See Also Today's Kuwait (and Beyond) Live: Riot Police Break Up Protests br>
Wednesday's Syria Live: A Cease-Fire in Aleppo.... But Just to Gather the Bodies br>
1523 GMT: Sectarian Threats on the Front Lines of Homs. Some of the rebels who captured the Al Dabbaa airport in Homs (see update 1320) appear to have chanted sectarian slogans. According to The Guardian, a translation of a video from Syrian rebels indicates a strong sectarianism in the language of some of the victorious rebel groups.
Mona Mahmood translates a speech given by a bearded leader in the clip. He says:
"Let the Arab leaders knee under the feet of the mujahideen and heroes of Quasir. We are fighting the most vicious enemy in the world the Shia and the Nusairi. The Shia and Nusairi are gathered against us to destroy Quasir."
It came as the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Right uploaded a video claiming to show three soldiers from the ruling Alawite sect being tortured by rebels in Homs province [Warning: disturbing content].
The clip shows three naked men with plastic blindfolds in oil drums being repeatedly kicked, slapped and spat at by rebels.
This area of Syria is particularly vulnerable to sectarian tensions. One of the towns that has recently been rocked by sectarian violence is Abil, northeast of this airport (map). Airstrikes have rocked the town, but several massacres of civilians have also allegedly taken place over the last month or so. As one can see, Abil and al Qusayr are at the southern edge of what we've sometimes called the Trapezoid of Massacre, an area that encompasses rural Hama and Homs where some of the worst sectarianism and massacres of civilians has taken place:
View Reported Massacres in Hama/Houla in a larger map
Today, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, Assad forces pulled out of the Dabbaa airport towards the village of Abil:
Homs province: Regular soldiers and pro-regime fighters from the Popular Committees and Hizbullah have taken over the town of Abel, which is south of Homs city and to the northeast of the Dab'a military airport. Rebels have taken full control of the military airport after violent clashes, 4 rebels killed. Regular forces who were stationed there retreated to a military installation east of the airport. Rebels have taken over ammunition and weaponry.
Some new video of the airfield today:
Those do look like Mig-21s, but we're not 100% sure of the aircraft ID. It's worth noting that if these are MIG-21s, they're likely not active, indicating that Assad may have retreated any aircraft it was using before the base fell.
1515 GMT: US Readying Larger Deployment? According to unnamed US officials, the 200 soldiers deploying to Jordan (see previous update) may be expanded to 20,000 troops, preparing for multiple scenarios between capturing and securing chemical weapons sites to direct military intervention:
The 200 or so troops from the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas, will work alongside Jordanian forces to "improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios," Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Those scenarios could include securing chemical weapons arsenals or to prevent the war from spilling into neighboring countries, he said.
But the Pentagon has drawn up plans to possibly expand the force to 20,000 or more, the officials told the Times.
1408 GMT: US Troops Deploying to Jordan. 200 Army planners will be deployed to Jordan, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. These forces will replace Americans troops that are already in Jordan, but the effort is clearly a firming-up of efforts to coordinate with Jordanian training and intelligence missions.
Hagel, however, is still extremely cautious about getting the United States directly and militarily involved in the conflict in Syria:
“You better be damn sure, as sure as you can be, before you get into something. Because once you’re into it, there isn’t any backing out, whether it’s a no-fly zone, safe zone ... whatever it is,” Reuters quoted Hagel as saying to senators.
“Once you’re in, you can’t unwind it. You can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s not going as well as I thought it would go so we’re gonna get out.’”
Hagel said the fresh troops will replace a similar contingent of U.S. forces that have been in Jordan for some months. They will also provide leadership personnel that could command additional forces if it’s determined they are needed in the future.
In my assessment of Chuck Hagel's nomination as Secretary of Defense, I pointed out that he was hesitant to arm Syrian rebels and does not believe in a military solution to the Syrian conflict. However, we've also helped uncover that Jordan has been instrumental in the arming and training of Syrian rebels and the sharing of military intelligence with rebel commanders. The United States has played a key support role in that mission. This maneuver is not a major headline, but a small indication that those efforts may be accelerating.
At the same time, these are military planners, trainers, and advisers - not combat troops. If the United States is preparing for a military intervention, that intervention is still a long time a way. But these statements from Hagel do appear to be a recognition that military options are on the table, even if they are not the preferred solution.
1346 GMT: Rebels Capture Military Base in Northern Aleppo City. For the last two weeks the Syrian rebels have been pushing into then northern districts of Aleppo city. They have captured the Rahbat al-Jandoul army base and the nearby Al-Shokaief industrial area (map) - capturing a significant amount of military material, and killing many dozens of Assad fighters in the process:
This video is occasionally graphic:
1320 GMT: More on Al Dabbaa Airport. There is some dispute about whether Assad was actually using the airport as an airbase. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the base was only used as a station for ground troops:
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said the opposition fighters took control of most of the Dabaa military complex in Homs province on Thursday morning, after weeks of fighting with government forces for control of the facility. Sporadic fighting was still being reported in some parts of the base, the Observatory said.
Dabaa is a former air force base and has an airfield, which hasn't been used since the fighting broke out. Instead, the army has based ground troops in the facility to fight the rebels, the Observatory said. It did not say how many — if any — government troops were at the base when it was overrun by rebels.
If this is true, why would the base be filled with ZB incendiary bombs?
Regardless of whether Assad was still using it as an airbase, the fighting for the village and the airport has been fierce. Videos dating back many weeks show intense fighting, with both sides using tanks, rockets, and infantry. Also, the area has received intense close-air support from Assad airstrikes, another indication of the base's importance.
However, this does not mean that the rebels have captured a significant amount of usable material. The regime may have pulled out, and the aircraft seen in the videos may be defunct. In previous instances, Assad has withdrawn working aircraft before an airport has been taken.
Regardless, a major obstacle may have been removed by the Syria rebels, freeing their fighters and equipment to move on to other battles.
1250 GMT: Rebels Capture Assad Airbase near Lebanon. The Al Dabbaa airport, between Homs and Qusayr, has become a feared location in the region. From here, Assad has launched incredibly deadly airstrikes against civilians, and it has been the primary weapon he has used to keep the rebels in check in the area. Assad's forces have not worked alone in this region, but have received supplies and fighters from across the border, from Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the last two weeks, however, the rebels have increased their actions near the border, and have even attacked Hezbollah inside Lebanon.
Those actions appear to have paid off. Last night, Syrian rebels overran the Al Dabbaa airport (map). Videos showed rebels in possession of tanks and aircraft, as well as stockpiles of incendiary bombs. There are also reports that a high-ranking Assad officer was killed in the fight:
A ZB series incendiary container bomb captured at Qusayr airbase, with plenty more in the background twitpic.com/ck6re4— Brown Moses (@Brown_Moses) April 18, 2013
Another video reportedly showing a statement from a rebel commander and the start of the attack on the base:
Like many areas that Assad strikes from, this airport was not always a military installation. Once, it was an area that provided supplies, transportation, and logistical support for area residents:
@jmiller_ea Aldaba'a الضبعة used to be a small runway & helipad used for agriculture, but you know Assad..turned it into mil after revo— The 47th (@THE_47th) April 18, 2013
The capture of the base is significant because it is an indication that the Assad regime may be losing momentum in central Syria. It's unclear whether the captured bombs will be of much military use to the rebels, but as the day progresses we may get a clearer vision of what was inside.
Also, it should be stated that there is still fighting in the area.
James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started this morning.
1201 GMT: Assad Interview The Syrian National Coalition has criticised President Assad's TV interview for "reveal[ing] his isolation from reality and blindness to the corruption and devastation and bloodshed that he has wreaked".
Assad's "approach is like that of tyrants before him", the Coalition said, citing "his claims of control and denial of the other and the absence of reality and proposal of solutions that bear no relation to the crises".
0915 GMT: The Opposition and Justice
The National reports on the opposition's to establish a "moderate" form of Islamic law in insurgent-held areas.
The legal code was drawn up by Muslim scholars, judges and top anti-Assad politicians in advance of meetings this week in Istanbul convened by the Syrian National Council (SNC), where transitional justice arrangements are being discussed.
The opposition hopes that an interim government, as yet unformed, will apply a version of the new legal system nationwide, after it goes into effect in areas currently controlled by the insurgents.
Coalition head Moaz Al Khatib, who is also a prominent cleric, declared, "I want to talk frankly. When there is injustice, there is a revolution against that injustice. In the same way there should be a revolution in religious thought. The goal of religion is to liberate human beings, all of the prophets came to liberate the people."
Al Khatib called on the institution to check the efforts of other factions to spread stricter notions of sharia law:
We do not need ignorant people coming to Syria and teaching us the meaning of religion. Some in Al Nusra have told women they must wear hijab and that is not right, if you want to preach, do it well, you can talk, you cannot command, there is no compulsion in Islam.
0515 GMT: Casualties
The Local Coordination Committees claim that 157 people were killed on Wednesday, including 75 in Damascus and its suburbs.
The Violations Documentation Center reports 57,126 people killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 122 from Wednesday.
For the first time since we started monitoring the VDC figures, more than half of Wednesday's additions were classified as "non-civilians". Of the dead, 45,234 are civilians, a rise of 58 from yesterday.
0500 GMT: Assad Interview
President Assad used an interview with pro-regime al-Ikhbariya TV, broadcast last night, to set out his defiance against "terrorists" and a West whom he claimed was working with Al Qa'eda:
We have no choice but victory. If we don't win, Syria will be finished and I don't think this is a choice for any citizen in Syria. The truth is there is a war and I repeat: no to surrender, no to submission.
There was little in Assad's remarks pointing to a change in the conflict. Instead, he used the occasion to warn foreign powers, trying to "subjugate" Syria, that they would eventually reap the violence of their efforts. They would "pay the price later in the heart of Europe and in the heart of the United States" for the support of Al Qa'eda.
Specifically, Jordan --- hosting the US, European, and Arab effort to arm and train insurgents --- would find that "the fire will not stop at our border".