Syria Live Coverage: Is Assad’s Military Collapsing? / Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 15:26 | James Miller in EA Live, EA Middle East and Turkey,

See also Syria Analysis with Videos: The Insurgent Advances Across the Country / Monday’s Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: On “Quiet” Sunday, 78 People Are Killed

1640 GMT: Syria. A new statement from the Al-Taweed Brigade in Aleppo (Arabic):

 Liwaa al-Tawhid released statement saying they support National Coalition as long as it doesn’t marginalise them…

Yesterday there was a statement put out by Al-Taweed that neither their brigade nor the Al Nusra Front would accept the leadership of the new National Coalition. However, activists threw cold water on this theory and claimed that it was made by a small group of people claiming to represent the group. Perhaps there was division inside the Taweed Brigade yesterday, and those differences have been ironed out. Either way, a unified front is particularly important in Aleppo right now, where the hard-line IIslamists have been cooperating with the other Syrian opposition groups, but the relationship has been tense.

1621 GMT: Syria. More reports of intense shelling of Darayya – the Shaam News Network uploads this video, reportedly showing several explosions in the city:

1606 GMT: Syria/Israel. According to the Israeli news agency YNet, Syrian troops have once again fired across the border, this time hitting an IDF vehicle:

    Shots fired from Syria on Tuesday hit an IDF jeep traveling near the Tel Hazeka outpost in the central Golan Heights region. The vehicle was damaged by what is thought to be stray gunfire from the continued fighting in Syria, but there were no reports of injury. The soldiers did not return fire.

According to the report shots were fired across the border 4 times last week alone.

1529 GMT: Syria. There are concerns that a new type of ammunition is being used against insurgents (and civilians) in Idlib province:

 Multiple sources report that this shell (or possibly a bomb dropped by the airforce, it’s unclear), created secondary explosions. Some have even reported that the smoke is poisonous. More likely, this looks like the fires set by the explosion are burning for long periods of time after the shells fall, possibly because an incendiary is being used inside smaller shells (an incendiary cluster bomb?).

Either way, the pattern is that the areas around the front lines are getting bombed and shelled with greater frequency as the Assad military becomes frustrated at their lack of progress.

1447 GMT: Syria. According to the latest tally by the Local Coordination Committees, 40 people have already been killed today by Assad forces, and almost none of them are where one would expect the deaths to be:

    20 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (10 of them were martyred in Daraya), 8 martyrs in Aleppo, 7 martyrs in Lattakia, 3 martyrs in Idlib, 1 martys in Raqqa and 1 martyrs in Hasaka.

First, see our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

Second, ignoring for a moment that half of today’s deaths are in Damascus, what’s amazing is that the deaths in Lattakia (a regime “stronghold”), Al Raqqah, and Hassakah, nearly outnumber the deaths in Aleppo and Idlib (with no reported deaths in Homs, Hama, or Daraa). In other words, even though these numbers are small and just a single sample, the quietest areas of the conflict, thus far, are starting to look like the new front lines.

Beyond this – Damascus is a mess. We’ve covered the fighting in Darayya, but other areas have also been hard hit. Take this livestream, for instance, reportedly shot in Douma, northeast of the capital, today: Or this incredible video which reportedly shows a shell fall on a cemetery at approximately the same time as a funeral procession was occurring in Dumair, northwest of Damascus:

1426 GMT: Syria. A reader shares with us several livestreams from Darayya, including the one I’ve posted below which was taken a few hours ago:

20 Nov 12

The CFDPC, a network of activists who report on Damascus and its suburbs, provide a video gallery and this summary:

    Since early morning regime forces began to shell with artillery the eastern areas while MIG fighter jets shelled residential areas in the middle of Daraya. Regime forces continue in their attempt to storm the area from several sides with tanks, armored vehicles and hundreds of soldiers.

    Martyrs of Daraya Brigade, with the help of other brigades of FSA, managed to reject the assault of regime forces for the 4th consecutive day.

