Claimed footage of overnight shelling of Yabroud, an insurgent stronghold north of Damascus.
See also Thursday's Syria Today: Pressure and Propaganda --- From the UN to Israel to Russia
Rebel fighters may be on the move once again in Damascus, near the international airport that is used to ferry supplies in and out of the country.
Meanwhile, to the north of Damascus the Assad regime has been conducting an intense artillery and airstrike campaign against Yabroud. The hilltop suburb has been heavily occupied by rebel forces for many months, but it now appears that the area is being softened up, possibly or a direct regime assault on the town.
The director of the CIA, John Brennan, has made a surprise visit to Israel to discuss the Syrian crisis. Of course, this comes on the heels of Israel's May 2nd and May 5th bombings, the later of which targeted one of the most important military installations the regime has, right in the heart of Damascus. The Guardian reports:
According to a report in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, the visit stemmed from "the American fear of escalation in the region against the backdrop of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah's threats to act against Israel in the Golan Heights and the American sense that Israel is disappointed by the ineffectuality of the Obama administration with regard to the ongoing deterioration in Syria.
"It is assessed that Brennan was sent to Israel to co-ordinate a joint policy between the two countries and prevent Israel from taking action on its own in Syria."
The context of the Israeli airstrikes is obvious, but what is being lost is that there have been many more incidents inside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Shells and bullets have landed near Israeli troops on many occasions, and the pace of the incidents is on the rise. Meanwhile, UN peacekeepers deployed to divide Syria from Israel in the Golan have been kidnapped on three separate occasions. The most severe of these, in some respects, may have happened last night. In previous incidents, peacekeepers have been detained "for their own safety" while on patrol. This time, early reports indicate that armed gunmen stormed a UN compound and kidnapped 3 more UN staff.
Israel, historically, has favored known enemies over chaotic and unpredictable situations. Clearly, they are increasingly nervous about the state of the Syrian conflict. While it's not really making huge headlines, consider this - Israel has attacked Syrian territory many times in the last 6 months, but has not attacked Iranian territory in a very long time. For all the bluster that the Iranian standoff over nuclear issues receives from the media, despite few tangable developments, Israel's role in the Syrian crisis may prove to be pivotal if the believe, or their allies believe, that action is the lesser of two evils.
Turkish officials have detained another man, identified as "M.G.," late last night in the Samandag district near the Syrian border. They say that M.G. and two other "at large" suspects were involved with the car bomb attacks that left more than 50 dead.
A total of 16 people have been detained, and 4 charged.
The number of refugees from the conflict in Syria has reached over 1.5 million according to data collected by the UN Refugee Agency.
The rate of people fleeing the country has increased rapidly in recent weeks, which is dramatically illustrated by the fact that only 10 weeks ago the number of Syrian refugees totalled 1 million.
Some estimates suggest that if this rate is maintained then by the end of the year 3.5 million Syrians – 15% of the country’s total population – could be refugees.
Gerry Simpson, acting refugee programme director at Human Rights Watch, said that Turkey and Jordan were "shouldering a huge burden" of the problem: Turkey has accepted 347,157 refugees; Jordan, 473,587; meanwhile Lebanon has taken 470,457, Iraq 147,464 and Egypt 66,922.
Simpson criticised Jordan for "its border push-back policy” and Turkey’s “continued partial border closure” for exacerbating the problems facing Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, pointed out that about 10% of Jordan's population were Syrian refugees adding that "I think it is unconscionable that we leave it to neighbouring states who have taken on so much. The EU has to open its doors."
Maintaining its pressure on Moscow to distance itself from President Assad, US officials have used The New York Times for yet another claim of significant Russian arms supplies to Damascus.
The officials claimed Thursday that Russia has sent advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Damascus.
Russia has previously provided a version of the Yakhont missiles, but the officials said those delivered recently were equipped with an advanced radar that makes them more effective.
The Government leak was backed by warnings from analysts. “It enables the regime to deter foreign forces looking to supply the opposition from the sea, or from undertaking a more active role if a no-fly zone or shipping embargo were to be declared at some point,” said Nick Brown, editor in chief of IHS Jane’s International Defense Review. “It’s a real ship killer.”
The officials did not say from where the Syrian military would launch the Yakhonts.
Over the past week, as it has been pressing Moscow to support the removal of Assad from power during a political transition, the US Government has put out the story of Moscow's delivery of S-300 air defence systems to the Assad regime.
Following talks in Sochi in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a conference to end the conflict in Syria to be held as soon as possible.
"The sooner this conference is held, the better....The key thing now is who is ready to take part on the Syrian side," Lavrov said.
Ban called on Damascus to allow UN experts into the ocuntry to assess claims over the alleged use of chemical weapons.
On Thursday, Lavrov said Tehran should be involved in the talks but Western countries were resisting: "One must not exclude a country like Iran from this process because of geopolitical preferences. It is a very important external player. But there is no agreement on this yet."
3 UN Peacekeepers Abducted
Herve Ladsous, the UN’s peacekeeping chief, has said that three unarmed UN military observers were abducted by armed men from their outpost in a buffer zone separating Israel and Syria on Wednesday morning.
They were held for five hours before being released unharmed. Ladsous said that the abduction – the third involving UN peacekeepers since March - was "a very serious incident ... that illustrates the very difficult conditions that now prevail" in maintaining order along Syria’s borders due to the conflict.
Researchers have uncovered evidence that Assad's security forces arbitrarily detained and tortured prisoners at government security facilities in the north-central Syrian city of Raqqa, New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.
HRW said they sent a team of researchers to inspect State Security and Military Intelligence facilities in Raqqah, a city now under de facto insurgent control. The researchers claim to have found rooms that appeared to be detention cells on the ground floor and basement of the facility, as well as documents --- including lists of college graduates --- and a "bsat ar-reeh" torture device, similar to those former prisoners allege have been used to stretch or bend limbs.
In a media release on Friday, HRW called on local insurgent groups to secure and preserve the potential evidence so that criminal investigations can be undertaken.
Following their discussion on Thursday in the White House, US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed their rhetoric about the removal of President Assad from power.
"We're going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime and working with the Syrian opposition," Obama said. "We both agree that Assad needs to go."
The leaders said Syria was at the top of their agenda, with Obama warning that use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a "red line" that would require action by the international community.
Erdogan said that there was evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria but that it is important to get "more specific information" to confirm this before deciding how to respond.
Obama said he was constantly reviewing action on Syria: "I preserve the option of taking additional steps, both diplomatic and military." However, the two leaders offered no indication what might be done to increase pressure on Assad, including support for the insurgency.
Away from the meeting, the US Treasury did add Syrian Arab Airlines and the pro-regime Al-Dunya Television to its sanctions list.
On Thursday 110 people were killed nationwide, according to the Local Coordination Committees, with more than half in the Damascus region:
110 martyrs, including 3 women, 7 children, and 1 martyr under torture: 60 martyrs were reported in Damascus and suburbs; 17 in Aleppo; 10 in Homs; 8 in Hama; 5 in Idlib; 5 in Daraa; 4 in Deir Ezzor; and 1 in Raqqa.