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ASSAD REGIME BATTLES TO RETAKE IDLIB PRISON AFTER FSA RELEASE 300 PRISONERS:

SYRIA NEWS

FSA CAPTURE PARTS OF IDLIB PRISON, A MAJOR RAILWAY TERMINAL IN SOUTH DAMASCUS AND HOLD ONTO DARAYA, DESTROYING ASSAD TANKS:

TIMELINE – 28th JANUARY 2013 15.00 GMT:

After 3 days the battle for control of Idlib’s main prison continues. In dramatic scenes on Friday, Opposition forces in co-ordinated attacks on regime positions across the city of Idlib, managed to break into the central prison and free more than 300 grateful prisoners, reputedly capturing a number of Assad’s soldiers in the process.

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FSA Free Prisoners at Idlib Central Prison

10 Opposition fighters were killed in the attack but those remaining are still fighting for complete control of the penitentiary in a city which is still largely under Government control.

Government forces are desperate to retake the prison, even using MIGs to drop bombs inside the penitentiary compound, because it is also a major checkpoint controlling the entrances to the city from the west.

The prison contained both criminals and political prisoners and the Opposition fighters will bring those they released before a judge to decide whether they should be released completely or complete their sentences elsewhere.

Opposition forces are almost certainly control of vast areas across Idlib province itself, enabling them to to now concentrate their fire on the provincial capital. A video of prisoners being released from Idlib prison under heavy gunfire is HERE:  and Al Jazeera has a another report, HERE:

In the north-eastern part of Idlib province Opposition fighters yesterday captured the villages of Yaqoubiya and Janoudiya plus 4 tanks and 3 armoured vehicles.

Deir el-Zour is under similar Opposition assault and unconfirmed reports say that the fighters have captured a large military checkpoint near the Deir Az-Zour Suspension Bridge and are targeting Assad’s political intelligence branch which overlooks the Euphrates river that divides the city in two.

Around Damascus, the fight for the Sunni suburbs continues with the Assad regime bombing and shelling civilians incessantly and unmercifully.

Fierce clashes are being reported at checkpoints near the entrance to the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee camp and activists say that 13 people were summarily executed at a checkpoint by Shabiha in Daraya, where Opposition fighters are bravely holding on, even managing to destroy 5 tanks and 6 armoured vehicles trying to enter the suburb.

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FSA Destroy Assad Tank in Daraya, Damascus

There is also an unconfirmed reported that the Syrian Air Force managed to kill some of its own troops battling for Daraya yesterday afternoon, Sunday, with “friendly fire”.

The strength of the fighters in Daraya seems to lie in the fact that they are mainly defected conscripts from the nearby Assad military bases and know the area extremely well.

A spectacular attack on one of Assad’s tanks in Daraya, with a soldier fleeing afterwards, can be seen in HD, HERE:

Latest reports from Damascus today, Monday, confirm that following heavy fighting  Opposition fighters captured the Qadam train station and terminal, reportedly one of the largest regime outposts in the south of the capital.

The clashes have led to the closure of the main highway nearby which links Damascus with Deraa in the south of the country. There is video footage of the battle for the rail terminus, HERE:

Opposition fighters around Damascus also seized the base of the Army’s 22nd brigade in the East Ghouta district, just 10 kilometres east of Damascus International Airport, and captured another 2 tanks and large quantities of weapons.

Additionally they attacked the 781st Air Defense base in the suburb of Khan al-Sheeh and the Military Security Branch in the town of Sa’saa where they were able to set dozens more  detainees free.

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Harasta Reduced to Rubble

Al Jazeera has a video report on the Damascus suburb of Harasta, once home to more than 500,000 mainly Sunni Syrians.

Over 22 months the city has been completely destroyed, almost all the residents have fled and it is now occupied by roaming packs of dogs or cats.

Assad’s Army destroyed whole blocks of apartments, just to get a line of sight for its snipers. This is what is left, HERE:

In Aleppo province indiscriminate Government air strikes have killed 20 in Menbij, half of them children, and another 10 at Al-Bab. There is video footage of the aftermath of the airstrike, with no military targets or Opposition fighters in sight, HERE:

Opposition fighters have also captured the Military Housing Foundation and the cement factory in the Sheikh Saad district of Aleppo city while continuing their attacks on the airbases surrounding the city. And in Homs province there is a renewed Government assault on all towns and villages that have resisted Assad control.

