Video of the capture of UN peacekeepers on Wednesday by an insurgent brigade
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Wednesday's Syria Live Coverage: More than 1 Million Refugees
2110 GMT: Idlib Town Bombed. Hish, a small town in southern Idlib province (map), is near where one of the aircraft below was reportedly shot down. Now, that town has been heavily bombed. According to this video, this shows the aftermath of a "barrel bomb," but whatever it is the devastation is readily apparent. As the video rolls, there is another large explosion off to the right:
2046 GMT: Assad Aircraft Shot Down. Many videos are floating around today that reportedly show two different jet fighters shot down over Idlib province. In one video, we see a large gun fire, though it is unclear if that is the road that supposedly hit the aircraft. What's interesting is that the black smoke trail is both blacker and wider than a typical contrail. There are other videos from other angles. We'd caution, however, that none of the videos shows the planes hit the ground, and none of them show any wreckage. Those videos may surface later:
1938 GMT: Refugees Flee to Jordan. CNN's Nick Paton Waslh reports from the Jordanian border:
1639 GMT: UN Peacekeepers to Be Released? A prominent activist reports:
Moaz al-Khatib: UN Peacekeepers are safe and sound and will be released. #Syria— NMSyria (@NMSyria) March 7, 2013
Moaz al-Khatib: UN Peacekeepers were not kidnapped, but rather removed from the battlefield for their own safety. #Syria— NMSyria (@NMSyria) March 7, 2013
Yesterday the head of the opposition's Supreme Military Council, Salim Idriss, denounced the kidnappings. We wrote that this would be a huge test of his leadership. Late yesterday, however, the Damascus Military Council stated that this was not a kidnapping, in direct contrast to the evidence, perhaps to save face. Now it seems that Khatib, the National Coaltion leader who could be considered the "civilian" head of the opposition, is walking a fine line. The opposition leadership may resolve this event, but it may embarrass itself in the process by downplaying the incident.
However, the opposition leadership needs to establish control over a wider section of the rebel fighters, and by making enemies of some of the groups it faces creating an internal conflict before it is able to accomplish this task. In the meantime, however, more and more rebel groups are engaging in behavior that the international community will find unacceptable, and the opposition leadership will not be walking this thin line for the last time.
If all of this proves one thing, it's that the opposition's new unity is too late to avoid some of the messiest aspects of this war. One could argue that the international community is partially to blame for this by not taking a stand sooner.
For a retrospective, it may be worth reading an assessment I made in February 2012. I argued that simply arming the rebels would not be fast enough, that sectarianism and a humanitarian crisis would grow, and that eventually the world would wind up intervening anyway.
Direct military intervention is still not on the table, and arming the rebels through the Supreme Military Council may be the only option left at this point, but that analysis resonates more today than it did a year ago, as the civil war grinds on and extremist incidents continue to haunt the people of Syria.
1624 GMT: Blowing Up a "Pagan" Religious Site. An activist shares this video on Twitter. We can't vouch for its authenticity. It shows a group of men in "northern Syria" saying well-known Muslim sayings and then blowing up a "pagan shrine." It's unclear who the men are, where they are, or what the building is, but it could be an ancient place of worship for any number of religions.
1551 GMT: UN Peacekeepers Speak. A video has been released showing the captain of the Filipino peacekeepers speaking, in English. He says that the peacekeepers were in danger, and they are now being protected. It's important to note that they are still under the "protective custody" of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. Yesterday, that brigade said that they kidnapped the peacekeepers and would not release them until Assad's forces withdraw from the area, but now the story is that the UN peacekeepers were in danger, and Assad has to withdraw and his artillery strikes have to cease before it is safe for them to be free.
The Guardian has posted a statement from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which says that the group is in direct contact with the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and is negotiating with them:
The negotiations are focused now on:
1. Talks on a safe road so that they may be transmitted to the International UNDOF observers in al-Quneitira province.
2. Talks on retreating the regime's heavy military pieces from the area, the end of the shelling, the return of the refugees from the village, and assurance that al-Jamal [Jamlah] town will not be bombarded again after the international observers are let free.
1506 GMT: "Hopes of a clean opposition victory...are dim." The Institute for the Study of War has released their latest strategic assessment of Bashar al Assad's military maneuvers, and how his strategy shifted from a counterinsurgency to a civil war. The report suggests that Assad's initial military efforts were a disaster, but that since that time Assad has chosen a strategy to compensate for this. This strategy focuses on securing Damascus, Homs, and the coast, at the expense of cities that are further away. In essence, Assad's choices may have guaranteed that he'll be unable to retake the rest of Syria, which may eventually bring about his downfall, but they've also guaranteed that the core of the country will take a very long time to fall:
Bashar al-Assad’s forces have displaced populations in opposition strongholds, which has deepened Syria’s sectarian division. The regime has employed artillery, air power, bulldozers, sectarian massacres, and even ballistic missiles to force Syrian populations out of insurgent held areas. This strategy ensures that even when the rebels win towns and neighborhoods, they lose the population. Chemical weapons are now the only unused element in Assad’s arsenal, which could be used for large-scale population displacement to great effect.
