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Syria Live Coverage: US "Non-Lethal" Assistance --- and More --- for the Insurgency 

See Also Syria Analysis: Washington Supports Arming of Insurgents So the Regime Will Negotiate
Syria Audio Analysis: Why Politics Means No Humanitarian Aid - Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Today's Palestine (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Two Detainees in Israel Prisons End Long-Term Hunger Strikes
Wednesday's Syria Live Coverage: The Fighting Near Aleppo's Historic Mosque

2027 GMT: Closer to a Diplomatic Solution? Long-time readers will know that we've never been confident that a political settlement to this crisis was possible. However, it does appear that such a solution has never stood a better chance than it does today. As one reader suggested to me on Twitter, the SANA response to John Kerry's saber-rattling was "not very strong, leaving a breathing space" in which negotiations could take place. In fact, the same reader reminds us that Moaz al Khatbib's first demand has been met today, an extension of foreign passports, potentially signifying that the regime is clearing the way to have some dialogue with the opposition:

State news agency SANA said the Ministry of Interior extended the validity of Syrian passports to 10 years from six and that all expired passports for Syrian nationals abroad would be renewed for two years.

Syrian expatriates are unable to travel on expired passports and many Syrians abroad complain they have faced problems in renewing or getting residency visas for out-of-date documents.

Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said he would speak to Assad's representatives if expired passports were extended for two years. He also demanded 160,000 prisoners be released prior to talks.

Now, Khatib has two more demands - the release of 160,000 prisoners, and all female prisoners. The 160,000 prisoners are unlikely to be released - the regime seems to think that this is a ridiculous request - but it is possible that at least some female prisoners could be released. Whether or not this happens, we could see the opposition soften its prerequisites, and negotiations start.

Again, the hypothesis is that rebel advances will drive the regime to negotiate to save their own skins, and lack of a quick outright military victory will encourage the opposition to drop some of their preconditions.

The question is - how long is this window open? If the regime doesn't negotiate, how long until we see definitive intervention by outside powers?

2005 GMT: The Regime Respond to John Kerry. As the West is ramping up pressure on Assad, SANA, the Syrian state media outlet that often voices the minds of the regime, sends this simple-yet-effective Tweet:

This response is perhaps not surprising. The question, however, is whether the regime will feel the heat and negotiate, or whether it will shut down and become more defiant. If it's the latter, then the ball is back in the hands of Kerry, the UK's William Hague, and the European Union.

2000 GMT: Bus Depot Hit in Damascus. Earlier today many areas of Damascus were heavily shelled by regime forces, especially - but hardly esxclusively - in the northeastern areas of Jobar, Qaboun, and Douma. This video reportedly shows a bus depot burning in Qaboun - it was shared by multiple sources:

However, the western districts were also shelled. It's not much of a surprise that Darayya was shelled, a western suburb that sits like a knife at Assad's back and has been shelled for months.

1816 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the LCC, 77 people have been killed so far today:

30 Martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs, 22 in Aleppo, 8 in Hama, 6 in Idlib, 6 in Daraa, 3 in Deir Ezzor, 1 in Qunaitra and 1 martyr in Homs .

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

1757 GMT: Did the Weapons Really Stop? Michael Weiss, who has been working with us since the start to explore the story of foreign arms in the hands of Syrian rebels. He points out that the supply of weapons may not have stopped at all. From what we know, the weapons started to make it to the region in mid December, but it took quite some time, between two weeks and about a month, for them to make it to the frontlines. Look at the timeline that Weiss reports:

In other words, the huge gap in suspected arms deliveries was between January 6 and Febuary 18 - meaning that this window of more limited rebel gains may be caused by the pause of arms shipments that took place weeks ago. This fuels another possibility - that this gap has been perfectly timed to correspond to these new announcements of promised support, a ratcheting up of pressure on the Assad regime, and if there are not talks in the next several weeks, then there may be new arms to spark fresh advances.

Of course, all of this latest theory is build on the assumption that the Croatian media has found the flights that are shipping these weapons to Jordan, and that is just an assumption at this point.

1654 GMT: Arming of the Rebels has Slowed? According to the LA Times, the arming of the rebels has slowed down recently, a move which is severely hindering the advance of the Syrian rebels:

Though rebels have made gains in the north and east, seizing military bases and checkpoints, opposition figures who had made predictions of quick victory now say their arsenal is at a level that can support only a war of attrition.

"There will be no quick and practical end," said Nabil Amir, spokesman for the Damascus Military Council, a key rebel group.

Although arms for the Syrian opposition have come primarily from Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, rebel commanders almost uniformly blame the slowdown on the United States, which they suspect of exerting pressure on its regional allies.

In a separate analysis, I write that the goal of the arming of the rebels, as of now, appears to be to test the concept and to push Assad to the negotiating table - not to topple the regime yet:

In the majority of videos coming from the front lines, no foreign weapons are visible. One theory is that this was a "proof of concept": while an initial flow of advanced weapons was being established, the insurgency had to establish that it could progress --- even without that boost in armament --- through improvement in organisation and tactics. Events of the last month indicate that opposition brigades have passed the test.

Now, with the existence of the weapons revealed, Washington may be ready to officially endorse --- and possibly expand --- the arming of Syria's insurgency to move to the next stage: pushing the regime to the negotiating table

This theory and the LA Times article appear to match up - if Washington's main goal is to make Assad negotiate, then they may be leaning on their allies to pause efforts to arm the insurgents. This also could be reflected in comments being made by the Saudi Foreign Minister today that Europe and the US need to arm the rebels because the Sauds are already doing what they can (see update 1603).

1627 GMT: Rebels Destroy Truck Headed to Idlib. Idlib city is nearly surrounded, and the rebels control all of the major roads in and out, though the Assad regime is fighting to change this. Assad has often used helicopters to supply some of his bases in the north, but so many have been shot down or damaged that these are in short supply.

As such, this video reportedly shows rebels destroying a truck that is bringing supplies into the city. The assertion here is that the truck is delivering military supplies. This begs the obvious question - how do they know?

1623 GMT: Rebels Sell Arms? An interesting observation by one of the writers at Syria Deeply:

1603 GMT: Croatia to Withdraw Troops from Golan. Croatia has been implicated - by EA Worldview, Eliot Higgins, Michael Weiss, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, just to name a few - of having their weapons show up in Syrian rebel hands. Whether the government of Croatia had knowledge of this fact is unknown, and their government has denied this knowledge, but the existence of the weapons is now well established. Now, it seems that the Croatian government has decided to remove its troops, part of a UN peacekeeping team, from the Golan Heights as a result:

Croatia said Thursday it will withdraw its soldiers stationed on the Golan Heights as part of a UN force after reports said that Syrian rebels battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad were receiving weapons from the Balkan country.

"After talks with President (Ivo) Josipovic I have initiated the withdrawal of Croatian troops from the Golan Heights," Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a cabinet session...

"We can deny the reports as much as we want but that won't go anywhere," Milanovic said. "Our soldiers are no longer safe. We want them back home safe and sound."

1547 GMT: Saudis Admit Arming Rebels? Here is what may be the closest we'll come to a formal recognition from the Saudis that they are arming the Syrian opposition - from Jonathan Rugman of Channel 4 News, who is reporting from the meeting in Rome:

Rugman has other interesting news to deliver on the subject:

All of this fits with the assessment I make today that the West knows about the arms that were already sent to Syria, is using this as a trial run for sending their own arms, and the West is trying to ramp up pressure on Assad to drive him to the negotiating table.

1523 GMT: The Rebels Have a Scud B? This video, posted by Al Jazeera Arabic, appears to show the rebels in control of a Scud B, a long-range weapon capable of delivering a variety of weapons. This video was reportedly taken at a former nuclear site in northeast Syria that has been captured by rebel groups this past week:

The video may be alarming to some - Jabhat al Nusra led the attack against that base. The one comfort is that, according to some experts, the probability that those insurgents have viable fuel or the technical expertise to launch the missile is relatively low, and unless one of Assad's chemical weapons plants falls to the rebels, it's unlikely they could deliver much more than the equivalent of a very large truck bomb's worth of explosives.

We should also add that we've not independently confirmed the details of the video.

1433 GMT: Where's the Humanitarian Aid? Scott Lucas speaks with Moncole 24 about how many countries have not delivered on their promises of humanitarian aid, and how others have focused on arming the insurgents more than helping those affected by violence. See also Syria Audio Analysis: Why Politics Means No Humanitarian Aid - Scott Lucas with Monocle 24

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

1245 GMT: US, the "West", and the Opposition. The Friends of Syria group has pledged more political and material support for the Syrian opposition, including a commitment of $60 million from the US.

The international delegations said after the Rome meeting:

The regime must immediately stop the indiscriminate bombardment against populated areas which are crimes against humanity and cannot remain unpunished.

The ministers pledged more political and material support to the (Syrian National) coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to get more concrete assistance (into) Syria.

The group did not specify what kind of support will be supplied.

The US announcement followed meetings with the opposition National Coalition and with European and Arab delegations. Secretary of State John Kerry said the non-lethal aid will include food rations and medical supplies to insurgents.

Kerry declared that President Assad "lost his legitimacy long ago, and has lost his power".

1125 GMT: Aid. Back from an academic break to find the complaint of the World Health Organisation that it has received none of the $1.5 billion pledged last month at an international conference to address the humanitarian crisis.

Speaking to the Guardian, Elisabeth Hoff said the security situation in the Syrian capital had significantly deteriorated over the last few weeks:

We have not received any fresh money as of today. And the needs are actually enormous now. The needs are growing: the escalation of the violence, more and more injuries, more and more burns. We are not in a position to meet these needs, and we have not received any fresh money.

We will soon post an Audio Analysis --- in the meantime, Hoff's interview:

0945 GMT: The US and the Opposition. Amid todya's Friends of Syria international gathering in Rome, US Secretary of State John Kerry meets the opposition National Coalition, including its head Moaz al-Khatib:

0725 GMT: Arms for the Insurgents. Yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney began the process of moving from denial to confirmation of US support for the insurgency inside Syria, as well as the political opposition outside the country.

See Syria Analysis: Washington Supports Arming of Insurgents So the Regime Will Negotiate

Kerry started the ball rolling earlier this week when he said Washington was considering a step-up in "non-lethal" assistance, as well as humanitarian aid, and --- following a well-placed leak in The Washington Post confirming the "policy shift" --- Carney put out his code for "Yes":

We are constantly reviewing the nature of the assistance we provide to both the Syrian people, in form of humanitarian assistance, and to the Syrian opposition in the form of non-lethal assistance.

We will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian people, to the Syrian opposition, we will continue to increase our assistance in the effort to bring about a post-Assad Syria.

In part, the timing of the US announcement is due to pressure from the opposition National Coalition, which threatened to boycott today's Friends of Syria meeting in Rome because of what it saw as a lack of international concern and assistance as the regime killed civilians.

But only in part. For weeks, Washington has been setting up this public shift. Last month's high-profile declarations that President Obama had vetoed calls from high-ranking officials for aid to the insurgency was to cover up the fact that the US had begun to do exactly that, in co-operation with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and some European countries. It was also to prepare the ground for the moment when Washington would say, "Our position is evolving."

The spate of stories this week pointing to the foreign weapons getting into the hands of the insurgents --- notably in The Washington Post and The New York Times --- signalled that the time had come for that moment.

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