Indicating the increasing scale of the fighting, activists observing activity at Latakia airport say that the Bustan Foundation, a charity run by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, handed over the bodies of 84 killed soldiers and Shabiha to their families in the province.

Reports this morning, say that the regime is pounding villages 25 north-west of the central city of Hama in an attempt to regain the countryside surrounding the provincial capital causing 100’s of people to flee in cars and on tractors and motorbikes. The indiscriminate shelling of the town of Kirnaz this morning, Monday, can be seen, HERE:

RUSSIAN PM SAYS ASSAD MADE “FATAL ERROR” AND HIS CHANCES OF STAYING IN POWER “SHRINKING DAY BY DAY”:

In the most explicit criticism of President Assad yet by Russia, the country’s Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, said, in an interview with CNN at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland at the weekend, that the Syrian President had made a “grave, perhaps fatal error” by delaying political reforms.

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Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev

“He should have acted much more quickly and reached out to the peaceful opposition which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him”, said the Russian Premier.

It seems to me that his chances of staying (in power) are shrinking day by day.”

As if in a belated awareness of the regime’s errors has penetrated its consciousness, the Assad Government has released a string of bizarre announcements in the last few days, most of which will get little or no reaction.

Last Thursday, the regime called on all its citizens who have fled the country to return, saying they will get “aid” regardless of whether they left the country legally or illegally or are opponents of President Assad or not. The Government also called on Opposition figures to take part in reconciliation talks, but that is not even on the agenda for the Opposition until Assad falls.

Yesterday, the Syrian High Judicial Council announced a suspension of prosecutions of opposition members so they can join such a national dialogue but activists say, the Government, following its usual path, arrested a senior member of Damascus-based opposition National Development Party, Khalil Mustafa Sayed, on Friday.

Even Syria’s semi-approved internal Opposition has accused the Assad regime of being responsible for the killing of 87 students at Aleppo University.

ASSAD BELIEVED TO BE HIDING IN BUNKER COMPLEX BENEATH PRESIDENTIAL PALACE WITH ENOUGH “SUPPLIES FOR 6 MONTHS”:

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Assad in Bunker Underneath Presidential Palace?

As for Assad himself, unconfirmed reports say that he is in a 100 room bunker complex underneath the presidential palace supported by 50 highly-vetted staff.

The reports say that there is a gym, a cinema, operations and communications rooms and enough supplies to last them 6 months.

Opposition fighters are busy however firing home-made rockets at the palace, HERE: 

For a good feel of how it is to visit Syria right now, have a read of this excellent article in The National, HERE:

Internationally, President Obama gave an interview to the New Republic magazine in which he described how he had to wrestle “with where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity”.

“And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations”. You can read more, HERE:

Lastly, in a moving tribute of solidarity with the students killed at Aleppo University, students across the United States met to remember them, seen in this video, HERE: 

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REFUGEES FLOOD INTO JORDAN AS FSA GAINS

SYRIA NEWS

AS FSA MAKE RAPID GAINS AROUND DERAA IN SOUTHERN SYRIA “FLOOD” OF REFUGEES TO JORDAN TURNS INTO A “TORRENT”:

TIMELINE – 24th JANUARY 2013 14.53 GMT:

As Opposition forces make sudden advances in the southern province of  Deraa and fighting with Government forces escalates, refugees flood into Jordan.

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New Arrivals at Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan

According to the Jordan Times late on Tuesday night, authorities had recorded 6,000 people crossing in a 12 hour period, just part of the 20,000 taken in in just over a week.

The Jordanian Government has appealed for international help in coping with the estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in its country, 60-70,000 alone in the Za’atari refugee camp north of the capital Amman.

The BBC has a video report, HERE:

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have overrun several Army checkpoints within Deraa city itself and captured the nearby towns of Bosra and Ghabagheb.

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Ancient Amphiitheatre in Bosra

Bosra in an ancient city with a citadel and a UNESCO World Heritage site Roman amphitheatre, one of the finest of its kind in the world. 

The FSA have also attacked the  25th border police station in the town of Tal Shihab near the Jordanian border and continue to thwart regime attempts to take the Basr Harir suburb of Deraa.

Jet and missile attacks on FSA positions in Deraa have been reported this morning, further adding to the desperation of civilians to leave.

Similarly, the Syrian Air Force is continuing to strike the Damascus suburbs of Daraya, Douma, Moadamiyat al-Sham and Aqraba, where 3 Government tanks, in addition to a number of armoured vehicles, were destroyed by Opposition fighters yesterday. 8 jet strikes on Daraya have been recorded this morning, Thursday, alone.