Fears of retribution have pushed conventional and paramilitary loyalists to converge upon the common goal of survival, resulting in a broadly cohesive, ultra-nationalist, and mostly-Alawite force. The remnants of the Syrian military and the powerful pro-regime militias are likely to wage a fierce insurgency against any opposition-led Sunni government in Syria if the Assad regime collapses. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah are likely to encourage the militias and regime remnants to converge, supporting this transition to insurgency in order to preserve Iranian interests after Assad.
The regime has concentrated conventional forces in Damascus and Homs. The relatively small force deployed to northern and eastern Syria have disrupted rebel advances, but isolated strongpoints have been overrun as the regime struggles to maintain logistical lines of communication. The majority of the regime’s deployable forces have remained in Homs and Damascus, where rebels have made significant gains but remain unable to dislodge regime troops.
The report is bleak, suggesting that Damascus will be destroyed before it is captured, and the war is likely to drag on for a long time. The summary concludes with this:
Hopes of a clean opposition victory and a peaceful transition are therefore dim.
Snap-Analysis - the report coincides with what we've witnessed. In recent months these trends have even intensified. Assad's goal seems to be to buy time, but that strategy has also sealed his fate. On the other hand, prisoner executions conducted by the rebels and worries of reprisals have stopped defections, or slowed them to a crawl. Furthermore, Assad's recruitment of Alawite villagers into new militias has stoked sectarian tensions and has ensured that the remaining Assad loyalists are more willing to go down with the ship.
But the ship is going down. Sadly, with each passing day, both Joe Holliday and I become more convinced that it'll take a lot of innocent civilians with it as it sinks to the bottom.
1450 GMT: Assad Meets with Turkey's Opposition. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has met with a group of Turkey Prime Minister Erdogan's chief political opponents. The group of Parliamentarians led by Hasan Akgol is opposed to Erdogan's policies towards Syria. Assad stressed that Turkey needs to differentiate between the opinions of the Erdogan administration and those of the Turkish people:
Members of the Turkish delegation expressed the Turkish people's rejection of interfering in Syria's internal affairs and keenness on establishing good neighborly relations.
For his part, President al-Assad underlined the necessity of differentiating between the stances of the Turkish people in support of Syria's stability and the stances of Erdogan's Government which insists on supporting terrorism and extremism and on destabilizing the region.
President al-Assad stressed that the Syrian people appreciate the stances of the Turkish powers and parties which reject Erdogan Government's policies which negatively affect the ethnic and religious diversity which characterizes our societies in the region, particularly in Syria and Turkey.
There was a fight in Parliament yesterday when the deputy of the Republican People's Party (CHP) argued with an MP from ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) over Turkey's Syria policies. Ümit Özgümüş argued that just as mistakes were made in the 2003 Iraq invasion which diposed Saddam Hussein, mistakes were being made now:
"As the claims about weapons of mass destruction proved to be a lie in Iraq, the same goes today for the [Syrian] regime's slaughter of the Syrian people."
Last week, the CHP inquired about Saudi Arabia's use of Turkish airspace.
This is not the first CHP delegation to visit President Assad:
"Previously, another CHP delegation visited Assad in 2012 and expressed their support for the Syrian regime, also playing an active role in securing the release of Turkish journalist Cüneyt Ünal, who was captured by government forces in Syria and released in November with the help of CHP lawmakers."
The decision was made after former premier Riad Hijab, the highest ranking civilian defector since the revolt and the top candidate for the job, withdrew his candidacy, several coalition members told Reuters in Amman.
Hijab had run into opposition from Islamists and liberal members of the coalition for his previous ties with Syria's ruling hierarchy.
James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Ben Offiler and Scott Lucas
The source said almost 67,000 refugees entered Jordan in February.
The United Nations says more than 400,000 Syrians are registered as refugees or awaiting registration in Jordan, which has only one camp and is constructing another.
1246 GMT:Abducted UN Peacekeepers. In a posting on its Facebook page, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has said it detained 21 United Nations peacekeepers on Wednesday to rescue them from fighting near the Golan Heights.
A video in which the Brigade warned that the observers would not be released until Syrian troops withdrew from the area has been deleted.
The Facebook declaration called on the UN to pick up the peacekeepers:
With God’s help we managed to secure a group of U.N. members working in the border town of Jamleh after they were victims of the criminal shelling of Assad’s gangs.
We request from the United Nations to send us a security convoy so that we can deliver them to the organization.
The posting added, “We have nothing to do with any of the old statements before this one."
1236 GMT:Israeli Espionage? State media is highlighting claims of Israeli spying, including a camera monitoring a “sensitive site” on the Mediterranean coast, six large batteries transmission equipment, and fake rocks used as camouflage.
Reports claimed the camera had relayed pictures in real time to Israel and "armed terrorist groups".
