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Syria Live Coverage: Will the Arab League Recognise the Opposition?

Shelling of central Damascus on Monday

See also Syria Audio Analysis: An Opposition in Crisis? --- Scott Lucas with Monocle 24
Syria Video Feature: The Agony of Aleppo's Children
Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: "Only President Morsi Can Save the Economy"
Monday's Syria Live Coverage: Who Represents the Opposition?

1652 GMT: Rebels Chip At Assad Bases. On two important fronts, the Syrian rebels are directly attacking Assad strongpoints - using two very different methods, with two different sets of results.

The first is in Qaboun, northeastern Damascus. The rebels have essentially surrounded the headquarters of the Special Forces (map). Parts of the compound have been extensively damaged by these mortar rounds. This base is a significant threat to the rebel operations in Jobar, to the south, so while the rebels fight pitched street battles there, they can chip away at this base, which might be one of the real objectives of this offensive:

The other attack is in the west-central area surrounding the Ummayyad Square. For at least three days, mortars and rocket attacks have hit the area. Many appear to be targeting SANA, Syrian State Media (map). These are the attacks that are launched from the southwest, from rebel controlled areas some distance outside the city. The attacks have convinced the UN top remove a significant portion of its staff from Syria. However, beyond spreading fear, it's unclear if the attacks have any military affect. Both international media and Syrian State Media report that the attacks have killed civilians. This is the latest summary from SANA:

A child was martyred and several other students were injured after terrorists fired mortar shells on schools in Baramkeh area in Damascus.

SANA reporter said that a shell fell on a female school in Baramkeh, causing the martyrdom of a child and the injury of several students.

Terrorists' shells also hit two schools in the area, injuring four citizens and causing material damage.

Terrorists Target SANA with Shells. Three Martyred, Five Injured

In a new aggression on the national media, terrorists fired Mortar shells on Baramkeh area in Damascus, one shell fell near the Building of the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

The terrorist attack claimed the lives of three persons and wounded five others.

The martyrs and injured persons are workers in the agency and passing citizens.

Some in the opposition have noted that there is a hypocrisy at work in the media coverage. much of the criticism of the attacks has focused on the collateral damage or the targeting of SANA, workplace for pro-regime journalists. The opposition has cause to be indignant. After all, every day whole neighborhoods of Damascus are bombed and shelled in the name of war, killing civilians and wounding citizen journalists. However, the "two wrongs make a right" fallacy is still a fallacy, no matter what the hypocritical behavior of the media. These attacks could be considered a failure because they jeopardize civilians, and threaten to weaken support for the opposition, while still failing to have a military impact.

Two approaches on two different sides of the capital - perhaps it's a safe assumption to say we can expect more of both types of attacks as the rebel siege of the capital continues.

1604 GMT: "Suicide Car Bomb.". Reuters has this summary of the latest news concerning the car bomb in Damascus:

The pro-government al-Ikhbariya news channel said the explosion had gone off near a military supply office.

But opposition activists in the area said it was not clear if the blast had been caused by a bomb or a mortar round.

Neither side gave precise casualty figures, but the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of contacts in Syria, said civilians and soldiers were among the dead in the attack in the Rukn al-Din district.

Military supply office? It's unclear if this is the same report as the explosion in Maysat Square.

1530 GMT: Explosion in Damascus. Here's the location of Maysat Square, site of the reported explosion (thanks to Jonas Renz):

Syria - 2013 March 26 - EA Worldview auf einer größeren Karte anzeigen

The area contains multiple mosques, a sporting complex, several banks, and is close to schools. Also, it is fairly close to several key administrative buildings, including the Ministry of Finance.

1515 GMT: Car Bombing in Damascus. A massive explosion has been reported by residents of Damascus. Activists have reported that the blast occurred in the Ruekn al Din district in the north of the capital (map).

Syrian State media is reporting that the blast was a car bombing, though it's unclear if this is the same report. Activist Rami al Jarrah reports:

The Directorate of Finance is here (map), but we're not exactly sure where the square in question is.

This is a breaking story. More details when we have them.