There was also violent shelling yesterday on the Palestinian refugee camp of Husainiya, with many deaths.

Scud missiles, believed to have been fired from the Government’s Talkalakh base near Homs, came down on the Al-Bab suburb of Abu Taltal and in Kaljebrin, both in Aleppo province in the north, killing at least 23 people including a couple and their 3 children, the Hazrouni family from Abu Taltal.

Overall, at least 146 deaths were reported across Syria yesterday, Wednesday.

VIDEO ANALYSIS OF ATTACK ON ALEPPO UNIVERSITY SUGGESTS THAT ASSAD GOVERNMENT IS ALMOST CERTAINLY LYING ABOUT ITS COMPLICITY:

In Aleppo city itself, video analysis of the second bomb explosion on January 15th at Aleppo University, which killed at least 87, has revealed that it was almost certainly a rocket/missile strike, undermining the Government claims that the deaths were caused by car bombs.

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Second Missile Strike Caught on Video

The Government’s alternative claim was that they were “terrorist” missiles aimed at aircraft that had missed their targets, but the size of the explosions, the likely trajectory and distance travelled are not consistent with this theory either.

Slowed down the video reveals a missile coming in from the top right (near top of  lamppost), HERE:

There are also unconfirmed reports today, Thursday, that Opposition fighters have breached the perimeter and entered Menegh military airport, a key Government installation near Aleppo. More information as it arrives.

Other reports confirm that Opposition fighters have taken the Al-Ghouna oil field in Hasaka province, HERE:  and that another group of fighters have blown up the oil pipeline to the refinery on the Mediterranean coast near Banias.

In Homs, Government shelling and rocket attacks continue on Opposition held areas such as Jobar, HERE:  and in nearby Al Qusair heavy clashes between the 2 sides are reported, HERE:

In Raqqa city in the north-east, Opposition fighters staged an attack on the central prison, killing many Government troops, HERE: , while the Syrian National Coalition is reported to have intervened to try and stop fighting at Ras Al-Ayn between Jihadists and Kurdish militia, both of whom are against the Assad regime but fighting each other for control of the area.

RUSSIANS PLAY-DOWN SIGNIFICANCE OF 1ST EVACUATIONS WHILE ASSAD GOVERNMENT OPTIMISTICALLY CALLS FOR A “MILLION-MAN PRAYERS” THIS FRIDAY TO SAVE THE REGIME:

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov did his best to play down the evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria via Lebanon on Tuesday, denying that is part of a wider plan. 

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Russian Refugees Arrive in Moscow from Syria

However, he did admit that the families of Russian diplomats had been evacuated earlier and at least 1,000 people of Russian extraction or married to Russian citizens had expressed a desire to their Damascus embassy to leave Syria.

One returning Russian woman, Natasha Yunis, who is married to a Syrian and ran a beauty salon in Damascus, said, “The Free Syrian Army is getting closer. We’ve been left without money, without light, without water. A bomb exploded near our house … The children hid”. 

In the event, the 2 flights that Russia organised from Beirut contained only 77 people, but there are as many as 30,000 of Russian origin living in Syria at the last count. The BBC has a short video report, HERE:

Sergie Lavrov also lashed out at the Syrian Opposition and their “obsession” with the ousting of President Assad before any talks could take place, saying, “As long as this irreconcilable position remains in place, nothing good can happen. Armed actions will continue and people will die.”

Conversely, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said it was “inconceivable” to negotiate with anyone who “carpet-bombed” his “own country, his own history and his own people”.

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UN’s Valerie Amos & Turkish Foreign Minister in Davos

Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said,  “There should be a clear signal to the Syrian regime that what they have been doing, bombarding cities by airplanes, is a war crime,” adding that he expected the U.N. Security Council to step in “to stop this bloodshed.”

The UN’s humanitarian chief Valerie Ann Amos, sitting alongside him, said, “The humanitarian situation in Syria is already catastrophic and it’s clearly getting worse. What we are seeing now are the consequences of the failure of the international community to unite to resolve the crisis.”

Back in Syria more detail emerged about Assad’s new Syrian Defence Force, designed to defend neighbourhoods from Opposition attack.  The first of the units passed out and paraded after training at a football stadium in Homs. 

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40 Year Old, Abir Ramadan. Syrian Defence Force

The first Women’s unit has 450 recruits aged between 18 and 50 and they are on duty manning checkpoints 4 hours a day and the rest of their time carrying on with their normal jobs.

