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Syria Today: US and Russia Manoeuvre Over Support for Assad

Sergei Lavrov & John KerrySee also Syria Audio Analysis: Have US & Britain Changed Their Lines?
Tuesday's Syria Today: US and Britain Play for Time

1930 GMT: Even Government Sources Admit Baniyas is Different.

The Baniyas massacre on Syria's coast may be a singular event that stands out as being dramatically different than all the other massacres. For starters, the scale of the massacre is at least among the worst of all of Syria's massacres, though some reports suggest that it may be magnitudes worse than any event that has taken place since the start of this crisis. Also, this incident had a clearly sectarian nature to it that is not disputed - Alawite militias loyal to President Assad targeted Sunnis, many of them children, and killed them en masse. In a thorough, nuanced, and eloquent description of the massacre, the New York Times' Anne Barnard and Hania Mourtada point out that the Assad government typically blames civilian deaths on "terrorists" even when their own forces and loyalists are implicated. This time, however, even the government admitted that its people were responsible for a mass killing, though they tell a different tale than Baniyas's residents:

Multiple video images that residents said they had recorded in Bayda and Ras al-Nabeh — of small children lying where they died, some embracing one another or their parents — were so searing that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television’s official version of events, that the army had “crushed a number of terrorists.”

One prominent pro-government writer, Bassam al-Qadi, took the unusual, risky step of publicly blaming loyalist gunmen for the killings and accusing the government of “turning a blind eye to criminals and murderers in the name of ‘defending the homeland.’ “

The article chronicles some of the evidence and eyewitness reports. It also argues that there were those who were trying to break with the sectarian nature of the killings even while the violence was ongoing. In the end, however, it's a must-read article on a story that has been under-reported.

1915 GMT: More Division in Opposition Ranks.

Unity has been hard to come by in the expatriate leadership groups of the Syrian opposition. Most famously, the Syrian National Council, billed as the original Syrian opposition governing group in exile, fell apart and was replace by the National Coalition. That group has had its own internal power struggles, and now a brand new group, the Union of Syrian Democrats, has been formed in part to challenge the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition's governing body. Interestingly, one of the members of the group is Christian activist Michel Kilo.

"If the Muslim Brotherhood are opposed to the construction of a civil state, this group is directed against them. If they support this project, they are our allies," he said.

"Our problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that they say one thing and do another... they say they want a civil state, but in practice, they don't."

Is this a breakdown of the Syrian leadership? It's important to remember that there are many opposition groups that are not vying to replace the SNC, but rather are there to pressure the group to respect the wishes of all Syrians, not just the special interests that some Coaltion members appear to often champion.

1840 GMT: UN Passes Resolution.

The United Nations General Assembly has passed a non-binding resolution condemning the Assad regime's use of violence in Syria. The vote passed 107 to 12, with 59 states obstaining:

Last August, 26 additional countries voted to pass a similar resolution.

1530 GMT: Death Toll Rising.

According to the Local Coordination Committees, 50 people have been killed nationwide so far today:

18 martyrs were reported in Aleppo; 15 in Homs; 5 in Hama; 4 in Raqqa; 4 in Damascus and its suburbs; 3 in Deir Ezzor; and 1 martyr in Idlib

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.

1445 GMT: Internet is Down.

The tech magazine CNET, and several media watchdogs, report that the internet is once again shut down in Syria. CNET's Lance Whitney has an interesting theory as to why that is:

What's behind today's Internet outage? Renesys points to another tweet speculating that it may be related to an upcoming United Nations decision regarding Syria. The U.N. is expected to approve a resolution on Wednesday backing a political transition in the country and condemning the government for its use of heavy weaponry and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, according to the Washington Post.

Though such a resolution from the U.N.'s General Assembly doesn't have legal teeth, the Syrian government may still want to stop its citizens from hearing the news.

1430 GMT: Rebels Running Out of Ammunition.

Long before the press was paying any attention to rebel advances in Daraa province or near Damascus, there was already a clear trend - where there are Croatian arms showing up among rebel groups, there was a sudden surge in rebel advances and surprisingly one-sided victories. It also became immediately clear to us the cleverness of the strategy to provide Croatian weapons that are used nowhere else in the region - once the crisis is over, the flow of ammunition could be stopped, making the weapons completely useless.

What was surprising, however, was that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United States did not wait very long before shutting off the flow of weapons and ammunition, long before the crisis was reaching a conclusion.

Rebels in areas that were once highways for foreign arms are running out of ammunition and retreating. First, we saw the consequences of this in the suburbs of Damascus, but in the last two weeks Assad has pushed rebels back in several key towns in Daraa, towns where Assad forces had been crushed just weeks earlier.

Many of the groups that were receiving these Croatian weapons had ties to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as the arms distribution was being coordinated through the Military Council in Daraa. However, we quickly noticed that some of the groups with access to these weapons were more radical, and Al Farouq, a Qatar-linked group, was also involved in the efforts. Those concerns may have convinced Washington to pull its support for the arming effort. However, a new development suggests that the United States is leaning on its allies to control radicalism. A new report suggests that the CIA is now coordinating with Qatar and the rebel's Supreme Military Council to arm the groups in the north, as opposed to those in the south:

Qatar mostly sends arms to rebels operating in the north of Syria, while Saudi Arabia, another rich Gulf Arab kingdom, sends weapons to fighters operating in the south, several rebel commanders said.

“The Qataris are now going through the coalition for aid and humanitarian issues and for military issues they are going through the military command,” a commander in northern Syria interviewed from Beirut said.

“Before the coalition was formed they were going through liaison offices and other military and civil formations. That was at the beginning. Now it is different – it is all going through the coalition and the military command.”

