device to target and strike a helicopter.

The FN-6 has been seen more and more often in Syria. Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses) writes that there have been a growing number of sightings.

1435 GMT: Aleppo Police Academy. The eyewitness reports suggest that the Aleppo Police Academy is under heavy attack, but the videos drive home the intensity of the fighting. Just listen to the level of gunfire that is nearly constant in this video:

The area has also been the target of regime airstrikes, close support designed to dislodge the rebels. This video shows just how close the cameramen get to the fighting, though it doesn't look like the bomb hits anything:

The Khan Asal district where the academy is located is a fairly isolated area just west of Aleppo's southern districts (map). However, that area is near two roads that lead directly into the city. However, two formidable Assad military bases are in the southwest, in the Hamdiniya district of Aleppo. If the rebels can secure the Khan Asal district, they can isolate those bases as well, and all the rebel mortars, artillery, and armored vehicles that have been used in the countryside outside the city can directly assault the regime's bases inside the city.

1427 GMT: Battle for Aleppo. Many of the readers may have noticed, but the opposition is both constantly on the offensive, and yet doesn't seem to be making headlines, inside what was once Syria largest city, Aleppo. In fact, last week the majority of the outer defenses of Aleppo's International Airport fell to the rebels, and yet there was no concerted effort to take the airport. Many other hardened targets have been attacked in recent days, and yet none have fallen. What's happening?

Just like the rebel offensive in Damascus, the offensive in Aleppo appears to now be aimed at weakening hard targets, like bases and checkpoints, while keeping the regime off guard and preparing the way for future aims. In this way, the rebels have both removed key obstacles and also kept the regime on the defensive. In recent days we hear more reports that the rebels are attacking positions in Western Aleppo, and the police academy - hardened targets that are now a focus for the rebels. However, if the regime redeploys significant military assets to defend these positions, expect the rebels to once again shift their target. With each pass, the outer walls become weakened and the regime's defensive strategy becomes more clear. All the while the rebels are managing to avoid the kind of heavy fighting that characterized earlier rebel pushes seen last year.

This video reportedly shows the rebel assault on the Police Academy in Western Aleppo (map). The building being hit by this shelling is reportedly the police academy itself, and the image generally matches satellite photos.

This video reportedly shows a rebel brigade firing mortars on Assad positions in the Akroob district in central Aleppo (map).

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

0941 GMT: Foreign Minister in Russia. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, meeting Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, has said the Assad regime is prepared to talk to Syrian insurgents:

We are ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it....Even with those who have weapons in their hands. Because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue.

0935 GMT: Death of an Actor. State news agency SANA reports Yasin Baqqoush, a 75-year-old noted for his role in comedy series, was killed on Sunday evening after a mortar fired by insurgents struck his car in front of his home in the Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus.

0910 GMT: Refugees. The United Nations reports that the number of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration is now 907,000.

Meanwhile, a Jordanian policeman and two Syrian children were injured on Sunday in fighting at the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, as police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, a government official said.

The unrest involving about 200 Syrians broke out after a visitor to the camp distributed money to the refugees, the spokesman said: "A man from an Arab country gave away cash to the refugees in Zaatari. When he was done, a Syrian man approached him asking for money but the man had no more to give and the two began fighting."

0852 GMT: Negotiations. A "senior US official" has urged the opposition National Coalition to withdraw its decision to boycott an international meeting in Rome on Thursday.

The Friends of Syria meeting, including new US Secretary of State John Kerry, will discuss the political, humanitarian, and military situation and support for the opposition. However, the Coalition said Friday --- and its head Moaz al-Khatib repeated Saturday --- that it is pulling out of the gathering because of the "shameful" inaction of the international community, for example, over the recent killing of civilians in Aleppo by regime rocket and missile strikes.

The US official said:

We are stressing...that they have an opportunity in Rome, to see the countries that have been their greatest supporters and to present to all of us how they see the situation on the ground in security, humanitarian, political and economic terms.

This meeting is also an opportunity for them to meet our new Secretary of State and to speak directly to him.

The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was due in Cairo late Sunday to meet with the Coalition in an effort to reverse their decision.

0542 GMT: Capture of a "Nuclear" Site. The capture of the Al-Kubar regime base, west of Deir Ez Zor in northern Syria, may not be the most significant of insurgent victories this month, but it has a symbolic resonance.

In 2007, Israeli warplanes attacked the site, claiming to have targeted and destroyed a nuclear reactor.

Not much was left on the site on Sunday, with the Syrian army using three helicopters to airlift the remaining troops before the insurgents took over the base. Opposition fighters said the only building was a hangar. However, even that had a propaganda angle: the insurgents said there was a SCUD missile, and claimed evidence that others had been fired at opposition-held areas to the west.

That claim links up with last week's headline story of alleged regime SCUD assaults on areas such as Aleppo, Syria's largest city, killing dozens of civilians.

Whether or not SCUDs were used, the regime is attacking with more rockets and missiles, although there was an apparent tapering of strikes on Sunday. The Local Coordination Committees
claimed 140 people had been killed, including 11 children and nine women.

Of the deaths, 40 were in Damascus and its suburbs, 30 in Aleppo Province, 26 in Homs Province, 18 in Hama Province, and 18 in Idlib Province.

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