The insurgent attack on the Harmala checkpoint in Damascus on Wednesday
2140 GMT: Someone is Arming the Rebels - Update. Yesterday, we published a separate article, Syria Analysis: Someone is Arming the Insurgents...and It's Working. Today, Brown Moses and I have seen much more evidence of this in action. A Free Syrian Army group from Daraa, the Ababil Horan Brigade, has moved from the south and have entered the Qadam district in southern Damascus. Not only this, but they are carrying with them M79 Osa anti-tank weapons, at least one RBG-6 grenade launcher, and at least one M60 recoilless rifle (which was spotted on February 3rd). In other words, multiple foreign-made weapons that we've written about in yesterday's article are all present, within the same group, and have all been deployed to attack Damascus as part of the new offensive.
This video reportedly shows the fighters, in a convoy, traveling to Al Qadam.
Ababil Houran entering Qadam on foot. Note the M79 carried by the soldier who hides his face:
This appears to show the same fighters firing the M79, reportedly at a tank. At the start of the video, a man carries the RBG-6 grenade launcher as well:
The RBG-6 in action:
There are too many coincidences here. The intensification in fighting, the new success of the rebels, and the fact that the same units, all Free Syrian Army (as opposed to more radical units) ,have new weapons and are using them suggests, once again, a coordinated arming of rebels, and a coordinated series of attacks using those arms.
And when we see videos like the one below, reportedly showing a tank burning in Al Qadam last night, we start to think we're on the right track:
2014 GMT: Death Toll Rises. Back from a research break to find that the death toll has risen to 109, according to the Local Coordination Committees:
36 martyrs were reported in Hama, 25 of which in the explosion that targeted the defense factory in Salameyeh yesterday; 24 in Damascus and its Suburbs; 19 in Homs; 14 in Aleppo; in Hama; 10 in Idlib; 4 in Daraa; and 2 in Raqqa.
19 martyrs were reported in Homs; 18 in Damascus and its Suburbs in; 11 in Aleppo; 7 in Idlib; 4 in Daraa; 3 in Hama; and 2 in Raqqa.
The number is somewhat lower (though it is still early), as an average of about 100 to 120 people die in a typical day in this conflict. However, patterns are often disrupted in the days following intense battle, as both sides plan their next move. Today may be one of those days.
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.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Assad's artillery played a key role in yesterday's battle, despite the fact that it did not halt the rebel advances in Jobar:
Units of Assad's elite Republican Guard based on the imposing Qasioun Mountain overlooking the city fired artillery rounds and rockets at the eastern neighbourhood of Jobar and at the southern ring road, where rebels have overrun roadblocks and army positions, the sources said...
A retired military officer in Damascus said the shelling of rebel areas was hitting civilians and fighters indiscriminately. The army "stand hundreds of metres away and fire shells. And the shells fall on anyone. Women and families and anybody. Where is the courage in that?"
Reuters also reports that, according the Syrian state media, the rebels have been pushed back - however, the streets were clearly in control of the rebels at nightfall. Many rebel fighters have spoken about how they will use caution this time, advancing more slowly, clearing snipers nests as they go, and wearing the Assad regime down. It's unclear if the rebels have withdrawn from positions they gained yesterday, but even if they have there is no sign of a government victory anywhere on the streets of eastern Damascus.
1515 GMT: The Battle for Al Safira. It's still unclear what has happened in Al Safira, or which brigades are involved. One activist reported that the video we linked to that showed bodies was rumored to have been originally uploaded by opposition members to show a massacre, and has been re-uploaded by pro-regime elements (we found another video where this had been done earlier today) but we can't confirm this. In other words, Al Safira is an information black hole, but one where many are saying that significant events are occurring.
@jmiller_ea Saned News Network:Aleppo countryside, FSA commits a tank massacre, 7 tanks destroyed till now in the village of Um Amuda.— Syrian Freedom (@FreeingSyria) February 7, 2013
Another report says there is heavy fighting on the road in the village of Al Junied (map) as rebels attempt to stop a military convoy from reaching Al Safira. Yet another report suggests that the Syrian Army's offensive was beaten back, and intense battles are raging in Al Safira.
The realities are unclear, which is particularly frustrating as the Al Safira base is one of the most sensitive locations in all of Syria.
1414 GMT: Rebels Attacked Near Al Safira. One of the battles that has caught our attention over the last several months are the battles near Al Safira, about 15-20 kilometers southeast of Aleppo (map). Al Safira is important strategically, because if the rebels establish a foothold there then they effectively have the city of Aleppo surrounded. However, and more importantly, Al Safira is host to perhaps the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the country, perhaps even the region.
Last week, the rebels had a series of unnervingly successful attacks against a convoy of supplies and armored vehicles just outside the base, and reports suggested that more was to come.
However, over the last several days a rumor has spread that a very large Assad convoy has been dispatched to the town, and rebel positions near the base were facing a massive assault. Interestingly, almost no video has emerged over the last two days to confirm this rumor.
There is another piece to this report - according to multiple sources, most of the fighters at al Safira now are Jabhat al Nusra members. There was a rumor that rebel commanders in the town put out an emergency call for reinforcements, but it's not clear if any came. The Free Syrian Army brigades, on the other hand, have been busy fighting in several other districts across Aleppo city, and those efforts have been intensifying as the rumors from Al Safirah have been breaking. In other words, if the rebels in Al Safira are under attack, it does not seem to have changed the plans of the rebels in Aleppo city.
The only videos that are coming out of the city are from the regime. This video, one of several, reportedly shows rebel bodies, part of the "hundreds" they have killed in the town. Opposition reports vary on the number of dead. Some sources suggest 40-60 dead, while an opposition Facebook page only lists 15 names.
Why no videos? First, the rebel groups may be busy fighting, rather than filming. Second, some rebel groups are more forthcoming than others, but we've never seen Jabhat al Nusra post bad news. If the rebels are being overrun by a huge military convoy, there may not be confirmation of the story for some time.
1333 GMT: Battle for Damascus Continues. It's unclear whether the fighting today is as intense as it was yesterday, but the battles continue in parts of the capital today. The LCC has this report and this video on the eastern districts, near Jobar, where the fighting was yesterday:
clashes between FSA fighters and regime forces around the southern ring road amid shelling in the capital city with rocket launchers & mortars.
James Miller takes over today's live coverage from Scott Lucas.
0611 GMT: Fighting in the Capital. Wednesday was distinguished by a surge of insurgent attacks near and in Damascus. Heavy fighting, with the destruction of regime checkpoints and at least one tank, was reported in northern and eastern parts of the city such as Jobar, Zamalka, and Qaboun, on the ring road, and in eastern and southern suburbs.
The Local Coordination Committees reported 162 people killed on Wednesday, including 77 in Damascus and its suburbs and 30 in Aleppo Province.