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Syria Today: The Insurgent Attacks on Regime Airfields

Syrian firemen and policemen inspect a burnt-out car after a bomb explosion allegedly targeted Prime Minister Wael al-Halki in Damascus

See also Middle East Today: Israel Extends Detention Orders For Security Suspects
Sunday's Syria Today: The Debate Over Chemical Weapons (Continued)

1811 GMT: Russia Passenger Plane Attacked.

Interfax News reports that a Russia passenger plane on its way back from Egypt has been fired on while over Syria:

"The Syrian side informed us that on Monday morning unidentified people had fired two land-to-air missiles which exploded in the immediate proximity of a civilian plane belonging to a Russian airline," the source was quoted as saying.

"The crew has been able to move the aircraft to the side on time and save the lives of the passengers," the source said, adding that it was unclear whether the attackers knew that the plane was Russian.

The plane was returning from a resort in Egypt, a popular destination for Russian tourists.

There is debate, however, as to whether MANPADS, shoulder-fired missiles, could have the range to hit a target at this altitude. If MANPADS are ruled out, then it's extremely unlikely that rebels could have fired the weapons.

1804 GMT: Chemical Weapons Attack.

Some opposition activists are now saying that the victims of today's reported chemical attack have been stopped at the Turkish border:

1708 GMT: Chemical Weapon Attack.

Some sources are reporting that the victims of today's attack have been moved to a hospital in Turkey. If this is the case, then blood and tissue samples may be taken. Two additional videos (video 1, video 2) show the victims being treated by doctors.

We're trying to identify the canister found in the updates below. It does resemble other polymer sub-munitions used to disperse chemical weapons, but without a positive identification there is not enough information to conclusively prove the link between Assad submunitions and the claimed chemical attacks.... yet. Stay tuned.

1616 GMT: Chemical Weapons Attack.

Eliot Higgins is very observant, and he has found evidence that may directly tie the evidence of today's claimed chemical weapons attack in Saraqib to the one in Sheikh Maghsoud, Aleppo. The canister that allegedly held the chemical weapon has been found at both claimed chemical weapons attacks.

These canisters appear to have been dropped in a similar style as a cluster bombing. That means that there would be no large explosion, but gas could be distributed over a wide area.

Chemical canisters falling from the sky? If this information holds up, this could be a major piece of evidence that indicates that the regime is behind both incidents.

We're working to identify that canister right now.

1556 GMT: New Chemical Attack Reported in Idlib.

Activists are reporting that there have been explosions in Saraqib, an opposition town in Idlib province, and some residents are experiencing effects from gases released from the bombs. Some in the opposition are clearly labeling this a chemical weapons attack. Here are some of the pictures and videos emerging:

The LCC has posted this video, reportedly showing the bombing but also the aftereffects. The video is disturbing.

We're analyzing the footage now.

1528 GMT: Head of Hezbollah to Speak.

Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah will make an unscheduled speech tomorrow:

Nasrallah is just getting back from Iran, where he spoke with Supreme Leader Khamenei. The Daily Star reports:

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah recently held talks in Tehran with Iran’s supreme leader, and is expected to tackle allegations about his party’s role in the Syrian conflict and Lebanon’s political crisis during a much anticipated speech on May 9. Sources close to Hezbollah told The Daily Star that Nasrallah held talks in recent weeks with Sayyed Ali Khamenei. Hezbollah has not issued an official statement about the meeting.

Nasrallah also met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov over the weekend, and Syria was at the head of the agenda.

1456 GMT: Damascus Bombing.

The Associated Press has released this raw footage of the aftermath of the car bombing that reportedly targeted Prime Minister Wael al-Halki in the Mezzeh district of the capital. Halki survived, but it's still unclear how many other casualties are the result of the bombing.

Looking at this video, and at the pictures posted by Syrian State Media, SANA, we keep notice something peculiar - this was a very small car bomb. There is not a lot of wreckage, the cars that have been affected are mostly in tact, and the debris field is relatively small. We've seen small car bombs do a lot more damage than this. We're not sure what to make of that, except that it does appear that the Prime Minister was possibly very selectively targeted.

1423 GMT: Fighting in Hama City.

Today there are reports of a massive Assad military presence in northwestern Hama city, in the Tareeq Halab district, and outside the city in the countryside to the northeast. The area is already heavily populated by rebel fighters, but last week more fighters from outside the city launched a series of attacks against remaining Assad positions there.

Last night, rebels attacked the Hama airport, on the western edge of the city, an airport used by regime forces. The video below reportedly shows a rebel rocket attack - that may be a homemade 122mm rocket launcher. The rebels have captured many 122mm rockets - used by the regime in their GRAD launchers.

1356 GMT: World Powers Talk Chemical Weapons.

Unanswered questions and mysteries remain about whether Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria. Though we've done our own analysis review, we are convinced that it is not possible to definitively conclude whether chemical weapons have been used, or what type has been used, just using the publicly available evidence at this current moment. The America and British governments claim to have blood and tissue samples that would provide a conclusive evidence, but the United States has expressed some uncertainties about the evidence, and would like the UN to conduct an investigation. So far the Syrian regime has blocked the UN inspectors, so it's not likely that a definitive answer will be reached any time soon.

That won't stop world powers from speculating or commenting about whether Assad used chemical weapons, and it's won't stop those for and against foreign intervention from using this development to make their point.

