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Syria Live Coverage: Watching the Attack in Damascus

An insurgent brigade enters the Qaddam section of Damascus

See also Syria Special: The Insurgent Offensive Against Damascus and the Foreign Weapons
Tunisia (and Beyond) Live Coverage: General Strike and Marches as Slain Opposition Leader is Buried
Thursday's Syria Live Coverage: The Insurgents Attack Inside Damascus

2058 GMT: Idlib. Rania Abouzeid reports new rebel offenses against several key bases in Idlib province, including Wadi Deif which is the main base near Ma'arrat al Nouman (map) and the Abu Dhuhur military airport (map, also see update 1341). This time, she writes, the offensives are different, as the rebels organize to take some of the last key Assad bases in the north:

On Wednesday, the push to take it was forcefully renewed, but unlike previous offensives here and elsewhere that tend to be disorganized, poorly coordinated actions by a few brigades, this phase of the battle has been carefully planned over many weeks. It is not an isolated fight but part of a wider strategy, codenamed Marakit il Bina il Marsoos, or the Battle of Reinforced Structures, to open all the remaining fronts in Idlib province at around the same time — Wadi Deif, the Karmid Checkpoint, the Mastoomeh Checkpoint, the Abu Duhoor military airport and the smaller checkpoints associated with these outposts — before rebels turn their full attention to the regime forces concentrated in Idlib city, the provincial capital, and the city of Jisr al-Shughour, the two key urban areas still in the regime’s firm grip. If the rebels succeed, they will have created the first liberated province in Syria, an area completely free of regime forces and a de facto safe zone — without direct international help.

Read the entire article here.

2033 GMT: FSA's Thoughts on Negotiating with Assad. The Aleppo Media Center has interviewed Free Syrian Army leader Colonel Aqidi. They asked him whether he will accept the plan, proposed by National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib, to negotiate a political settlement with the regime. The video (Arabic) can be viewed here, but Zilal, a super-activist, has provided this overview of Aqidi's answers:

They ask the man what he thinks about the initiative of Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition National Council.

He answers that, as military elements, they do not want to take part in poltical affairs and that they trust Moaz al-Khatib and his patriotism, although he may have introduced the initiative for talks incorrectly.

The man says that they accept the initiative if it will include the departure of the regime in all its aspects and the removal of all who committed crimes against Syrian people.

The man also says also that they are sure that this regime will not consider this initiative. Thus, they will continue in the revolution until the regime is toppled.

The cameraman asks him if he who loses his son will accept the dialogue with this regime.

The colonel answers that, surely no, he will not. The dialogue will be not with those who killed but with those in the regime do not have hands stained with the blood of Syrians.

The dialogue will not be about the persistence of the regime but about its departure in all its aspects and about the process to deal with the people who have blood-stained hands.

Thanks to Brown Moses fore pointing out the video.

2023 GMT: Kurdish Forces Attack Syrian Military. Journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg shares this video which he says shows YPG Kurdish forces attacking Assad positions in the Ashrafiyeh district of Aleppo (map). The video starts by showing YPG fighters waving their flag and lowering the regime's flag. Fighten ensues:

2010 GMT: A Baby in Ma'arrat al Nouman. A terrible video - A building reportedly collapsed in Ma'arrat al Nouman after regime warplanes bombed the city. As men rush to pull victims out of the rubble, one man emerges with a bloodied infant. The video is graphic.

1938 GMT: Rocket Attacks in South Damascus. The CFDPC, a network of activists working to cover the news from Damascus and surrounding areas, posts two very interesting videos from two separate Youtube channels. The first claims to show surface-to-surface rockets firing from the Mezzeh military airport in western Damascus. We can very that location because the area is well-photographed:

The second video, posted by a different Youtube account, claims to show rockets landing across the Asali, Hajar Al-Aswad and Madniyeh southern districts of Damascus.

We've seen significant evidence that Assad is using these rockets, but it's interesting to see both videos juxtaposed like this.

These rockets are unguided - even if the military is trying to hit legitimate targets, these are falling on residential neighborhoods.

1927 GMT: Islamic Brigades Rip Free Syrian Army Flag. This video was taken in Saraqeb, Idlib province. A crowd of anti-government protests marches through the streets when several men who are carrying the flags of the revolution, often carried by pro-democracy advocates and the moderate Free Syrian Army units, are attacked by Islamists who break the flag poles and throw them into the crowd:

In a nearby town with a very different feel, the people of Kafranbel hold a sign that reads, "Peoples always win over their tyrants. The Syrians are not an exception. Watch your steps."