Citing Assad advances in Damascus and Daraa, as well as significant advances south of Homs, recent analysis has suggested that Assad is turning the tide in this battle. The Washington Post has listed 6 key ways that Assad has improved his fighting ability, and they have suggested that the primary reason Assad has gained ground is the use of sectarian militias recruited from Alawite villages, as well as the international support from Hezbollah fighters:

Pro-Assad analysts credit a major restructuring of government forces that has better equipped them to confront the insurgency. The ranks of the conventional Syrian army — weary, depleted and demoralized by defections, casualties and more than a year of continuous fighting — are being swelled by the deployment of some 60,000 militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers.

This analysis is not flowed, though it is incomplete (and very late to the game). March and April were clear Assad's best months since the start of the uprising. But his offensives in most areas have not picked up pace, and in the north his forces have been beaten back and are still losing ground. Has Assad turned the tide? That's hard to argue from the facts on the ground. Clearly, however, he has stopped most rebel momentum, and has ensured that a sudden collapse of the regime, once a real possibility, is now almost unthinkable.

But the suggestion that rebel groups in the north are succeeding because of new weapons, where as the rebels in the south are falling because they are out of ammunition, is fascinating. It shows that Washington is playing a complicated game that has less to do with the fall of the regime and more to do with the dynamics of what happens next, after Assad is gone. Not long ago, I suggested that it looked like Washington was more interested in a negotiated settlement than the fall of the regime, and was only arming the southern rebels to drive the regime to the bargaining table. The Obama administration may now be hedging its bets to ensure that if regime change is necessary then the groups it wants are strengthened by the decision.

I should caution, however, that in recent battles in Aleppo and Idlib, it is not immediately obvious if the rebels are receiving outside arms. Few if any Croatian weapons have been spotted in the battles. The rebel push in Aleppo and Idlib is more the result of a systemic weakness in Assad's position in these regions that was not rectified in recent Assad offensives. If Washington is ramping up an arming effort somewhere, it's still not clear that those arms are making it to the front lines.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage from Scott Lucas.

1205 GMT: Cyber-Watch: Internet Down Again

Syrian residents said the country's Internet went off-line at 10 a.m. local time.

The chief technology officer of Renesys, which monitors the Web, said, "[The cut-off] is entirely consistent with a technical fault at a central facility; it's also completely consistent with a decision to use an Internet kill switch."

State news agency SANA said there was a technical problem and maintenance units were working to restore the Internet as soon as possible.

An official at the Syrian communications department said an Internet cable was cut in a Damascus suburb and would take up to four hours to fix.

0945 GMT: Regime Distances Itself from International Conference

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad has said Damascus and its allies will refuse any "dictate" at an international peace conference, particularly any demand the departure of President Assad.

"Syria will not accept any dictate and its friends will not accept it either," Muqdad said in an interview with pro-regime Al-Ikhbariya TV late Tuesday.

Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi added, "We will not allow anyone to impose conditions on us...that affect the principle of sovereignty," adding that Assad's future was an issue for the "Syrian people and the ballot box".

Last week in Moscow, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans for a new peace conference seeking a path to a political transition.

0935 GMT: Free Syrian Army Condemns Atrocities by Insurgents

The Free Syrian Army has declared, "Any act contrary to the values that the Syrian people have paid their blood and lost their homes to will not be tolerated, the abuser will be punished severely even if they are associated with the Free Syrian Army."

The statement follows the circulation of a video in which an insurgent cut out the organs of a dead regime soldier and held one up to his mouth.

The FSA said field commanders had been instructed "to begin a prompt investigation into the matter in which the perpetrator will be brought to justice". Investigations would also be held into whether the insurgent in the video is a member of the Free Syrian Army.

0805 GMT: Projectiles Hit Israeli-Occupied Territory

Two projectiles fired from Syria hit Israeli-occupied Mount Hermon on Wednesday morning but did not cause damage or injuries, according to the Israeli army.

A spokeswoman said the popular site in the Golan Heights has been closed to visitors.

0725 GMT: Bomb in Damascus

Activists are reporting a blast, from an improvised explosive device, near the Opera House in central Damascus.

TIm Marshall of Sky News tweets:

0505 GMT: Opposition Meetings in Saudi Arabia

Writing for The National, Hassan Hassan reports that a 12-member delegation from the Syrian opposition visited Saudi Arabia last week for two days of meetings.

Hassan says Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal met the deputy leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Mahmoud Farouq Tayfour.

Hassan assesses that the Brotherhood is reaching out beyond its links with Turkey and Qatar.

Sources claim that Saudi Arabia promised increased support, but only if the opposition agreed to expand its coalition to include minorities such as representatives of Kurdish forces.

0445 GMT: Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim that 70 people were killed on Tuesday, including 20 in Damascus and its suburbs.

The Violations Documentation Center puts the confirmed death toll at 60,346 since the conflict begin in March 2011, an increase of 54 from Tuesday. Of those killed, 47,183 were civilians, a rise of 39 from yesterday.

0435 GMT: US Secretary of State Kerry Meets Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have met again in talks explicitly about the Syrian conflict and an international peace conference, but implicitly about Moscow's continued backing of President Assad in power.

The State Department said Kerry saw Lavrov late Tuesday to update the Russian on discussions with the opposition and officials from other countries.

Last week Kerry went to Moscow, meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as Lavrov, with a dual message: 1) moving to political talks, Russia should accept that Assad would not be part of a transitional government; 2) if Russia would not accept this, then the US and others might have to increase supprot for the insurgency.

The visit, followed by that of British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week, was accompanied by US leaks condemning Russian arms supplies to Damascus.

Moscow held firm, however, and made no move away from Assad.

Kerry put out a bland statement on Tuesday, "I have talked with almost all of the foreign ministers in the core group who will be meeting next week together in order to lay plans for this negotiation. The members of the opposition have been in touch."

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