1503 GMT: Patriot Missiles. The Arab League has granted its open seat to the Syrian opposition, and both Moaz al Khatib and the National Coalition have asked that NATO's patriot missiles be used to defend liberated areas from Bashar al Assad's airforce and Scud missiles. First, the statement from Al Khatib:

Alkhatib said the United States should play a bigger role in helping end the two-year-old conflict in Syria, blaming Assad's government for what he called its refusal to solve the crisis.

"I have asked Mr Kerry to extend the umbrella of the Patriot missiles to cover the Syrian north and he promised to study the subject," Alkhatib said, referring to NATO Patriot missile batteries sent to Turkey last year to protect Turkish airspace.

"We are still waiting for a decision from NATO to protect people's lives, not to fight but to protect lives," he said.

Echoing that statement, the main opposition group also called for the use of the Patriots to protect rebel areas.

At the same time, an unnamed NATO official said that they have no plans to militarily intervene.

Snap analysis - Welcome to the divide between the Syrian rebels and the rest of the world. Yes, the Syrian opposition is divided, significantly so, but there's only one way to unite a divided opposition - to empower one of the factions. The root cause of the division in the opposition is a power struggle, but really no single party has any real power over the other, which is why each faction is scrambling for control. A nationwide election could change this, but that can't happen until after the regime is gone. A negotiated settlement could change that, but the Assad regime shows no signs of negotiating, and the thin hope for a political solution that sprang last month have faded significantly. Arming the rebels appears to have solidified the control of the SMC under General Salim Idriss, but that control may not last if the weapons distribution becomes more diffuse. If NATO is not willing to get involved militarily, what would be the catalyst for reorganization of the Syrian opposition?

In Libya, the opposition was essentially told that if they could form a transitional team, then they would receive international support. It worked, and the leadership of the NTC was able to work through divisions and obstacles. With Syria, every moderate leader has failed to get the same promise, and so has been pushed to the side by other factions who promised results.

That pattern won't change until the dynamics change. Perhaps Khatib has finally put out a strong enough argument to turn heads and inspire international action. If he has failed, expect the Qataris to step up their arming efforts, expect the Saudi-purchased weapons to be distributed to the most effective fighting forces, and expect Jabhat al Nusra to make more rapid gains in the east than the rebels in the west.

1439 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 78 people have been killed so far today across the country:

28 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 21 in Daraa; 12 in Deir Ezzor; 6 in Hama; 5 in Homs; 3 in Idlib; 1 in Lattakia; 1 in Quneitra: and 1 in Aleppo.

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

The LCC's numbers are never comprehensive, as they have strict verification systems which cause the organization to undercount. But because the LCC applies the same standards to their death tolls every day, and because they update many times during the course of the day, the LCC's numbers serve as a thermometer, a measure of the patterns and intensity of the violence. Today's numbers are somewhat higher than what we'd expect at this hour. The primary reason is a high death toll in both Damascus and Daraa provinces, as well as escalated deaths in Deir Ez Zor.

In Daraa province, heavy fighting is reported in Busr al Harir and Kherbet Ghazaleh, northeast of Daraa city (map). Both areas have been site to one-sided rebel victories in recent weeks, and the regime is counterattacking, attempting to reestablish control over the towns that control Daraa's highways. But the rebels are not just on the defensive, as they are continuing their attack on pockets of Assad resistance that remain. If they can break the remaining bases before the Assad counterattack works, they will be able to attack new positions further west and north.

In Damascus, the patterns are even clearer. The regime continues its air and artillery strikes against many districts, and there is still fighting near Jobar (map), where this video was reportedly taken:

1345 GMT: Massacre in Homs. Yesterday, the Local Coordination Committees reported that 18 people were killed by "regime and Hezbollah militias" in the village of Abel, south of the Baba Amr and Kafr Aya districts, just outside of Homs (map). One of the most graphic videos we've seen in this conflict appears to show many burned bodies. Some of them appear to have slashed throats, or bullet holes in their skulls. The video EXTREMELY GRAPHIC, viewer discretion advised.

An activist provides this report, which seems to be an English translation of one of the opposition media statements. It includes a list of the names of 9 adults and 4 children who were confirmed victims. The report also contains links to several Facebook pages:

The regime's shabiha attempted to storm Abel village in the suburbs of Homs, and the Free Syrian Army fought them back.