The women’s training includes “shooting Kalashnikovs, machineguns, handling grenades, attacking opposition checkpoints, controlling our checkpoints, conducting raids and courses on military tactics,” said a commander. You can read more, HERE:  and see a video of the women’s passing out parade, HERE:

Lastly, in a feat of over-optimistic illusion, the Syrian Government’s Religious Endowments Minster, Mohammed Abdel Settar, called for a “million-man prayers” in mosques this Friday to “appeal for the re-establishment of security in the country” (EDITOR: On the Government’s terms of course).

“Syria”, he burbled on, “Will prevail against the conspiracy launched by hostile states, carried out by their proxies and slaves, and led by Wahhabi infidels from abroad” (referring to the strict Wahhabi fundamentalism based in Saudi Arabia).

An interesting article also emerged in Al-Arabiya, claiming that Assad had told the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on his last visit that he was in fact to prepared to sacrifice and destroy Damascus if necessary in order to win the war.  You can read more, HERE:

While Assad sits in his comfortable presidential palace and rants and schemes, 100’s of thousands of his countrymen now suffer. Al Jazeera has a video report of the appalling conditions in the Atmeh refugee camp, the only one in Syria, as the refugees live in fear and struggle to survive, HERE:

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WAR CLOSES IN ON DAMASCUS

SYRIA NEWS

WAR CLOSES IN ON DAMASCUS ELITE AS THE POWER GOES OUT AND PRICES OF ESSENTIAL COMMODITIES RISE:

TIMELINE – 22nd JANUARY 2012 14.55 GMT:

The war came yet closer to the regime’s supporters in Damascus over the weekend when for the first time the electricity went out for a prolonged period in the upmarket areas in the centre of the capital, including affecting properties owned by the Assad family and the President’s businessman cousin Rami Maklouf.

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Central Damascus Suffers Severe Power Cut

The power failed on Sunday night and was out for at least 22 hours. The Electricity Minister, Imad Khamis, blamed the outage on “terrorists”, saying that they had brought down high-voltage power lines and it had affected sub-stations and generators.

He expected power to be fully restored to the capital by this morning, Tuesday.

For President Assad’s supporters it was, despite all the Government’s desperate reassurances, another sign that war closes in on Damascus and the end is approaching. Opposition fighters are reported fighting within 800 metres of Damascus Old City, once a tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One local resident said, “Inside Damascus’ Old City, you can’t escape the muffled sounds of shelling and fighter jets and even machine guns fired off nearby”.

To add to the misery and desperation, the Syrian Government yesterday raised the prices of petrol, wheat and flour. 95-octane gasoline (petrol) went up to 60 Syrian pounds ($0.75) per litre, flour from the equivalent price of $419 per ton to $434 and soft wheat, needed to make bread which is already in short supply,to the equivalent of $337, up from $321.

Last week the Government increased the price of diesel and heating oil by 40% to 35 Syrian pounds ($0.43) per litre, but on the black market it is already being valued at 115 Syrian pounds ($1.15) per litre.

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Gasoline Queues Now Commonplace

The extent of the queues for fuel in the capital can be seen in Khalid Bin Waleed Street, filmed, HERE:

The increased price announcements were followed by another explosion on Monday in the wealthy area of Dumar in Damascus causing an unknown number of deaths.

Not surprising then that Jordan has reported another huge influx of 12,000 Syrian refugees in just the last 6 days, over 25,000 having crossed the border since January 1st.

Jordan says it is hosting 300,000 refugees, 176,000 of whom are registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee organisation. The UN is predicting 1.1 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries by June if the war does not end soon.

ASSAD’S RUSSIAN ALLIES AND HIS FAMILY MEMBERS STARTING TO “ABANDON SHIP” AS PRESSURE INCREASES:

Two shells from an unknown source landed near the Russian embassy in Damascus on Saturday, perhaps prompting the airlift of “100” Russian citizens announced yesterday. As heavy fighting continues along the road to the International Airport and it remains closed to civilian aircraft, the Russians said they would bus their citizens to Beirut in Lebanon, where “2 planes” would be waiting to take them to Moscow.

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Russia Sends 2 Planes to Collect its Citizens

(EDITOR: Quite why “2 planes” is unclear. Either the Russians have very small aircraft or they are moving all the fat people first!)

In the event, reports from Russian diplomats say that as many as 150 people were being bussed from Damascus this morning, Tuesday, and more will be moved “as and when required”.

