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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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TIMELINE – 20th JANUARY 2012 14.25 GMT:
Perhaps signalling a sign of its desperation, the Assad regime’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, said yesterday that the “nationalistic Opposition” could join a Cabinet, if they agreed to “lay down their arms” and rejected foreign intervention.
Appearing completely delusional, he also said that any discussion of President Bashar al-Assad’s future was “unacceptable”, knowing full well that the Opposition will hold no talks with Government until Assad has stood down. The main Opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also welcome foreign intervention and there is therefore no chance of Muallem’s offer becoming a reality.
Seemingly acknowledging though that Assad is presiding over a “sinking ship”, Muallem said, “The US continues to have the president’s departure as a condition of regime change, ignoring the fact that the captain of a capsized ship does not jump into the first boat”.
That he should make such suggestions at this time is interesting, as clearly the Syrian Army are unable to push back the Opposition fighters and the Free Syrian Army and their independent allies continue to chip away at territory around Aleppo, in the rural areas and in the suburbs of Damascus.
The Army has been trying to retake the capital suburb of Daraya for 2 months but has not succeeded, despite bombarding it continuously.
Daraya was the subject of rocket and jet attacks again yesterday and today, Sunday, and dozens are reported killed or injured. 80 explosions were heard in Daraya on Saturday morning alone and Government tanks continue to shell the area indiscriminately as can be seen in this video footage, HERE:
The strain is also being felt in central Damascus where many people from the suburbs have now moved and been taken in by relatives or friends. Some houses are reported to be accommodating as many as 30 to 50 people and bread queues are starting to stretch into waits that last hours.
Inside the “Damascus Bubble”, citizens still drink hot chocolate inside cafes and civil servants still get on public transport to go to work, but the petrol queues now snake around the block and talk is of “high energy biscuits”, food normally reserved for countries in famine.
The BBC’s Lyse Doucet reports from Damascus, HERE:
In more rural areas, local residents have now taken to illegally cutting down trees in order to provide fuel for cooking and to keep warm. Al Jazeera has a video report, HERE:
Lyse Doucet has also now filed a video report and an updated article on the massacre at Hasawiya. What has emerged is that this was the work of the Alawite militia, the Shabiha, and latest reports suggest that as many as 150 died in the village.
Off camera women talk of how they were stripped naked and 44 were raped. Up to 100 men may have been kidnapped and the BBC saw of evidence of executed bodies that had been burnt in an attempt to destroy the evidence. The BBC has an article and video report (moderately gruesome), HERE:
This latest outrage prompted Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to plead with the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation, but Russia and China remain intransigent, continuing to block any move that criticises President Assad. Syria has never signed up to be an ICC member and the Security Council is the only body that can order such an investigation.
Pillay’s plea followed hard on a letter sponsored by Switzerland and now signed by 58 countries to the Security Council making a similar request.
Muallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, accused some of the signatories of using “deceit and double standards”, requesting a human rights investigation on one hand and supplying weapons and ammunition to the Opposition on the other.
In Aleppo this morning, Sunday, it is reported from the FSA that Opposition forces have taken Base 599, one of the military emplacements defending Aleppo International Airport and there are heavy clashes around the Muhallab military barracks in the Sabeel district.
At the Menegh helicopter base, Opposition forces are able to freely survey the airfield and are within shooting distance of the aircraft remaining, HERE:
Russia, in another sign of the increasing isolation of Syria’s largest city, has suspended the operation of its consulate in Aleppo.
In the extreme north-east in Ras Al Ayn, the Kurdish National Council has called on the Syrian Opposition to stop Jihadists shelling Kurdish militia positions with tanks and heavy machine guns. Several hundred Jihadists crossed from Turkey earlier in the week and there is some suspicion that the Turkish authorities, in support of their own campaign against Kurdish militants both inside and outside Turkey, are encouraging the conflict between the two sides.
