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Tuesday
Feb052013

Syria Live Coverage: Minister of Defense "We Cannot Be Broken"

Minister of Defense Fahad al-Freij


2129 GMT: More Foreign Weapons - Now Near Damascus. All day we've been discussing the fresh infusion of arms in Daraa from foreign countries, many of which are now moving northwards. In updates below, we've directly tied the sighting of these weapons to a sudden surge in rebel offensives and victories in Daraa province, including now Daraa city itself. However, in the last two weeks we've also seen a new offensive for the Damascus airport, one that has penetrated deeper than we've previously seen. Today, this video was uploaded, reportedly showing an attack on Assad military positions near the airport. In the video, two RPGs can be seen. The far one looks like an RPG-7 with an OG-7 anti-personnel warhead (described here). But the closest one is, according to our own analysis and that of Eliot Higgins, an RPG-22 disposable antitank weapon. As Eliot had previously pointed out (see links above), these aren't in the Syrian military's arsenal - but they are in Croatia's.

In other words, everywhere these weapons are showing up there is a surge in rebel offensives - relatively successful rebel offenses. Eliot also points out something else. All these videos appear to show this equipment in the hands of Free Syrian Army units, not the more extreme or independent groups. This also adds to the theory that a foreign supplier is providing these weapons, as it has helped the FSA gain ground faster, before Jabhat al Nusra or other groups take control.

2036 GMT: Fight for Daraa Pt. 2. Two important points have been brought to my attention. First, John Horne points out that the building in the first video is likely a home, based on the things visible in the room. This is another example of Syrian rebels bringing the fight into residential neighborhoods. Of course, one could argue that the regime has done this since the start, and in this example they have placed security in such a neighborhood, but it's problematic that those complaining about Assad bombing neighborhoods would then fight him in neighborhoods.

Then there is a note from Brown Moses - according to his research, the grenade launcher may not be an RG-6, a Russian-made weapon, but a Type RBG-6, cal.40x46mm, a weapon that like so many others that have popped up in Daraa province is possibly from Croatia or elsewhere in former Yugoslavia.He points out, however, that the weapon appears to be South African designed, and he believes that this is a licensed version from Croatia.

In other words, in the last month or so, the rebels in Daraa have become flush with foreign-bought arms (see update 1430), and this is just another example of how this is turning the tide of war.

1955 GMT: The fight for Daraa Province. Over the last several days, Syrian rebels have moved, with force, into the southwest third of Daraa, Daraa al Balad, on the far side of the river (map). The rebel advance has been largely without thoroughfare, and appears to have met little resistance. In this video, reportedly uploaded yesterday, rebels fire on a regime stronghold with a heavy machinegun and what appears to be an RG-6 grenade launcher. This is another sign that the rebels do not feel threatened by regime airpower or tanks, as they are able to set up in buildings like this and slowly pound at military facilities or security checkpoints.

This video, reportedly taken today, shows rebels with guns and some kind of RPG (a M79 Osa, according to Brown Moses) taking up position in a building as fighting goes on around them:

More intense fighting:

The rebel advance appears to have been so successful, that Assad forces were seeing trying to storm the city today and drive them out. A Syrian blogger has collected two videos showing a military convoy rushing towards the city, and a video shows a tank taking up position on the outskirts of the city to stop rebel reinforcements from reaching the fight.

The reality is that Daraa province is quickly falling out of regime control. Not only do the rebels in the province have new weapons (see update 1430), but they also have plenty of ammunition, and it's proving to be a game changer.

1938 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 93 people have been killed so far today:

36 martyrs were reported in Aleppo; 33 in Damascus and its Suburbs; 9 in Daraa; 3 in Hama; 3 in Idlib; 3 in Raqqa; 4 in Homs; 1 in Deir Ezzor and another Latakia.

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.

1900 GMT: Damascus International Airport. While some flight websites, including Flightstats.com, show the Damascus International Airport as having no flights in or out, a reader points out that SANA reports that there are many flights. However, a quick spotcheck with Jazeera airways and Air Arabia suggest that there are no flights to or from Damascus scheduled today. Why the discrepancy?

We have not been able to discern, based on this data, whether or not the airport is closed.

When we asked the Twitterverse to investigate, one source responded:

Had family just left Damascus & they could not get to airport.They had to go to Beirut to get flight.Problem is access so no.

In other words, the flights may be scheduled on paper, but you can;t get in or out of the airports, and several sources suggest that the flights are not going in or out.

1710 GMT: Rebel Artillery Hits Assad Stronghold in Aleppo. Two videos show rebel artillery reportedly bombarding Assad military positions in Aleppo. The video below shows the weapon firing, while another video shows the men aiming the gun.

This long-range artillery piece (possibly an M-46) is capable of hammering distant targets, including heavily fortified military installations. Several of them have been captured from regime bases, including the headquarters of the 4th Brigade, to the south of Aleppo. What's amazing, however, is that this weapon is reportedly being fired in the Khan al-Asal district of southern Aleppo (map). That means that this gun is likely firing on one of two massive military complexes in southwestern Aleppo, either the military academy or the artillery base. These are among the most feared bases in the entire country, and are key to the regime's control of the city. Without these bases, the airport to the east would be vulnerable and the entire city could rapidly fall into rebel hands.

