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Syria Live: A Fight Against Hezbollah

Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah addresses a Hezbollah rally in Beirut (Photo: Sharif Karim/Reuters)

2045 GMT: Fighting In Al Qusayr. This video reportedly shows rebels firing a Zu-23-2 anti-aircraft gun at Assad fighters near Al Qusayr today:

The feeling in Homs is grim. Contacts we've spoken to reiterate that they have resisted simplifying this conflict along sectarian lines, but that the regime has forced their hand by utilizing sectarian militias, including Hezbollah, to not only attack rebels but also to attack Sunni civilians. Other people who have told us they have contacts in Homs are saying similar things.

By morning, we may see the violence in central Syria explode in the most clearly sectarian fashion since the start of the conflict.

On the other hand, most opposition members have resisted sectarianism so far. Alawite, Druze, and Christian groups fight inside and alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army. While we've never been this pessimistic about sectarian violence in Syria, we're not without hope that the fighting will be limited to the groups that are already involved.

2000 GMT: Regime Kills its Own? This promises to be the most controversial video of the day:

The video shows a building, we believe in northern Aleppo, which has been surrounded by rebels and attacked in recent days. It's unclear exactly how the people in the video who are trying to surrender actually died. We'll let readers make their own conclusions.

1913 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 100 people have been killed so far today nationwide:

49 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 17 in Aleppo; 14 in Homs; 7 in Daraa; 4 in Idlib; 3 in Raqqa; 3 in Deir Ezzor; 2 in Hama; and 1 in Banyas.

1845 GMT: AP Twitter Hacked. According to the Associated Press, somebody blew up the White House and President Obama was hurt. This, of course, may come as a surprise to the rest of the press corps, and to Obama's staff, all of whom are perfectly fine. Somebody hacked the Twitter account of the Associated Press.

According to their Twitter account, that "somebody" is the Syrian Electronic Army:

This doesn't look like a simple hacking of a password, but a more sophisticated attack. According to the New York Times, the AP has been infiltrated by malware which may have given hackers access to passwords:

In the past few days, The A.P. discovered that malware had infected some of its company computers, according to a spokeswoman. Hackers can use malware to gain a foothold inside a company’s computer network and from there, can gain access to a company’s usernames and passwords to e-mail, administrative and social media accounts.

Shortly after the account was suspended, Mike Baker, a reporter for the news organization, posted a message saying that the attack may have originated with a spear-phishing campaign, in which attackers send a cleverly disguised e-mail from a friend, or work contact, that contains a malicious link or attachment.

Still, these sophisticated hackers may have made a rookie mistake. In their screenshot of their work, their entire computer dashboard can be seen, including what tabs they have open and what software they use. To other hackers, including Anonymous who are sworn enemies of the Assad regime, that information could be extremely useful in either finding out their identities, their location, or in actually counter-hacking the hackers.

1703 GMT: Rockets Hit Lebanon. As if tensions weren't already high enough, surface-to-surface rockets have been fired from Syria into Lebanon today. Al Jazeera English reports:

Two Syrian rockets have struck Lebanon causing damage and heightening tensions between Lebanese Shiite and Sunni communities over neighboring Syria's civil war, security officials in Beirut have said.

Tuesday's rocket attack came hours after two leading Lebanese Sunni Muslim clerics called for holy war, or jihad, against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Rockets apparently fired by Syrian rebels have hit mostly Shiite areas in Lebanon several times in the past two weeks, killing at least two people and progressively reaching deeper into Lebanese territory.

This comes at a time that rumors are flying, speaking of the arrival of radical Sunni militias that have crossed from Lebanon into Syria to fight Hezbollah and Assad near Homs. These reports are still at the rumor level of credibility, but their spread speaks to the level of tension growing in the area.

What's interesting, however, is that one Syrian source we contacted in the last two days expressed a very interesting frustration. According to the contact, there is an awareness in the opposition that it is the regime that has been trying to stoke sectarian tensions for more than two whole years, and yet the regime is just finally starting to get its wish, because at least in this area of Homs the fighting is starting to line up on sectarian lines. It is radicals from Lebanon, both Hezbollah fighters and the radical Sunni clerics who oppose them, that may be finally bringing sectarian war to the Syrian conflict.

Welcome to another tragic irony of Syria's uprising.

1536 GMT: Bishops Freed in Aleppo. AFP has some additional details - they report that an association of Christians confirms that the bishops have been freed:

The French "Oeuvre d'Orient" group said that the two - Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Bishop Boulos Yaziji, who were seized on Monday - were already at Saint Elias cathedral in Aleppo.

1525 GMT: Bishops Freed? A story may be developing that will end the speculation. According to Al Arabiya (not always the most reliable source) the Christian bishops are free:

We'll see if we can find more.

