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Syria Live Coverage: The Saudi Support of the Insurgency

See also Syria Audio Analysis: Is Assad's Military Crumbling? --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Syria Feature: "Hundreds" of Saudis --- and Lots of Money --- for the Insurgency
Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Mubarak's Police Behind Almost 900 Killings of Protesters in 2011 Uprising
Wednesday's Syria Live Coverage: Turkish Special Forces Enter the Country

Anhar Kocheva (see 0815 GMT)1935 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, today's death toll has risen to 126:

35 martyrs were reported in Tal Brak in Hasakeh in a massacre that was committed by the regime forces; 34 in Damascus and its Suburbs; 18 in Daraa, 11 in Homs; 11 in Aleppo; 6 in Raqqa; 5 in Hama; 4 in Idlib; 1 in Qunaitera; and 1 in Jableh.

See our note about the casualty numbers published by the LCC.

1923 GMT: Assad's Wife Gives Birth. Bashar al Assad's wife, Asma, has given birth to twins:

1855 GMT: Regime Intercepts Weapons. A video from SANA, Syrian State TV, shows another weapons shipment reportedly captured by the regime:

For the first 3 and a half minutes this video is pretty boring, containing such deadly weapons as Garmin GPS devices and Maglite flashlights. The only possibly suspicious items are a group of vests, but it's not readily apparent if they are bullet-proof vests or just sporting equipment. There's also a laptop and some sort of walkie-talkie.

Then the video zooms out, and what appears to be 25 rockets and two M79 Osa rocket launchers are visible (due to the low picture quality, qwe've been unable to get a 100% ID on the weapons).

This shipment is interesting in that it may tell us something about the scale of the shipments. This is certainly a smaller shipment than the last one broadcast on SANA, but we see about 25 rockets for perhaps only 2 launchers. That's a significant amount of firepower for each launcher. Also interestingly, the bullet proof vests were among the things promised by the Obama administration just weeks ago - part of their new "non-lethal" aid.

1826 GMT: France & UK Ready to Arm Rebels. In a bold statement, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has encouraged the EU to life the arms embargo or both France and the UK will break the embargo and arm the Syrian rebels anyway.

If unanimous EU support for lifting the measure is lacking, the French and British governments will decide to deliver weapons, Fabius said.

France "is a sovereign nation," he added...

"We must move quickly," and "and we along with the British will ask for the meeting to be moved up," he said, not ruling out a gathering before the end of March. Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday that Britain would consider ignoring an EU arms ban and supplying weapons to Syrian rebels if it would help topple President Bashar al-Assad.

1549 GMT: China Brags About Weapons in Syria. The blogger Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses) and I have been tracking the Chinese FN-6 MANPADS system, a shoulder-fired surface to air missile that may have destroyed at least two Assad helicopters, and possibly more.

What's strange about the weapon's presence in Syria is that there are few (if any) on the black market, and China openly backs the Assad regime, so how the rebels have got their hands on this weapon remains unknown.

Well, the Chinese government doesn't seem to care, as long as it boosts Chinese weapon sales. A mouthpiece for the Chinese government's ruling party is bragging about the effectiveness of the weapons:

The Global Times, a tabloid with close links to the ruling Communist Party, said a pair of videos posted on the Internet by Free Syrian Army rebels showed two Mi-8/17 helicopters being shot down by Chinese shoulder-launched missiles. The paper said it was not known how the rebels, who have been fighting to topple the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad for the past two years, obtained the missiles.

But it said the success of the FN-6 weapons, which it said were developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, could lift the overall image of China’s defense products.

1541 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 71 people have been killed so far across the country:

31 martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs, 9 Martyr in Homs, 10 in Daraa, 8 in Aleppo,6 in Raqqa, 3 in Idlib, 3 in Hama, and 1 in Jableh.

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.

Also see our description of the Local Coordination Committees and how we utilize their reports in the Columbia Journalism Review.

1525 GMT: Citizen Journalists at Risk. Almost every video we post was filmed by a citizen journalist, a resident, civilian, activist, or fighter who takes a giant risk to tell the story of the Syrian conflict.

Sometimes they get killed or wounded in the process. This video was reportedly taken in the Zamalka district of Damascus. According to those who posted it, one of the citizen journalists was wounded.

It's not graphic, but it is effective. If nothing else, it gives the readers and journalists who watch this conflict through videos like these an appreciation of how dangerous citizen TV can be:

1513 GMT: Homs Hammered by Airstrikes and Artillery. The fighting in Homs doesn't seem to be breaking one way or the other, but the city and surrounding areas are being hit hard again today. This video shows one of the airstrikes that hit Al Rastan, north of Homs. The area is a focus for Assad forces hoping to reestablish control over Homs because it blocks the main road running from Hama and all points north (map):

1448 GMT: Rebel Offensive in Daraa. Let's a take a quick look at an interactive map of central Daraa province (click the link to open a larger map in its own window):

View Syria - 2013 March 14 - EA Worldview in a larger map

We'll update this map as we go along today so that it links to pertinent liveblog entries and additional context.

As you can see, the rebels have made a series of victories and advances to the east and northeast of Daraa city. That's significant as rebels are attacking Daraa city from the south, effectively nearly or completely surrounding Assad's forces there. Furthermore, Assad's advances down the major highways have been partially or completely blocked in recent days, and with intense fighting on the border of the Golan (to the west) and near Damascus, Assad reinforcements may not be able to make it to this province in adequate numbers to stop the rebel advance or dislodge them from positions that have already fallen.

The LCC posts this video, reportedly showing the rebels fighting with Assad forces on the International Highway in Khirbet Ghazaleh (map). If the rebels control the highway, Assad's troops will be stuck where they are, without reinforcements or new supplies:

Readers will recognize Abu Jamal, an opposition media spokesman whom we wrote about this past week. He has moved east from the border with the Demilitarized Zone to cover this new offensive. His movements appear to be coordinated with the leadership of the Daraa Military Council, another indication of the significance of this push. He is reportedly on the outskirts of the 38th Regiment base, and those fires were reportedly set by the Free Syrian Army on the base.

For more context on Abu Jamal see our Syria Exclusive: The Western-Armed Insurgents Who Executed POWs and Captured UN Peacekeepers

1421 GMT: Rebels Push to Center of Daraa. The rebels are making strong gains in the countryside to the northeast of Daraa city, as well as in the Houran countryside to the west, but today the rebels have unleashed an intense attack on a position near the center of the city, in the Daraa Albalad district.

Many videos show the rebels hammering a checkpoint near the Omari Mosque (map). Interestingly, one of the weapons shown is the Croatian M 60 recoilless rifle mounted to the back of a pickup truck:

Below is a livestream of the rebel attack. If the video is still live it will autoplay. If it has stopped, then the recording has finished, but clicking on the livestream channel may show a more recent video:

What's notable - there's no sound of airforce or regime counterattack. The rebel artillery and rifles are just hammering this checkpoint unchecked.

The southern half of Daraa city is now largely in rebel control. The countryside is disputed, but rebels are making significant gains. The fall of Daraa and/or its countryside could prove a significant event, and would allow these rebel forces to move north towards Damascus.

Thanks to TaizMorocco and SyrianDemocrat for assistance.

1344 GMT: Some Armed Opposition Groups are Rights Violators. The Guardian speaks to Cilina Nasser, Amnesty International's Syria researcher who is largely responsible for this new report:

1329 GMT: Right Abuses Growing. Amnesty International has released a report today on rights abuses in Syria. We haven't read the report yet, but we've read the summary, and so far we don't see any surprises. The report focuses on rights abuses conducted by both sides, and points out that large numbers of children are directly and indirectly affected:

“While the vast majority of war crimes and other gross violations continue to be committed by government forces, our research also points to an escalation in abuses by armed opposition groups,” said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“If left unaddressed such practices risk becoming more and more entrenched - it is imperative that all those concerned know they will be held accountable for their actions.”

Our research has once again demonstrated that the Syrian government is using internationally banned weapons against civilians.

Amnesty also reported instances of children involved in war crimes, including an incident where a child is videotaped killing a colonel in Assad's army, reportedly forced to do so by onlookers. We're not entirely sure that it is the same incident that we reported some time ago, but Amnesty appears to have further investigated the incident.

The summary can be found here, and the links to download the full reports are at the bottom of that link.

1304 GMT: Air Strikes Rock Western Damascus. We've been reporting the advance of rebels in the western countryside of the capital. Mouadamya is one area to watch, as the heavily-populated suburb occupied a strip of land near Darayya and Mezzeh. It's a district often caught in the crossfire, and today there is more tragic news as warplanes have reportedly bombed the area. This summary is from the LCC:

Dozens of martyrs and almost 50 wounded among them children in critical conditions due to several air strikes launched by warplane of MiG type in residential neighborhoods in the city in which Zeitouna Mosque was targeted while the worshippers were exiting the mosque, also there are remains of martyrs who weren't identified yet in addition to the bad humanitarian conditions amid shortage of materials and medical staff and increased wounded, it is worth mentioning that the second air strike claimed the life of a young photographer who was covering the first air strike which hit several paramedics as well, and the regime continues to target the city now with artillery and rocket shelling

EA hasn't seen video yet, but there are plenty of other areas of Damascus, and beyond, being shelled and bombed today. It could be a very bloody day in the streets of Syria.