1226 GMT:Regime Attacks. Activists report more regime shelling of the al-Khalidiya section of Homs, where the Syrian military stepped up attacks last week:
Bombadment continues elsewhere --- Haweqah in Deir Ez Zor Province:
Attacks are also reported on Binnish in Idlib Province.
1220 GMT:The Abducted UN Peacekeepers. Another video of insurgents at the site of the capture of 21 UN peacekeepers on Wednesday:
1054 GMT:Health Crisis. The international organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, with staff working secretly in three hospitals in the north, says there has been a “complete collapse” of the health care system in Syria.
MSF said medical care is being "used as a tactic of war”, with doctors saying, "t is more dangerous for them to be carrying medical supplies than to be carrying a gun":
Hospitals in Syria are now being used as a tool in the military strategies of the parties to the conflict. In “liberated” areas, some hospitals are being set up or transformed into “Free Syrian Army (FSA) hospitals” or “supporting the revolution”. As a result, these hospitals are at risk of becoming targets and civilians are rarely accepted.
Opposition military bases have been established close to some makeshift hospitals – even in the same building in some cases. These hospitals are at serious risk of being caught in the middle of fighting or even directly hit in an attack.
The MSF calls on “all parties to the conflict” to “negotiate an agreement on humanitarian aid and facilitate its supply around the country via neighbouring countries and equally across front lines”.
Syrian authorities have said that 57% of hospitals have been damaged and 36% are now unable to function.
1024 GMT:Abducted UN Peacekeepers. Scott Lucas returns to coverage....
A spokeswoman says the opposition Syrian National Coalition has been in "direct contact" with insurgents to negotiate the release of 21 UN peacekeepers, captured on Wednesday.
The spokeswoman said Najib Ghadbian, the Coalition's ambassador to the US and the United Nations, is in "permanent constant co-ordination with the security bodies" in order to "clarify the matter".
This is not a kidnapping, she said, but a "preventative security measure", with the Free Syrian Army and the Coalition affirming their commitment to international conventions.
The majority of people died in Damascus and its suburbs, and Homs, Idlib, Raqqa, and Aleppo Provinces, with smaller numbers recorded in Deir Ez Zor, Latakia, Hama, and Daraa Provinces..
The Violence Documentation Center records 51,577 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 133 from Wednesday. Of the dead, 41,707 were civilians, an increase of 100 from yesterday.
0938 GMT:British Assistance and the Arab League. Ben Offiler takes over the coverage....
The Syrian National Coalition has welcomed with “deep gratitude” the “commendable gesture” by William Hague, British Foreign Secretary, to provide £13.2 million ($20 million) in non-lethal assistance to the insurgents.
The SNC stated that Britain’s support was a signal that it had recognised “the need to accelerate action to help Syrians and their cause.”
The SNC also welcomed the decision by the Arab League to pass Syria’s seat from the Assad government to the rebels.
According to a statement by the SNC, “This move will help to accelerate efforts to end the humanitarian crisis perpetuated by a dictatorial regime, and towards enabling Syrians to achieve a pluralistic and democratic society.”
0615 GMT: Insurgents Kidnap UN Peacekeepers. Syria Survey has posted an overview of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the abductors of the 21 United Nations peacekeepers. It includes the group's kidnappings of regime troops, including claims that they executed some of the captives.
The summary notes that the Brigade has replaced its original statement "with a far more conciliatory statement [that] bodes well for the captured UN troops. It is a clear indication that the brigade is responding positively to the pressure it is likely receiving from actors outside Syria as well as fellow rebels in Daraa Province."
0545 GMT: Insurgents Kidnap UN Peacekeepers. The Shuhada al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Marytrs Brigade), linked to the Free Syrian Army, abducted 21 United Nations peace-keeping troops near the Golan Heights on Wednesday.
Abu Qaed al-Faleh, a spokesman for Brigades, said, "[The peacekeeprs] will not be released until after Bashar Assad's forces withdraw from the village of Jamlah bordering Israel."
The Brigade accused the peacekeepers of allowing the re-deployment of the regime in an area near the Golan, seized by opposition fighters last week.
While the Brigade said it was part of the Free Syrian Army, the FSA condemned the kidnapping. Commander Salim Idris said he would "do everything that I can to liberate them".
The Filipino peacekeepers were observing a cease-fire in the zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops. Israel seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The United Nations established the peacekeepers in 1974, months after the Yom Kippur, to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian troops.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry put out a statement, "The Philippine government is calling for the immediate release of 21 Filipino peacekeepers who are part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. The apprehension and illegal detention of the Filipino peacekeepers are gross violations of international law."
Colonel Arnulfo Burgos, a spokesperson of the Philippines military, said the men were "safe" and being "treated as guests" by the Syrian fighters. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the UN and the current Security Council president, said talks are underway between UN officials from the peacekeeping force and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.
The abducted men are part of a 300-member Filipino peacekeeping unit. They were on a supply mission when they were stopped by about 30 armed fighters near an observation post that was damaged and evacuated last weekend.