1513 GMT: Fighting for Damascus on Two Fronts. In recent weeks, Assad forces have sacrificed positions in Daraa province to focus on the fighting near Damascus. That offensive has stopped the rebel progress in the capital, and have reclaimed some territory. However, the new Assad offensive has also met stiff resistance in many areas. In Darayaa, the rebels have been nearly surrounded for more than half a year, but they continue to hold out, punishing Assad's forces who are trying to regain control of the suburb. In the last two weeks, the regime has claimed to have focused on Darayya, and despite claims by State media that the suburb has fallen to the regime, the rebels have control of a significant amount of the suburb, and are on the move. Today, that fighting appears to have intensified. One sign that the rebels have significant control is that they've been able to openly use their own tanks in the battle:

Shells explode in the city as fighting rages:

On the other side of the city, Otaybah was supposedly captured by the regime last week. It didn't happen, however, and the rebels appear to still be fighting a holding action in the village:

1445 GMT: Heavy Fighting Near Lebanon Border. Syrian rebels, Assad regular army forces, and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters are engaged in pitched battles between the town of Al Qasr, on the border in Lebanon, and the town of Al Qusayr, south of Homs (map). The fighting has been escalating for two weeks, but has reached fever-pitch in the last several days. All our evidence is anecdotal, but sources are deeply concerned that this region may be exploding at the moment.

Furthermore, there is also heavy fighting north of Homs city, between the provincial capital and Al Rastan (map).

This follows on the heels of a call, made by several Lebanese clerics, for Jihad against Hezbollah in Syria, and the announcement by the Syrian National Coalition, now a member of the Arab League, that Lebanon's actions in Syria are equivalent to acts of war.

Both the rebels and the regime have won victories south of Homs in the last two weeks. There is concern, however, that sectarian tensions are exploding, and that the fighting in this area will take a definitively sectarian nature, one that we have yet to see in other regions.

1340 GMT: Opposition Groups Condemn Kidnapping of Bishops.

More opposition groups are piling on their criticism of the kidnapping of two Aleppo Bishops, and many are blaming the Assad regime. This statement, for instance, comes from the Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Centre, a prominent activist mouthpiece:

State media and its lackeys immediately blamed "terrorists", although at the moment it is unclear exactly who was responsible. Metropolitan Ibrahim recently gave an interview with the BBC in which he criticised the regime. The Syrian National Coalition, currently headed by a Christian, George Sabra, said it is working to secure the release of the bishops.

Personally, we hope they will be released safely soon. Syria is a diverse country and it is not acceptable for either the regime or extremists to target religious groups.

And this is the official statement from the Syrian National Coalition:

The Syrian Coalition strongly condemns the kidnapping of Father Boulus Yazji, Bishop of the Roman Orthodox Church in Aleppo, and Father John Abraham, Bishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church. We stand firm against the kidnapping and harm of all civilians, and members of the clergy in particular. This crime is a dangerous attempt to derail Syrian society from achieving their honorable goal of freeing themselves from a tyrannical and oppressive regime, and building a nation of freedom, justice and equality.

Initial investigations conducted by the Syrian Coalition regarding the kidnapping and killing of Father John Abraham’s bodyguard implicate the Assad regime in this crime. The Assad regime was angered by Father John’s latest statement, in which he stated that the survival of Christians in Syria is not linked to the survival of the regime. The Free Syrian Army categorically denies any responsibility for this kidnapping.

The Syrian Coalition will continue all efforts to locate, free the Bishops and return them to safety. We ask all Syrian citizens to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army in this effort and give this matter the priority it deserves.

That the opposition would blame the regime is perhaps not the news here. The news is that if a rebel group has conducted this attack, several Free Syrian Army groups, democracy advocates, and the major Syrian opposition leaders have strongly condemned the act. As tensions are mounting between the moderates and the extremists, this incident could could be the final straw.

As of now, however, we're not aware of any hard evidence that would implicate any specific faction or group in this kidnapping.

1245 GMT: Death Toll Rises.

According to the Local Coordination Committees, 42 people have been killed so far today across Syria. However, the numbers once again stress the extreme levels of violence in Damascus and its surrounding suburbs - clears are sky in Syria today, and airstrikes are rocking the capital. The geographical breakdown of the reported deaths:

23 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs; 13 in Homs; 2 in Hama; 1 in Idlib; 1 in Daraa; 1 in Raqqa; and 1 in Deir Ezzor.

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.