1902 GMT: Fires Blaze in Aleppo. According to many sources, heavy artillery bombardment of the al-Haydariyeh district of Aleppo has led to many injuries, and large fires (map). A factory reportedly caught on fire, and according to activists, members of the Free Syrian Army helped firefighters to put it out. Those details are not verified, but the footage is dramatic:

1840 GMT: Rebels Attack Menneg Airport. The rebels have, at various times in this conflict, been extremely impatient, charging into battles without a clear strategy. However, in recent months such impatience is arerly seen. Instead, Assad bases in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib have been cut off, and rebel rockets, artillery, mortars, and snipers have gradually eroded away their strength.

One of the best examples of this is the Menneg airport, in northern Aleppo (map). Once a feared base for Assad's military, now rebels slowly pick at it, waiting from the crew to surrender or a breakthrough to occur. Now, there are signs that the rebels may be readying a new offensive to finally take the base.

A sniper tries to pick off the guards:

Opening fire on the main gate:

A vehicle-mounted heavy machine-gun racing towards the main gate:

Other videos posted over the last week have shows rebel fighters massing near the base, and even firing on the base with tanks.

1810 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 100 people have been killed so far today:

33 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 30 in Aleppo; 13 in HOms; 12 in Daraa; 8 in Idlib; 2 in Deir Ezzor; 1 in Raqqa 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 a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

1640 GMT: Protests Across Damascus. There are protests in many areas of Syria, and we'll talk about them in a bit. However, with the intensification of violence in and around Damascus, it's noteworthy that protests have continued, even in embattled areas.

For example, this is a protest in Saqba, an eastern suburb nestled in areas where the new offensive is raging:

Zablatani, near Saqba and the heart of fighting:

Zakia, Damascus:

A child leads a protest in Kafr Batna:

1556 GMT: Many Don't Want to Negotiate with the Regime. Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reports that many in Aleppo, especially in the armed opposition, have no interest in a negotiated settlement. Instead, they want to see the fighting topple the regime.

On the other hand, some rebels do want peace, and many residents would like to see any end to this crisis.

Khodr maintains that the international community has moved further away from a military option, and neither an end to the fighting nor a negotiated peace is close at hand. Those last points are accurate - there is no sign that the fighting will end soon, and a negotiated settlement seems like a very remote possibility. As I've been writing, however, I'm not so sure the first statement was accurate. It appears that one month ago the rebels began to receive arms from the outside in large quantities. That suggests that someone is interesting in pushing the Assad regime over the edge.

1455 GMT: This Week's Car Bombing. Earlier in the week, a bomb blast tore through Bab al Buraq, just south of Hama, in what we may start calling "massacre alley," the area between Hama and Homs where some of the worst asymmetrical violence has taken place (map). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now says that 54 people were killed in the bus bombing.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 54 people died in Wednesday's explosion which struck their bus as they were preparing to return home at the end of their shift, and the number could rise further.

The Observatory said 11 of the victims from the bombing in Buraq, about 10 km (six miles) south of the city of Hama, were women. The workers were from cities of Homs, Hama and the town of Salamiyah.

The report also notes that extremists killed 42 people in a bomb blast last month in the nearby town of Salamiyeh.

Why is this area prone to these events? These areas are relatively poor, very isolated geographically, relatively diverse in ethnic and religious demographics, and they are close to Lebanon - an area that the rebels have used to smuggle weapons, and the regime has used to bring in reinforcements from Hezbollah. However, the region was particularly hard hit in the early insurgency, and as neither the rebels nor the government have large footprints or definitive control, local militias have struggled to maintain security or provide for the people whom they protect. In short, the need for food, the constant fear, and the lack of security has combined with these other factors to create a tinderbox for sectarian strife or politically motivated massacres.

And help is not on the way. International groups find it difficult to operate in this area, the front lines of the battle are either in Damascus or north of Hama, and the people in these areas will be left to fend for themselves for some time to come.

1351 GMT: Rebels Not Planning to Hold Gains in Damascus. During previous rebel offensives in Damascus, the rebels attempted to hold the areas that they captured, and despite inflicting heavy losses on the Syrian Arab Army, Assad forces eventually recaptured much of that territory.

This time the plan is different. With new weapons in hand, the idea is to hold the initiative and keep Assad in a reactionary mode, while disrupting his supply lines - and any sense of normalcy in the capital. Reuters reports that this is part of a "'two steps forward, one step back' rebel strategy."

Heavy fighting was reported at the Hermalleh junction on the ring road just south of Jobar, which had been taken over by the rebels. Fighter jets fired rockets around Jobar, Qaboun and Barzeh districts, the sources said.

Captain Islam Alloush of the Liwa al-Islam rebel unit said opposition fighters did not intend to stay on the ring road and that even if they withdrew from the junction, their new control of surrounding areas rendered the road useless as an army supply line.

"They are fighting off the regime forces but they do not intend to stay at Hermalleh if their losses mount. The objective of this operation is a slow advance toward Damascus," he told Reuters.