In Hasaka province, clashes between the Syrian Army and Kurdish Defence Units are being reported around the village of Karzero, just east of Al-Rmeilan city, Syria’s oil capital. The Syrian Army reportedly retreated under fire and 24 soldiers are said to have defected.
Lastly, on the “unconfirmed report” front there is one that the head of the police in Latakia has defected and another that a defected MIG pilot has attacked Assad military sites in the mainly Alawite neighbourhood of the mixed sect town of Moadamiyat al-Sham near Damascus.
At first Opposition activists thought the plane was attacking Opposition targets, but after several rocket strikes and the activation of Syrian Government air-defence systems, they concluded that the pilot had turned against the Assad regime. What happened to him or the plane is not know.
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TIMELINE – 15th JANUARY 2012 UPDATED 20.11. GMT:
Since the fall of the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib province last Friday, the Assad regime, in an apparent frenzy of retaliation has bombed and shelled Opposition held positions and districts across Syria, killing in the last few days more than 30 children and at least 11 women, plus many men both combatants and civilians.
In the aftermath of the capture of Taftanaz, the largest regime helicopter base in northern Syria, video footage has revealed seized stocks of barrel-bombs and a helicopter prepared to deliver them, HERE: and a destroyed helicopter, still with the bodies of Assad’s dead troops inside it (CAUTION: moderately gruesome), HERE:
The town of Taftanaz itself has come under heavy rocket and shell attack since the nearby base was taken. However, continuing their campaign of targeting Assad’s air power and the bases it operates from, Opposition forces have continued attacks on the Menegh, Quwayres and Jarah bases in Aleppo province and Deir El-Zour airport.
At Menegh, the Opposition fighters are making progress, breaking through the perimeter of the base and raising the revolutionary flag, HERE: and shelling Government positions with a powerful 130 mm Howitzer, HERE:
This video footage shows Opposition fighters attacking the military airbase at Deir El-Zour, HERE: while there are also reports that a Government convoy transporting senior military officers, including a brigadier general, was successfully attacked between Deir El-Zour and Palmyra.
The suburbs around Damascus and its rural areas are currently seeing some of the heaviest fighting, bombing and shelling.
To try and slow the Opposition attacks on the Mezzeh military base, the regime has bombed all the houses in the immediate area to deny the fighters cover.
The regime also claimed over the weekend that it had seized the Opposition suburb of Daraya, where heavy fighting has continued for weeks, but as clashes have continued in the last few days, despite most of the area being destroyed, the fighters continue to hold out. The effects of shelling on Daraya can be seen, HERE:
Bombardments have continued against the Damascus suburbs of Hazeh, Douma, Jesrin, Irbin, Moadamiyeh, Shebaa and Beit Saham and particularly on the East Ghouta region near the capital where the Opposition fighters are especially strong and well organised.
This morning, Tuesday, heavy clashes are reported between the 2 sides in the neighborhood of As-Sayeda Zeinab and near the Air Defense headquarters in the Al- Maliha district of Damascus.
There are also reports that the regime launched 3 Scud missiles from the
outskirts of Damascus city (Battalion 578) heading towards northern areas of Syria at 2.30 am this morning, Tuesday. This follows on from another confirmed missile launch logged by NATO tracking radar at the weekend.
One of the worst attacks in the last few days was on the Opposition held town of Azaz in Aleppo province where MIG fighters targeted an open-air market on Sunday killing 20 and wounding more than 90.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF – Doctors Without Borders), who operate in the area said they were inundated with bodies and casualties.
In the view of their spokesman, the Assad regime had deliberately targeted civilians, many of whom were children out with their parents innocently enjoying the first sunshine after the winter storms.
“The cars and ambulances kept on coming and patients flooded the hospital,” said Adriana Ferracin, an MSF nurse in Syria. “We received many patients with limb amputations, head injuries and bleeding eyes and ears.”