1225 GMT: Who Kidnapped Aleppo's Bishops?

Despite allegations in the Lebanese press that "rebels" captured the two Aleppo bishops who have been kidnapped, the culprits are completely unknown at this hour. In fact, while most Christian leaders have been critical of radical Islam, skeptical of the rebels, and have called for a political settlement, recently these two leaders have also been highly critical of the regime. The Guardian reports that a friend of one of the Bishops suggests that government forces may have been involved:

A friend of Boulos [or Paul] Yazigi, one of bishops abducted in Aleppo province, has confirmed that the Greek orthodox cleric had questioned the Assad regime and did not rule out government involvement in his disappearance.

But Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest from Syria and director of the London-based ecumenical charity, the Awareness Foundation, said it was impossible to speculate who was to blame for the kidnapping.

He last spoke to Yazigi via Skype last week while he was visiting a parish in Turkey. The bishop disappeared after returning from that trip, Nassar said in an interview with the Guardian.

Audio and written excerpts of the interview can be found here.

Also, it's unclear where the Bishops were kidnapped, but it appears to be west of the city, in an area where both many rebel groups but also many pro-regime militias are present.

A statement released last night by the opposition's Aleppo Media Centre said that the Free Syrian Army commanders in Aleppo denounced the kidnapping and were looking for the bishops:

two Bishops of Aleppo Rome orthodox have been kidnapped in the western rural area. The information stated that they were in a humanitarian mission on the way to Bab Al Hawa border check point where they kidnapped by unknowns. the Free Syrian Army is seeking them now and promised to punish the committers.

There are several possibilities, but if one of the many rebel groups did this act, then they have done something that is highly unpopular among the moderate groups that control much of Aleppo. Furthermore, if pro-regime elements are found to have done this, it could significantly change the way Syria's Christians view this conflict.

1206 GMT: Israel Says Assad has Used Chemical Weapons.

Brigadier General Itai Brun, a top intelligence officer in the IDF and the head of the Research and Analysis Division at the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate says that there is significant evidence that Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria, and more than once.

Speaking at a security conference in Tel Aviv, Brun said further that based on the pictures of the victims — the size of their pupils, “and the foam coming out of their mouths” — the army believed that Assad’s troops had used the lethal nerve gas sarin as a weapon...

Also on Monday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon described three red lines for Israel on Syria — the transfer of sophisticated weapons systems to rogue elements, the violation of Israel’s sovereignty along the border, and the rebels’ acquisition of chemical weapons. “We are ready to operate if any rogue element is going to put his hands [on chemical agents] or any chemical agents are going to be delivered to rogue elements in the region,” he said...

We know that there is significant evidence that Israel's sovereignty has already been violated, as Israeli soldiers have engaged in gun fights with both rebels and regime forces in the Golan Heights. Also, in a famous example, 21 UN peacekeepers were captured by Syrian rebels in the demilitarized zone, and they were then released after artillery fire from the regime ended.

We also know that Israel has conducted an airstrike against an Assad anti-aircraft system that the IDF said was being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

We also know that some groups of Syrian rebels continue to press their attacks near the al-Safira chemical weapons depot in Aleppo.

In other words, Israel believes that two of these red lines have already been crossed, and the other one is being danced on, the the IDF believes that Obama's red line, use of chemical weapons, has also been crossed.

Regardless of whether or not the IDF is right here or not, based on these statements they may be applying significant pressure on Washington to act, but if they are then they are mostly doing it behind the scenes.

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

1035 GMT: Abducted Bishops

George Sabra, the acting head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition and a Christian, is working to secure the release of the Greek Orthodox bishop of Aleppo, Bolous Yazigi, and Syriac Orthodox bishop Yuhanna Ibrahim, according to Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Avramopoulos said he had spoken by phone to Sabra, who said he would act immediately.

Christian residents of Aleppo said the car in which the two bishops was travelling was intercepted who kidnapped the clerics and killed their driver.

0605 GMT: Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim that 106 people were killed on Monday, including 47 in Damascus and its suburbs and 24 in Aleppo Province.

The Violations Documentation Center reports 57,817 people killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 155 from Monday.

Of the dead, 45,665 are civilians, a rise of 98 from yesterday.

0555 GMT: Hezbollah

Monday was marked by a series of high-profile denunciations of the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, from opposition leader George Sabra to senior clerics in Lebanon.

Sabra, the new interim head of the Syrian National Coalition after the resignation of Moaz al-Khatib, called Hezbollah's intervention on the side of the regime an "act of war":

What is happening in Homs is a declaration of war against the Syrian people and the Arab League should deal with it on this basis.

The Lebanese president and the Lebanese government should realize the danger that it poses to the lives of Syrians and the future relations between the two peoples and countries.

At least two Sunni clerics --- analyst Charles Lister claims there are six across the Middle East --- called for a jihad against Hezbollah in towns just inside Syria such as al Qusayr, south of Homs. One of them, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir, announced the formation of the Free Resistance Brigades.

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