So where is the Assad airforce? The fact that it is possible for this gun to fire on important bases such as these is an indication that the Syrian airforce is much weaker, especially in then north, than it has ever been. The airforce is also stretched, as it is being heavily used around Damascus and against Idlib province, as well as against rebel positions east of Aleppo, and against Hama and Homs provinces.

The use of this gun also carries with it a danger. Assad's major bases are not too far from residential and commercial neighborhoods in Aleppo. As the fight for Assad's bases intensifies, so to wil lthe risk of collateral damage increase.

1638 GMT: Tank Reportedly Destroyed in Darayya. For weeks we've noticed that Syrian military tank convoys have been operating in Darayya, west of Damascus, without infantry support - a risky move. Many regime tanks have been destroyed, and many more soldiers killed, during the fight. Some recent videos have even shown tanks racing through the city, shelling as they go, not wanting to slow down because of the risk.

That makes this video curious. According to the description, this was taken today in Darayya. The tank is stationary, and alone. Suddenly, there is an explosion on the rear of the tank, and the entire screen fills with smoke. It's possible that the explosion caused the tank to fire as the propellant caught on fire, or it's possible that the tank gunner decided to fire after the tank was hit. The video says that the tank was destroyed, but that remains somewhat unclear (Note, a reader suggests that there is a tank behind this one and is firing):

Another video reportedly shows a tank being destroyed by a roadside bomb, we believe in Jobar, Damascus:

We have not been able to independently confirm either video.

As Assad relies more on tanks and airstrikes than on infantry, his forces will remain vulnerable to attacks like these.

1556 GMT: Rebels Close in on Northeast Aleppo. Only a few short weeks ago the rebels had no real presence near Aleppo University. However, the rebels are now advancing deeper into northwestern districts of Aleppo. This video claims to show a rebel tank and rebel fighters preparing to assault the AlMohallab military barracks, which is just a kilometer and a half away from the edge of Aleppo University's campus (map).

As the battle for the barracks rages in the background, these rebel fighters, equipped with what looks like a SPG-9 recoilless rifle and a vehicle-mounted machinegun, prepare to join the fight:

The Guardian also reports this fighting, though they say that the fighting is near a roundabout just west of the barracks (map):

The Observatory and other opposition activists also report clashes at roundabout in Nile Street in the north-west of Aleppo and around Hamadaniya stadium in the south-west.

Syria's state news agency accused terrorists of firing mortars at civilians.

The fighting around Nile street is believed to be connected to attempts to take over a nearby army barracks.

1506 GMT: Palestinian Leaders Trying to Help Refugees. More than 500,000 Palestinian refugees live inside Syria, but they now find themselves caught in the middle of this war. Now, a senior Palestinian official reports that President Mahmoud Abbas will attempt to dispatch a team of representatives to Syria in order to help the Palestinians living there:

Ahmed Majdalani said on Tuesday that representatives will meet Syrian officials to try to protect Palestinian areas from fighting that has engulfed parts of the capital Damascus...

Majdalani said they also will try to convince Palestinian factions to stay out of the fighting. The some 500,000 Palestinians in Syria are divided between supporters of rebels and government forces.

Intense fighting has taken place in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus over the last several months, pitting some Palestinians against others as the opposition and the regime fight for control.

1436 GMT: Baath Lawmaker Rejects Talks. A prominent Baathist lawmaker has rejected the preconditions given by opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib:

Fayez Sayegh told The Associated Press news agency that dialogue between the Syrian government and its political opponents in the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition should start without preconditions...

Sayegh said that the numbers of opposition supporters in Syrian custody cited by Khatib were exaggerated, adding that he felt the opposition aims to embarrass the regime by setting preconditions.

"What is important is for Syrians to meet and agree on common ground for talks," Sayegh said, adding that al-Khatib's proposals such as the prisoners' release should come "as a result of a dialogue, not before it begins".

Earlier, the regime news agency, often a mouthpiece for the regime, also rejected the idea of talks(see update 1245).

Yesterday, I suggested that members of the armed wings of the opposition could also be an obstacle for talks. The Guardian reports that a prominent Free Syrian Army Commander has said he'll stand by any negotiations that don't deal directly with Bashar al Assad:

A rebel leader has backed the idea of negotiations with vice president Farouq al-Sharaa but rejected any dialogue Bashar al-Assad.

Abu Ayhem leader of the Free Syrian Army's al-Bunyan brigade in the southern city of Derra, said he would back any plan that leads to the departure of the Assad government.

However, as I pointed out yesterday, if the regime is not on-board with negotiating, then any other developments or discussions on the matter are purely academic.

1430 GMT: Daily Life in Damascus. Der Spiegel's Susanne Koelbl has published a report on the daily life in Syria's capital, "In the Lion's Den: The Fight for Survival in Damascus." She interviews a Syrian general, opposition members who founded an underground newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, and the average person on the street. The result is a must-read depiction of the struggles, dangers, and uncertainties in Damascus. It's a must read.