Heavy bombing and shelling has also been reported on Idlib and on Houla, where 10 people have been killed in an artillery attack this morning, and Rastan in Homs province, as well as the suburbs of Homs city itself. Some districts of Homs have been under constant Government siege for more than 6 months.
Heavy clashes continue to be reported in the south of Syria around Deraa, credited with the start of the revolution. Opposition fighters attacking a Government position can be seen, HERE: and targeting a building with Assad snipers on top, HERE:
An explosion at Aleppo University has additionally been reported this morning, which the Government are blaming on “terrorists” but which activists say was an aerial attack by Government aircraft.
7,000 students were reported to be taking their exams at the time and unconfirmed reports say deaths are anything from 15 to “70”.
The latest statement from a military official in Aleppo told the AFP news agency that the explosion occurred after rebels tried to shoot down a warplane with a missile, but failed to hit their target.
A Syrian government official in Damascus told The Associated Press that two rockets hit the university’s Information Technology Academy. The official said the two rockets were fired from a rebel-held area in Aleppo.
Latest details from the Opposition side put deaths at 52 and expected to rise, while Government sources are saying 80 dead and 160 injured. Further details as the position becomes clearer.
While clashes are reported as ongoing in the city’s Old City and throughout the suburbs, Aleppo, once Syria’s business and industrial heart has been largely destroyed but some clusters of buildings remain by mutual consent.
Some businessmen persuaded both sides in the conflict to largely leave some of the industrial areas alone and although it has not been immune to shell strikes, some industrial buildings are now home to groups of internally displaced refugees. NOW Syria has further details, HERE:
Aleppo is also home to some of Syria’s jihadist fighting groups, including the US banned Al-Nusra Front.
This terrifies many Western governments who fear that if they get a foothold and establish an Islamic state which then democratic countries and their assets will come under threat worldwide.
The problem is the jihadist fighters are often the most effective in combat, the best experienced, having fought in other war-zones, the best disciplined and the most dedicated and formidable foes of the Assad Government.
Even secular members of the Free Syrian Army give them grudging respect for their fighting skills and achievements. You can read more from Reuters, HERE:
A report just in from Jordan says that the legal leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Al-Nusra Front), Riyad Hdeib, known as Abi Hamza, has been killed in Tafas near Deraa following Government shelling.
Hdeib, aged 32, was a Jordanian national. Around 300 Jordanians are believed to be be fighting in Syria on the Opposition side.
After the killing of so many children in Syria in the last few days Human Rights Watch based in New York has called on more countries to sign to sign up to the letter drafted by Switzerland calling on the Security Council to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation.
So far 57 countries, including all of the EU except Sweden and newly independent countries such as Tunisia and Libya, have endorsed the letter but as yet it has not been signed by the US.
In a statement, Switzerland said “the numerous allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria need to be investigated and those responsible on all sides of the conflict brought before court. ” Russia has called the request “ill-timed and counter-productive”.
Two interesting rumours about President Assad, both unconfirmed. One says, in reports originating from Saudi Intelligence, that he and his family are living safely on a Russian warship in the Mediterranean, Assad himself travelling to meetings in Damascus by helicopter. You can read more,HERE:
The second unconfirmed rumour is that Assad has given instructions that if he is assassinated then the military should launch rocket attacks against Israel, though the source of the information is the Arabic version of Russia Today (EDITOR: Not my favourite source of reliable postings!).
If you are in the West, next time you are comfortably filling up your car at the gas/petrol station, contemplate these pictures, guys smuggling plastic cans of gasoline from Iraq to Syria on their backs, through the snow with open-toed sandals, HERE:
Or these children living in concrete block buildings with no doors, no heating, not enough clothes and the ground covered with snow, in this BBC video HERE:
And lastly, just to lift your spirits a little bit, someone has done an “Syria job” on the old Hitler apoplectic rage excerpt from the film “Downfall”. Hitler, informed of the impending defeat of President Assad, loses it, HERE: