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Syria Live: Islamist Insurgents "Merging" with Al Qa'eda in Iraq?

Regime airstrikes in Damascus Province on Tuesday

See also Syria Video Feature: Investigating the Bombing That Killed Pro-Regime Cleric al-Bouti
Syria Video Feature: The Bombing of al-Bara
Tuesday's Syria Live: A Car Bomb in Damascus

2029 GMT: Syrian Jet Bombs Lebanon. Once again, a Syrian jet has dropped bombs in northeastern Lebanon, according to the AFP:

"A Syrian jet dropped five shells on the outskirts of Sarjal Ajram. No one was hurt," the official said.

Sarjal Ajram lies northeast of Arsal, which is home to a majority Sunni population, and whose residents support the uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad.

2019 GMT: Rebel Attack on Hama Airport. Earlier we reported that rebels were attacking Hama airport with homemade rocket launchers (see update 1733). According to Now Lebanon, which cites activists, the regime has evacuated its helicopters from the airport in response:

The activist Syrian Media Center said that regime forces moved helicopters from the under-fire airport to a base in Dair Shamil, a small Alawite-populated village west of Hama.

1955 GMT: Rebels Attack Northern Aleppo. While battles are still raging, and areas are disputed, in southern Aleppo and in the suburbs near the International Airport, the rebels continue to press their attack near the Kindi Hospital and the surrounding industrial facilities which have been used as regime bases of operation for quite some time (map). Not only are they pressing the attack, but they are doing so with some of their heaviest captured equipment, including this 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer that has been spotted in this area many times over the last several weeks:

The building, reportedly occupied by Assad forces, on fire after the barrages:

Other videos show the rebel fighters attacking with machineguns mounted on vehicles.

This is a sign of how stretched the Assad military has become. The rebels have cut these bases off from the regime, and while the regime fights to the south it does not have the aircraft to spare to counter the rebel offensive just kilometers away.

1900 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Locval Coordination Committees, 106 people have now been killed across Syria, and the death toll in Sanamayn has been raised to 42 (see updates below):

47 martyrs were reported in Daraa, where 42 martyrs in Sanamain Masacre alone; 34 in Damascus and its suburbs; 11 in Hama; 5 in Homs; 4 in Deir Ezzor; 4 in Aleppo; and 1 in Lattakia.

The LCC has this report on Sanamayn:

The total number of masacre martyrs committed by the regime forces rises to 42 and the number is ascending, amny houses were burned or destroyed in the shelling. the 7th division stormed in the city fortified by tanks, while most martyrs were slaughtered and the corpses of martyrs are still in the streets with difficulty in removing them because of the snipers on the buildings roofs.

The details of this claim have not been fully independently corroborated by EA, but if they are true then it's been quite some time since anything like this has happened this close to the capital. In fact, the last "massacre" of this scale in southern Syria, to our memory, was in Darayya, also west of the capital, several months ago. Darayya is a suburb that is very close to the most sensitive neighborhoods in the capital, including the Presidential Palace. Sanamayn (map) is between Darayya and Daraa. Both of these events underscore the importance of the territory west and south of the capital to the Syrian regime which sees the highway from Daraa, the artery that leads straight to the heart of the regime, as a major weak point in the capital's defenses.

1733 GMT: Rebels Use Grad Rockets to Hit Hama Airport. Earlier today there were reports that rebel groups were targeting the Hama airport, a major airbase used by Assad as well as a once-thriving commercial airport, with rockets. Now, this video emerges showing Syrian rebels, the Descendant of the Prophet Brigade, using a homemade launcher for 120mm rockets (the same used by Assad's Grad launchers) to target the airport:

Note how the rebels appear to be coordinating their attacks using radios, perhaps with groups that have eyes on the target.

We've seen more of these attacks, especially in Idlib near Ma'arrat al Nouman, to target Assad's most isolated bases. These bases are not close to civilian populations. Of course, with a potential range of 20 kilometers, the aim of these weapons needs to be fairly precise to avoid civilian casualties.

1700 GMT: Imminent Cut to UN Aid. Within the next 10 days, the United Nations will significantly scale back its refugee services in Lebanon due to lack of funding, a move that will affect over 400,000 current refugees, to say nothing of those who cross the border in the future:

The planned cutbacks, in areas such as health care, food aid and housing programs, would reduce aid services to one of the largest refugee communities in the region which is living in increasingly difficult conditions, exposed to disease, hunger and political strife.

“The plans are in place, the staff is ready, but the funds are drying up,” said Ninette Kelley, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Lebanon.

“At this level of funding, vital programs to ensure food, clean water, schooling for children, health care and shelter for newly arrived refugees are simply impossible,” Kelley said.

1650 GMT: Field Executions in Daraa. In our last entry, we reported that the town of Sanamayn, between Damascus and Daraa, was attacked by the regime today, according to activists from the town. The Local Coordination Committee of Daraa now reports that 34 people have been field executed by the regime. They have also posted the names of the victims. Graphic videos posted to Twitter reportedly show some of the bodies being prepped for burial.

1524 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 75 people have been killed so far today:

32 martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs; 22 martyrs in Daraa ; 8 martyrs in Hama; 4 martyrs in Homs; 4 martyrs in Aleppo; 4 martyrs in Deir Ezzor and one martyr in Lattakia.

See entry 1325 for our note about the LCC's figures and their previous death toll.

The LCC's figures may be flawed (all death tolls in Syria are flawed) but their also consistently recorded, giving us a good window into the level of violence taking place at any given point in time. Again today we see a very high death toll in Damascus, which matches reports from residents and activists that the regime is once again shelling the eastern, western, and southern districts and suburbs of the capital.

The other key location where the death toll is elevated today is in Daraa province. According to earlier LCC reports, 15 people have been killed in Sanamayn, on the highway between Daraa province and Damascus (map). It is also home to a significant military base, on the the key bases that guards the highway between where the rebels are surging, Daraa province, and where they want to advance towards, the capital. According to the opposition's media office in Sanamayn, the regime sent a large force there today, cut the power to the town, and began bombarding it with artillery. While tanks and artillery appear to have targeted suspected rebel positions, activists report house-to-house raids by Assad infantry. The report indicates that there were field executions after the raids.

1457 GMT: Jabhat al Nusra Denies Merger with Islamic State of Iraq. Despite statements by the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Jabhat al Nusra's leader has denied that there has been a merger with ISI. In fact, he's pledged allegiance to a different Al Qaeda Iraqi leader, and stated that Al Nusra is and will remain independent(see update 1222).

“The sons of al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani said in the recording.

But, he added, “we were not consulted” on an announcement by al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Tuesday of a merger with al-Nusra Front.

“Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it,” said Jawlani, acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside the ISI, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.

“We reassure our brothers in Syria that al-Nusra Front’s behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance [to Al-Qaeda] will not affect our politics in any way,” he added.

Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan raised questions about the initial statement (his entry has now been updated with this new development) because the opposition leadership has openly denounced Al Qaeda and such a statement would make international support for the opposition more difficult:

What is the point of this announcement? Why now? The statement comes as the regime is facing pressure to allow a UN probe of chemical weapons use in more than one place in Syria, and as rebels prepare for an inevitable major battle in Damascus and as moves to provide arms to Syrian rebels are gain momentum. The statement will surely make everyone think twice.

Moaz Khatib on his Facebook page made a number of short statements, saying Al Qaeda ideology cannot be accepted in Syria and asked the rebels inside the country to take a clear stance towards the announcement. He also suggested that Al Qaeda in Iraq is imposing itself on Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra.

So what just happened? We'll have more comment and analysis on this news later, but for now we'll just say this:

This is not the first time that Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, or other regional groups have tried to thrust themselves into the middle of this conflict. The fact remains that these groups, just like other regional powers. would like to see themselves play a major role in both the ending of this conflict and the rebuilding of Syria that will follow. However, the vast majority of Al Nusra's fighters are Syrians, and their expressed concerns have been largely limited to Syria. And Al Nusra is still only part of the Syrian insurgency, one that has received less international support than many other groups, especially in the last four months. ISI, and especially al-Baghdadi, may be desperate to increase their leverage in Syria. This latest attempt may have backfired.