As the shabiha were withdrawing from the area, they arrested two entire families of women, children and elderly men from the al-Ahmed and al-Mahmoud families. This took place at the edges of the villages, on the Damascus-Homs International Roadway next to al-Kounafi checkpoint.

The shabiha then filmed the detainees, forcing them to say that it was them who saved the civilians from armed gangs. After they completed filming, the shabiha tortured the civilians in the most brutal of ways. They tied them up and attacked them with knives. Some of them were slaughtered and others were stabbed, and some were beat with a stone on top of their heads. Not a single one survived.

After fatally torturing, the shabiha gathered the victims and slaughtered them using daggers and knives, and then burnt them, women and children included, completely...

The guard of al-Bouz farm, known as Abu Saeed, was also killed. He is from Hama, and his family, comprising a mother, father, three children and two young women, are missing until now.

We haven't seen any other videos or pictures of the attack, so it is not yet possible to assess the accuracy of the clams made above, but we'll continue to search.

We'll have an analysis up soon.

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

1120 GMT: Homs. Claimed footage of insurgents fighting in the Jobar section of the city, capturing a regime solider --- earlier, the Syrian military retook the Bab Amr district after opposition fighters moved in last week:

1020 GMT: Arab League and the Opposition. Moaz al-Khatib's take-away lines in his presentation to the Arab League:

We reject any foreign dictated orders. Differences at the international level have exacerbated the crisis. We created the revolution and it is only the Syrian people who will determine how the revolution will end. We will determine who will rule the country. We will live together to in harmony.

1000 GMT: Arab League and the Opposition. Al-Khatib makes a pointed appeal to Arab leaders, going beyond Syria: "Fear God in your treatment of your people, and fortify justice in your countries."

Al-Khatib calls for all prisoners across the Arab world to be released in solidarity with Syria, to "break the chain of slavery".

The Emir of Qatar says to al-Khatib after his statement, "I trust the rulers will implement what you have asked."

0953 GMT: Arab League and the Opposition. Moaz al-Khatib, the former head of the Syrian National Coalition, has been addressing the meeting.

Al-Khatib says he is not embarrassed to thank the US --- or anyone --- for support, but he adds that Washington needs to play a bigger role, for example, with humanitarian aid.

Al-Khatib adds, in an apparent nod to increased American backing of military action, that he encouraged the US to support the placement of Patriot anti-missile systems on Turkey's border with Syria.

0608 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim 102 people were killed on Monday, including 33 in Damascus and its suburbs and 27 in Aleppo Province.

The Violations Documentation Center records 54,127 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 162 from Monday. Of the dead, 43,347 were civilians, an increase of 123 from yesterday.

0548 GMT: Damascus. For the second day in a row, insurgents launched sustained mortar fire into the centre of the capital, including Umayyad Square, less than a kilometre from the residence of President Assad.

Regime forces returned fire from a mountain overlooking the city. State news agency SANA said at least two people were killed.

Amid the escalating fire, the United Nations announced that it is temporarily halving its staff of 100 foreign and 800 Syrian personnel.

"Most of the Damascus-based staff of the Office of the Joint Representative for Syria [envoy Lakhdar Brahimi] are being temporarily relocated to Beirut and the Joint Special Representative's main office in Cairo," said Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesperson.

"All of the national staff of that office have been asked to work from home, until further notice. These measures are being undertaken solely for security reasons,"

Nesirky said the move was prompted by shells falling near the hotel where UN staff were staying on Sunday and Monday.

0545 GMT: Arab League To Recognise Opposition? The Arab League, beginning a two-day meeting in Doha, will consider recognition of the opposition as the representative of the Syrian people.

"The opposition has been invited to the Arab summit and will occupy Syria's seat at the Arab League," an official said.

The recognition, which would parallel that given to the Libyan opposition as it pursued the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, was thrown into doubt in the last 72 hours. Some Arab League members --- including Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria --- held out against the step. Then on Sunday, the head of the Syrian National Coaltion, Moaz al-Khatib, suddenly resigned amid internal tensions.

Al-Khatib said Monday that he would still address the summit: "I have decided to give a speech in the name of the Syrian people at the Doha conference. This is a matter that has nothing to do with the resignation, which will be discussed later." 

We will offer an Audio Analysis later this morning.

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