Russian naval ships are currently carrying out exercises in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which include the use of landing craft and removing people from the shore.

Yet again there are also renewed reports from Dubai (reported on this blog some time ago) that Assad’s Mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has taken up residence there with other members of the Assad family.

Bushra Al -Assad, who has broken with the President, Bashar Al-Assad, several times, moved to Dubai in September and enrolled her 5 children in a private school after her husband was killed in a FSA bomb explosion in Damascus.

And in yet another desperate move the Assad Government has also formed a paramilitary force called the “National Defense Army” which will made up of men and women who were formally members of the “popular local committees”, most of whom are loyal members of the ruling Ba’ath Party and from all sects in Syrian society.

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Female Members of the New Syrian Defence Force – AFP

According to reports the members of the new armed militia are being trained in guerrilla warfare techniques to defend their own neighbourhoods by “advisers” from Iran and members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed militants.

The new force is already reported to be active in Homs province, supposedly leaving the Syrian Army free to fight elsewhere.

Similarly, the FSA is busy also training its recruits in urban warfare. This Al Jazeera video report, filmed at a captured army base on the outskirts of Damascus, shows the realistic training exercises, HERE: 

FSA LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN TO CAPTURE IDLIB CITY BUT OUTSIDE SYRIA OPPOSITION POLITICIANS FAIL TO MAKE HEADWAY:

Heavy fighting continues around Damascus, the regime sending yet more reinforcements to attack the Opposition held suburb of Daraya and even pounding it with ground to ground Grad missiles, not caring who they kill. Continuous airstrikes are also being reported on Douma and the East Ghouta region, another centre of Opposition strength, with successive rocket attacks on an area between Hamouriyeh and Jisreen.

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FSA Fighter Mans a Dushka Gun in Ma’arrat Al-Numan

Further north in Idlib province, the FSA has announced a campaign to free Idlib city from Assad regime control and on Monday launched attacks against 7 heavily armed Government checkpoints on the outskirts of the provincial capital.

A ground attack on Ma’arrat al-Numan has been repelled, HERE: and 3 tanks and an armoured vehicle sent there to reinforce the assault were destroyed.

In addition a checkpoint between Ma’arrat al-Numan and Khan Shaykhoun has been freed from government forces, opening another route towards Latakia, which many consider will be the Assad regime’s last stronghold.

However, the FSA is already well entrenched in Latakia province, local fighters using their extensive knowledge of the mountains to their advantage and holding large areas of territory. An excellent article on the looming fight for Latakia, HERE:

In Aleppo province heavy fighting continues in all areas, but particularly around Quwayres airbase, HERE:  Within Aleppo city itself, the water supply suddenly came on again, causing citizens to rush around filling containers of drinking water before it was shut off again.

In Hama province on Monday at the Alawite town of Salamiya, east of the provincial capital, a suicide bomber blew up a car outside the local headquarters of the popular committee and the Shabiha. At least 30 people were reported killed, including a number of leading members of the local and regional Ba’ath Party.

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Assads Oblivious to Killing in Their Name

Regime forces plus Shabiha accompanied by Hezbollah fighters have continued a major onslaught on the neighbourhoods of Jobar and Sultaniya and the village of Kafara’aya near Homs and heavy attacks are reported on Opposition positions near Deraa in the south and at Deir el-Zoiur and Raqqa.

In the extreme north-east clashes are also continuing between Jihadists and the Kurdish Popular Protection Units in Ras al-Ayn near the Turkish border, killing at least 56 fighters on both sides over the last 6 days.

In Istanbul, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) meeting over the weekend failed to reach consensus on the make-up of a “transitional government” and an attempt to elect former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab as leader of the new administration-in-exile did not come to fruition.

Instead, the President of the SNC, Moaz Alkhatib, left the meeting early to fly to Qatar to try and garner financial guarantees for a new government, if and when it comes into power.  The Opposition politicians are due to meet in Paris on 28th January to discuss their plans with 20 supporter countries.

Yesterday also saw the arrival by sea and the unloading of the first NATO Patriot Missile systems from Germany in the Turkish port of İskenderun. They will now be transported by road to their positions near the Turkish – Syrian border and be fully operational early in February. The BBC has a video report, HERE:

Lastly, to cheer us all up, some spectacularly funny “Whoops!” home-made weapons failures which even made the Opposition fighters laugh, courtesy of the Brown Moses Blog , HERE:  and HERE:

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Refugees Living in Caves in NE Syria

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