Russia's foreign minister has once again warned that the intelligence is uncertain and is being used as an excuse to invade Syria, just as WMD was used as an excuse to invade Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English reports that a prominent Jewish politician has advocated for military intervention, and he argued that the spread of chemical weapons is one reason to intervene:

A veteran Israeli lawmaker and former defense minister says Syria's chemical weapons are "trickling" to Lebanon's Hezbollah group.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio on Monday that he is shocked by the "world's silence" and that the West must intervene to stop the high civilian death toll in Syria.

He says he "has no doubt" Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons and that some of the weapons are "definitely reaching" Israel's enemy Hezbollah.

EA's writers are unaware of any evidence that would suggest that Assad is moving chemical weapons to Hezbollah or other foreign nationals.

Meanwhile, those watching Syria's developments more closely are puzzled by the focus on chemical weapons. With the death toll far greater than 70,000, fighting on (and across) five borders, radical elements on both sides growing stronger, and a growing humanitarian crisis inside and outside of the war-torn country, chemical weapons are more of a "boogey-man" than anything. Their importance, and their alleged use, has been the source of an undue amount of attention.

This week could be critical in the future of Syria's rebellion, but not because of international maneuvering or chemical weapons. Bashar al Assad's military is coming off of its best month since the earliest stage of the uprising, but that momentum appears to be already shifting. The next few weeks could reveal how strong the Assad regime remains. If Assad's hard-won victories erode quickly, his regime could once again be staring down the barrel of a rapidly-advancing opposition. If Assad holds his gains, or makes new gains, the opposition may be facing a collapse of gains that have taken many months to consolidate. The likely scenario is somewhere in the middle, where rebels erase some of Assad's gains, Assad's momentum is squashed, but the rebels return to their slow grind towards capturing Damascus, Aleppo, and Deir Ez Zor. That scenario, however, may be the deadliest of them all.

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

1000 GMT: Sanctions and Surveillance

A Dubai distribution company has agreed to pay a $2.8 million penalty for shipping embargoed U.S. devices to the Syrian government to monitor and control Internet traffic.

Computerlinks FZCO sold $1.4 million worth of devices made by Blue Coat Systems Inc, of Sunnyvale, California, to the Syrian Government in three separate transactions between about October 2010 and May 2011.

The agreement said that the distributor falsely claimed to Blue Coat that the products were being shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The settlement was signed on Wednesday by two Computerlinks FZCO executives, an attorney and the Commerce Department's director of export enforcement.

The company added that under the terms of the agreement it neither admits nor denies the allegations in the settlement.

0920 GMT: Assassination Attempt on Prime Minister?

Prime Minister Wael al-Halki has survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Damascus, according to State media and activists.

The explosion occurred in the Mezze neighborhood shortly after 9 a.m. local time (0600 GMT).

State television reported casualties, but gave no details. It said, "The terrorist explosion in al-Mezze was an attempt to target the convoy of the prime minister. Doctor Wael al-Halki is well and not hurt at all.

Pro-regime Al-Ikhbariya television later broadcast footage of Halki, who looked and sounded composed and unruffled, chairing an economic committee at the Prime Ministry.

0900 GMT: Life in Damascus

Rana Elass writes for the Los Angeles Times about the growing concerns of the middle class in the capital:

Even some of the most resolute families are packing up and moving out.

The exodus includes young, middle-class professionals born and raised in Damascus. Others are merchants, doctors, and teachers, the backbone of the capital's economy.

Many had never imagined leaving Damascus, the only home they have known. But after two years of "waiting to see," and hoping the violence around them would subside, many are running out of hope.

"Nothing is improving here. Everything is becoming worse. Security. Moving around. Not to mention the rising prices of food and everyday living," said Nada, as she sat near packed suitcases in her living room. Within a week, she and her husband would leave for Lebanon.

"Not too long ago I was saying no way I would leave. But we just can't stay here anymore," she said.

Like many Damascus natives, the couple thought they would endure to see some resolution to the anti-government uprising turned civil war, which marked its second anniversary last month.

For months, they heard the sounds of shelling as rebel strongholds in the suburbs came under fire from government missile batteries etched in the hills that surround the city, a stone's throw from their city neighborhood of Muhajireen. Then there was the acrid stench of smoke from government air raids on the suburbs.

In the city proper, there have been kidnappings, car bombings and random shootings at checkpoints that residents pass on their way to work....

Those who venture out spend a good part of their day navigating checkpoints, and they hurry home before it turns dark. Hardly any business can be done in the amount of time it used to take.

At home, power and cooking gas shortages are common. In this once thriving and modern city, it is not unusual to find homemakers using outdoor hot plates to cook meals in the family kitchen.<

0440 GMT: Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim 120 people were killed on Sunday, including 32 in Aleppo Province and 21 in Damascus and its suburbs.

The Violations Documentation Center puts the confirmed death toll at 58,540 since the conflict begin in March 2011, an increase of 142 from Sunday.

Of those killed, 45,098 were civilians, a rise of 55 from yesterday.

0430 GMT: Insurgent Attacks on Regime Airfields

Claims circulated throughout Sunday about insurgent attacks on the regime's air bases, a continuing centrepiece of the opposition's attempt to weaken the Syrian military and pressure President Assad.

Bases attacked included the Abu al-Zhuhoor military airport in Idlib Province and the Menneg complex in Aleppo Province, which has been besieged for months.

The two sides put out rival reports about the state of the battles. Activists said they had taken positions in and near the bases, such as the Kwaires military airport in Aleppo Province. State media said the army had blocked raids by "terrorists".

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