Equally interesting, however, is al-Jawlani's pledged support for al-Zawahiri. Ayman al-Zawahiri is more of a myth than a political figure or terrorist leader, and has been since 2001. He is revered by Jihadists worldwide, and al-Jawlani's praise of him tells us what we already knew, that Jabhat al Nusra is a Jihadist group fighting for an Islamist state in Syria. However, at the end of the day, allegiance to al-Zawahiri has no practical implications because unlike al-Baghdadi, Zawahiri is not in a place to assert direct control over Syria or Jabhat al Nusra. This clarification from Al Nusra's leader means that at the end of the day Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, and no one else, is in charge of Jabhat al Nusra.

1354 GMT: Islamists Advance in Eastern Hama Province. The Al Farouq Brigade and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front has launched an attack in eastern Hama province, east of Salamiyah, in a town called Soha (map). It appears from video and various opposition statements released that the Islamist rebels have completely captured the "barrier," a checkpoint guarding the road. Videos show about 20 bodies of reported "shabiha," and at least one captured tank, though some statements suggest that 80 regime loyalists have been killed. The video below shows some of the fighting, and ultimately shows the rebels in control afterwards. It is graphic towards the end, as it shows several bodies of slain "shabiha." Another video shows the area after the battle, including the bodies of about 20 men, many of whom appear armed.

Soha (or Souha) is a strategic town because it is on a scarcely-populated highway that runs from Salamiyah to Palmyra. The highway continues all the way to Deir Ez Zor to the east and splits to the west towards both Hama and Homs. With this highway increasingly in the hands of Syrian insurgents, the regime may be exposed to a flank attack from fresh insurgent forces from the east.

This also raises an interesting question. Jabhat al Nusra, a group that is at odds with some rebel groups and has fought battles with some members of Al Farouq, is also advancing on Palmyra. Is this an attempt to beat them to this prize?

1325 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 65 people have been killed so far today nationwide:

27 martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs; 17 martyrs in Daraa most of them in Sanamein city; 8 martyrs in Hama; 4 martyrs in Homs; 4 martyrs in Aleppo; 4 martyrs in Deir Ezzor and one martyr in Lattakia.

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 cooperates with an independent organization to populate 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.

1319 GMT: Economy. Scott Lucas reports:

The Damascus Chamber of Commerce has said that the Damascus Stock Market has been “near standstill in the past few days", calling for the intervention of the Central Bank to “restore citizens’ faith in the market."

Meanwhile, other Syrian newspapers have reported problems such as severe shortages of drinking water, for example, in sections of Hama. They say there are “insane” price increases for meat and chicken, and rising cost for vegetables season, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes. Costs for consturction materials have risen more than 200%.

Merchants say that the Central Bank stopped funding imports of food, medicines, and other supplies “10 days ago” . The merchants argued that the Central Bank’s “surprise decision” to stop the funding of essential materials meant that they will incur fines for not clearing them from customs, which in turn would increase their prices to consumers.

The media are also reporting complaints by Syrians about the rising cost of gasoline in the black market.

1315 GMT: Damascus Fighting Continues. An activist group summarizes yesterday's news in Damascus in a video. One of the key pieces of information is that more mortars fell on Kafer Souseh, close to key ministry buildings. Last week, mortar attacks landed on Damascus University's campus, killing some students and injuring others.

The report also notes that the regime has sent more armored convoys to Darayya, as they continue to try to break into the city.

Notably, the unconfirmed reports of yet another chemical weapons attack in Otaybah, to the east of the capital. Yesterday we posted a video reportedly showing dead animals, killed by a poisonous gas. This is the same town that reported a chemical weapons attack back in March. Now that the Assad regime has blocked access for a team of UN chemical weapons specialists, we may never know what happened in either Otaybah, Khan al Asal near Aleppo, or any of the other alleged chemical weapons attacks.

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

1255 GMT: Israeli Indicted. Israel's Central District Attorney has filed an indictment with the District Court in Lod, charging a 29-year-old man with infiltrating Syria to aid the insurgency against President Assad.

The defendant, Hikmat Masarweh, is charged with contacting a foreign agent, making an illegal trip from Israel, and participating in prohibited military training.