But the backdrop of the article is the framing that, despite the claims made by the regime that they are winning, they are in fact inching, ever so slowly but steadily, towards their eventual fall:

The rebels have come dangerously close to the Damascus old town, and the general's days could possibly soon be numbered. The Syrian civil war has been raging for 23 months and has claimed more than 60,000 lives. The rebels are fighting their way forward, but at a torturously slow pace and with many setbacks, repeatedly engaging the Syrian army in grueling battles. Assad's military is holding its ground primarily in the cities, but the regime no longer controls vast rural areas in between, which are now often zones of lawlessness. The rebels have cut off many supply routes, and in some outposts the soldiers don't have enough to eat and are forced to use their bullets sparingly.

Many assessments of reporters whom we trust echo these statements. One need only look to Martin Chulov's post (see update 0725) to find another example. While international headlines have focused on a perceived stalemate, the reality is that on the ground there has been another sudden surge in insurgent success. However, it's been away from the major cities, or even the major military bases. A fresh infusion of arms in Daraa, many of which are now moving northwards, has helped fuel some of this surge. In other places, like Darayya, the rebels have beat all odds and repulsed Assad's attacks, slowly grinding his offensive capabilities to dust. In Aleppo, more neighborhoods have fallen, and more security checkpoints, while hardened strongholds have been under continual siege. The advance is slow, but steady.

But there are the airplanes. The reality is that while Assad's helicopter force has been greatly reduced, each week Assad appears to unveil even more ferocious air campaigns than we've yet seen. The shift in momentum that has slowed the rebel advances is almost entirely due to Assad's air power. And while slow advances bode poorly for the regime, for the civilians in the crossfire the end of this conflict is nearing at a glacial pace.

No, Assad cannot win. But at this pace, what will be left of Syria when he loses?

1404 GMT: Tracking Munitions. Eliot Higgins, Brown Moses on Twitter, has been working with human rights groups, many journalists, and EA Worldview's staff, to track, analyze, classify and categorize weapons used in Syria. From rocket launchers to bombs, machine guns to unexploded ordnance (UXO), Higgins has become a nationally renowned expert on the weapons of the Syria conflict.

Here is his overview of the weapons used across Syria:

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

1245 GMT: Regime Rebuffs Offer of Negotiations. Back from an academic break to find regime outlet Al-Watan rejecting the offer of the head of the opposition National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib as "two years late",

Last week al-Khatib said negotiations with President Assad were possible if conditions were met such as the release of political prisoners. He reinforced the line in meetings at the Munich Security Conference last weekend with US Vice President Joe Biden and with the Russian and Iranian Foreign Ministers, both supporters of Assad's position.

On Monday al-Khatib put out the approach once more in an interview with Al Jazeera English.

Al-Watan replied this morning:

Despite their importance, the statements of Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib are two years late. During that time, our finest young men have died, suffered wounds or been exiled, while we have lost our electricity and fuel infrastructure, alongside several military positions.

Two years have gone by, in which we have lost a lot because of the opposition's stubbornness and their refusal to negotiate. So the ball is not in the Syrian state's hands.

0725 GMT: The Regime's Military. Martin Chulov of The Guardian, reporting from Aleppo, offers a pointed contrast to the Minister of Defense's "We Cannot Be Broken":

Nearly two withering years of war have clearly taken a toll on the Syrian military, which before the insurrection was reputed to be one of the region's most powerful. Army bases were considered impregnable, air defences the most formidable in the region, and soldiers resolutely loyal.

"The only thing we really still fear is the MiGs [Russian-made jet fighters]," said Maalik Sayedi, a carpenter turned guerrilla fighter, as he picked through the remains of an overrun infantry school on the northern outskirts of Aleppo. "When we raided this place, the fight was over in less than two hours."

The infantry school is one of four nearby regime bases overrun between mid-December and late January. Units stationed in this bleak, sprawling complex, which was the main training site in northern Syria for officers and soldiers alike, put up less of a fight than those defending airbases. Signs of the rout are everywhere.

0705 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim 111 people were killed on Monday, including 41 martyrs in Damascus and its suburbs and 23 in Aleppo Province.

0645 GMT: Minister of Defense's Statement. In the latest show of the Assad regime's defiance, General Fahed al-Freij has declared that the military will defeat the insurgency that has gained territory throughout the north, taken part of Syria's largest city Aleppo, and closed on the capital Damascus.

"This heroic Syrian Arab army proved to the world that it is a strong army, a trained army, an army that cannot be broken," Fahed al-Freij insisted.

The Minister portrayed last Wednesday's Israeli airstrikes on a scientific research facility and a military convoy as a response to the failure of the "insurgents".

At the same time, Freij explained the lack of military operation to counter the Israeli attack: "Why does Syria not respond? It's the Israeli enemy which responded ... When the Israeli enemy saw that its tools were being pursued, and they did not achieve their results, it intervened. It is a response to our military work against the armed gangs."

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