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

0938 GMT: Opposition to Name Prime Minister. Reports claim that the Syrian National Coalition will name a prime minister next week, following recent delays due to divisions within the movement.

In an email to the Guardian newspaper, SNC spokesman Khalid Saleh also rejected recent claims that the US and UK have been stalling the formation of a government:

The hold up on forming the government was not due to pressure from the US or the UK. In the last meeting for the Syrian Coalition we voted on forming the government and the majority of the coalition members supported it. I expect that we will have a prime minister for the interim government by the 20th of this month.

As far as support from the the US and the UK, we appreciate the support that was promised by both countries and believe it can help provide for a major shift in the balance of powers on the ground. We are looking forward to actually receiving that support and for the promises to turn into actions.

0835 GMT: Iran and Syria. An EA correspondent with detailed knowledge of both Iran and Syria gets to the heart of the matter over our previous entry, in which Western officials use Reuters to put out the claim of Iranian arms to the Assad regime:

The story is true. The question is "Why push it now?"

Intelligence reports are not just "shown" to reporters. It's a deliberate PR strategy.

0825 GMT: Iran and Syria. The spin of the day comes from unnamed "Western diplomats" using Reuters to put out the message, "Exclusive: Iran Steps Up Weapons Lifeline to Syria's Assad".

The article has no substantive information beyond "a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters in September". Instead, the 30-paragraph story by five reporters "and others" relies on these two passages from the unnamed sources:

"The Iranians really are supporting massively the regime," a senior Western diplomat said this week. "They have been increasing their support for the last three, four months through Iraq's airspace and now trucks. And the Iraqis really are looking the other way."

"They (Iran) are playing now a crucial role," the senior diplomat said, adding that Hezbollah was "hardly hiding the support it's giving to the (Syrian) regime."....

One Western diplomat cited intelligence reports from his country that a new avenue for sending arms to Syria went on occasion through Turkish airspace to Beirut and from there to Syria by truck. There was no suggestion, he said, that Turkish officials were aware of the illicit arms shipments.

Once in Syria, he said, the arms were distributed to government forces and allied militia, including Hezbollah.

0815 GMT: The Freed Ukrainian Journalist. Anhar Kochneva, held for more than 150 days by insurgents before escaping this week, has spoken to Russia Today about her experience:

For the first 50 days, I had a very good opinion of them. And they didn’t think that I could go anywhere. For instance, a guy who kept watch over me used to support me most of the time. He would even give me his food and stay hungry himself.

But then they got tired of me staying there because they couldn’t leave and do something else. Sometimes they had to spend their own money on me as they were not given a budget to provide me with food, water or clothes. I was dressed in summer clothes, but when winter came I wanted warm clothes.

My presence there turned into burden for them and they felt angry with me, started abusing me, hitting without a reason and so on. They got harsher with me. They began to close the door. For instance, I needed to use the loo, but the door was closed and no one would open it for me. What did I have to do? I couldn’t bear that any longer.

To be honest, I know that they were saying “If you were a man, we would kill you.” And, naturally, they demanded a ransom for me. That’s why they treated me better than those who they simply wanted to slaughter.

Surprisingly, given the threat -- and the claimed demand of a $50 million ransom, later reduced to $300,000 --- her escape was not that difficult:

They thought I wouldn’t do anything. Actually, there wasn’t even a key there --– just a usual bolt.

So, they were sleeping and I walked out. I wanted to find someone on the road to tell them who I was and ask for help. Of course, there was a danger that they would give me away.

Thank God, I met people who helped me to get out of that district.

0615 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim that 103 people were killed on Wednesday, including 38 in Damascus and its suburbs and 26 in Aleppo Province.

The Violations Documentation Center records 52,341 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 92 from Wednesday. Of the dead, 42.154 were civilians, an increase of 49 from yesterday.

0605 GMT: Saudi Arabia. We begin this morning with a report by Reese Erlich for The Global Post --- to be posted as a separate EA Feature later today ---- about Saudi support of the insurgency:

Based on a month of reporting in the region and in Washington, over a dozen sources have confirmed that wealthy Saudis, as well as the government, are arming some Syrian rebel groups. Saudi and Syrian sources confirm that hundreds of Saudis are joining the rebels, but the government denies any sponsoring role.

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