This strategy is not just confined to Damascus. As rebels push new offensives in Idlib, Daraa, and Aleppo, the new strategy near the capital will prevent Assad from re-positioning his forces to react.

1341 GMT: The Battle for Idlib. Many sources have given us information that a significant offensive against a network of remaining military bases in Idlib province is underway and is about to reach a new phase. It now seems that the Free Syrian Army commander Saif Al-Sham of the Sinjar Brigade had broken his silence. He described for the Guardian's Mona Mahmoud that the FSA is launching a new initiative to take Abu Dhuhur airbase in Idlib, as well as four other Assad strongholds:

This month long battle that we call "We are back" includes many battles around the airport to deplete the military force of the regime. We are launching five fierce battles now within Idlib province, in Wadi Al-Dhaif, Al-Hamidiyia, Al-Qarmeed checkpoint, and other checkpoints inside the city. We are trying to ease the pressure on the fighters in neighbouring provinces by reducing planes’ sorties as much as we can.

We are now surrounding the airport and are sniping at any soldier or officer we spot inside the airport. We also use anti-aircraft missiles against the planes and the airport sections. We will continue our attacks for few days till we get the order to storm the airport.

There are six brigades and two battalions who are taking part in this battle. Each brigade has no fewer than 300 fighters. The fighters are distributed into two lines, front and backward.

1318 GMT: Battles Across Damascus. So far today there are reported battles between the Free Syrian Army across much of the southern districts, from Tadamon to Al Asali, and in Al Qadam. Meanwhile, there is heavy fighting reported in eastern Damascus as well. The LCC has this report:

FSA fighters shell the Air Force Intelligence HQ near to al-Abasyeen stadium with mortars.

All those locations are visible on the map which we will try to update as the day continues.

1240 GMT: Refugee Crisis Growing. According to the United Nations, more than 5,000 Syrians are fleeing to neighboring countries each and every day. Furthermore, the problems for those trapped inside Syria could be even worse:

In Syria, water shortages are worsening and supplies are sometimes contaminated, putting children at an increased risk of diseases, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned on Friday.

Today's forecast for the region - high temperatures will be in the high 50s or low 60s (Fahrenheit), with lows in the low 40s.

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

1220 GMT: Fighting. Activists report clashes in the Jobar section of Damascus while regime forces continue to bombard insurgent-held suburbs.

Opposition sources said a rocket on the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyah killed six insurgent fighters and injured 12 people. Others were wounded in overnight bombardment of the Damascus neighbourhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qaddam, al-Assali, and Barzeh.

Syrian State media claimed six people, including three children, were killed on Wednesday when "terrorists" fired two mortar shells on a bus station in the al-Qaboun district of Damascus. State news agency SANA asserted that regime forces continued to pursue "armed terrorist groups" in the Damascus suburbs of Arbeen, Zamalka, Adra al-Balad, Tal Kurdi, Douma Farms, and Harasta, "inflicting heavy losses upon their members".

0840 GMT: The Economy. The Syria Policy Studies Center calculates that the country has suffered an economic loss of $48.4 billion in the past 22 months --- 81.7% of its GDP in 2012.

GDP fell 29.1% year-on-year in 2012 from destruction of production facilities, deterioration of the security situation, and economic sanctions, according to the UN. Unemployment was 35% and is projected to exceed 60% by the end of 2015 if the turbulence continues.

There has been $25.3 billion in damage to public and private facilities, with 624,000 families and 3.3 million people affected.

A total of 2,326 schools have been damaged, with only 300 repaired. In Aleppo Province, only 11% of schools are holding classes, far below the national average of 75%.

The conflict has destroyed 25 public hospitals and 111 medical centers and forced 25 of 72 pharmaceutical factories to suspend production,

In communications, 170 of 700 telephone switchboards and 1700 of 6000 cellphone signal towers hsve been destroyed.

Flour output across the whole country has dropped to 5500 tonnes per day, falling far short of the nationwide demand of 7000 tonnes. The Government has had to use reserves while planning to import 100,000 tonnes.

0640 GMT: Insurgents and Weapons. We start Friday with James Miller's special update to Tuesday's exclusive on the arming of the opposition, "The Insurgent Offensive Against Damascus and the Foreign Weapons".

One outcome of that offensive yesterday was an insurgent move into the Qaddam section of the capital. Video showed a convoy of fighters, armed with anti-tank weapons, recoilless rifles, and at least one advance grenade launcher.

Meanwhile, the regime continues its aerial attacks on eastern suburbs of Damascus, but with no sign that they are dislodging the insurgents.

The Local Coordination Committees claimed 161 people were killed on Thursday, including 13 women and eight children. Sixty-eight of the deaths were in Hama Province --- many of them in an explosion in Salamiya --- 33 in Damascus and its suburbs, and 28 in Homs Province.

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