According to the indictment, Masarweh helped set up a military training camp for the Syrian opposition and trained in the use of various weapons. Allegedly, members of the Free Syrian Army asked Masarweh to carry out a suicide attack near the Israeli border.

Although he refused, Masarweh did not break contact with the foreign agents who instructed him, even though he knew they were interested in attacking Israeli targets.

The attorney's office said the state is confident it has solid evidence to convict Masarweh, including admissions during interrogation, and various evidence found in his possession, including telephone numbers and email addresses of three of the insurgents.

1232 GMT: Refugees. A second camp for Syrian refugees has opened in Jordan.

The camp in Mrajeeb al-Fhood is funded by the United Arab Emirates and run by the Red Crescent Society.

Almost 400,000 Syrian refugees are officially registered with the United Nations in Jordan. The UN has said the number may rise to 1.2 million this year.

Majed Sultan bin Sulieman, the Red Crescent Society's relief director at the camp, says it will initially host 5,000 but can be expanded to about 25,000 residents.

1222 GMT: The Insurgents and the "Islamic State of Iraq". Back from an academic break to find the claimed audio statement from Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a leading figure in the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra, about the relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq:

0949 GMT: The Insurgents and the "Islamic State of Iraq!. Reports are circulating of a 7-minute audio response by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a leading figure in the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra, to the declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi --- head of the Islamic State of Iraq --- that JAN is now part of his organisation.

Al-Golani, saying that he had no idea about the announcement of the merger, emphasised that Jabhat al-Nusra would continue to act independently of any foreign group --- the insurgents will work towards an Islamic state, "but through the actions of the people and by the advice of the scholars".

While he said he would follow the ideals of Al Qa'eda's Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Golani said his forces "will continue to operate under than JAN banner, not under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant".

0945 GMT: US Aid. American officials says President Obama has authorised a new package of nonlethal aid for insurgents.

Officials said the White House approved the package at a meeting of the National Security Council last week. Details will be announced later this; however, the sources said the aid will likely include equipment such as body armor and night vision goggles and other material which "could be used to aid...combat" byt insurgency.

Last month US Secretary of State John Kerry announced $60 million in "non-lethal aid", the first publicly-annnounced direct US support for the armed opposition.

0635 GMT: Islamist Insurgents. An initial reading from Joanna Paraszczuk and me on the alleged "merger" between Al Qa'eda in Iraq and the Islamist insurgency Jabhat Al Nusra....

It is true that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qa'eda in Iraq has declared that merger.

It is far from established that the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra has welcomed this.

1. The entry on the site al-Muhajir al-Islami, supposedly linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, does not refer to a "merger", although it discusses relations with Al Qa'eda in Iraq.

2. There is no further evidence that influential figures in Jabhat al-Nusra have responded to al-Baghdadi's declaration.

What is significant, instead, is why Al Qa'eda in Iraq chose this moment to declare a merger. Our reading is that this is attempt to assert the Iraqi group's relevance because of two dimensions:

1. The growing attempts by foreign backers of the opposition to promote and support a "moderate" insurgency, isolating Jabhat al-Nusra;

2. Al Qa'eda in Iraq's worries that groups within Jabhat al-Nusra do not want its assistance.

Joanna Paraszczuk summarises, "This is an attempt to impose an international dimension on a local group --- which is a good story to spin for the West and for Arab states too."

0545 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim 113 people were killed on Tuesday, including 23 in Damascus and its suburbs, 22 in Homs Province, and 22 in Aleppo Province.

The Violations Documentation Center reports 56,036 people killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 163 on Tuesday. Of the dead, 44,590 are civilians, a rise of 90 from yesterday.

0525 GMT: Islamist Insurgents. International headlines were taken up on Tuesday by the claim that the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra has merged with Al Qa'eda in Iraq.

The report was fueled initially by a 21-minute message by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, posted on websites late Monday, about the formation of the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant": "It is time to announce to the Levantine people and the whole world that Jabhat al-Nusra is merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq."

Then a website "linked to Jabhat al-Nusra", al-Muhajir al-Islami, posted Tuesday about the merger.

We are looking into the statements and keeping an eye out for any evidence of co-operation on the ground.

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