1413 GMT: Syria. According to State Television, Syrian rebels fired mortar shells, two of which hit the roof of the Information Ministry in Damascus. Furthermore, Reuters reports that the Syrian military is getting bogged down in their attempts to establish control over an important suburb just west of Damascus:

    Fierce fighting has since erupted in Daraya, which is on the southwestern edge of Damascus. The rebels in the area have deployed near the main southern highway leading out of the capital city, opposition activists said.  Elite Republican Guard troops backed by tanks were trying to storm Daraya but met with fierce resistance from rebels there, who have regrouped after a big army offensive on the area killed an estimated 1,100 people six weeks ago.

Just southeast of Darayya, near Hajar al Aswad, is where the FSA sacked the air-defense base yesterday. It is noteworthy that battles of this nature are not happening hundreds of miles away, but on the doorstep of the regime.

1342 GMT: Syria. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague has made a major announcement today:

    “Her majesty’s government has decided to recognize the national coalition of Syrian revolution and opposition forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Hague told parliament. The statement could not be more clear. The UK now joins the rest of the EU, the Arab League, and the GCC in this sentiment. Add this to news that Turkey has secured an order of Patriot Missiles from NATO, and it could mean that the west is, at the very least, dramatically increasing diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and, at most, potentially preparing for the possibility of a no-flyz zone over northern Syria.

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

1111 GMT: Syria. Activists claims that insurgents have raided an air defense base in the north, capturing more than half of it.

The fighters attacked Sheikh Suleiman, 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the Turkish border and 30 kilometres (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo. The battle is ongoing.

“The fighters have taken three artillery pieces and have entered most of the base. Fighter jets are flying over the area to try and force them out,” said Abu Mujahed al-Halabi of the opposition Sham News Network.An insurgent source said the fighters took large stocks of explosives from the site and will soon withdraw to avoid retaliatory airstrikes.

1036 GMT: Syria.. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that NATO member states have agreed to supply Turkey with an advanced Patriot missile system to defend against Syrian attacks.Turkey has been talking to NATO allies about security on its 900-kilometre (560-mile) frontier with Syria after recent episodes in which Syrian mortar rounds landed inside Turkey and Ankara’s forces responded with artillery.

“The countries who supply NATO with Patriot systems are known, we have reached an agreement with those countries. The official application will be completed as soon as possible,” Davutoğlu said. “Intensive work is underway and the talks have reached the final stage.”

0715 GMT: Syria. James Miller summarizes why his conclusions were so strong yesterday:

Each day provides new evidence, in the form of YouTube videos and activist reports posted to social media pages, of what is happening in Syria. Sometimes, eyewitness reports are quickly verified by YouTube videos, foreign journalists, or other forms of triangulation. Often, however, the video evidence is light, inconclusive, or non-existent. Obviously, sometimes this is because the rumors are just that. Sometimes, however, there are activities performed by both the Assad regime and the insurgency that are just poorly documented. In isolation, this is not a big deal, as each individual incident is so sadly inconsequential in a country where more than 40,000 people have died. Collectively, however, these badly-documented incidents have hidden several trends.

EA is always cautious with what it posts, relying on claims and trends that have the strongest evidence. However, at several points in this conflict there have been collections of bad data that suggested that EA, and the media at large, was missing a trend. For several weeks there has been a growing number of rumors, low-quality Youtube videos, and eyewitness reports that suggested that not only was the FSA winning in Deir Ez Zor, Lattakia, and Aleppo, but it was on the brink of major victories in all three provinces. Similarly, there is a growing body of inconclusive evidence that the FSA is surging in Daraa province, and was increasingly effective in and around Damascus. While individual reports of this nature may or may not each be true, the trend lines were beginning to look clear.

For more than a week, however, that body of evidence has been harder and harder to dismiss as noise and rumor. With well documented victories yesterday, the FSA has encouraged us to post headlines that we have been sitting on for a long time.

Two trends are clear – The Assad regime is retreating, pulling many units towards the capital and leaving its garrisons to fend for themselves – and they are fending poorly. Meanwhile, the FSA continues to ratchet up pressure on the capital, and despite the fact that Damascus is now the highest priority of the Assad military, those advances are accelerating.

Is it a state of collapse? Perhaps it’s too early to say, and we’re not predicting a sudden collapse even if that were true. Regardless, it is my conclusion that we have been too cautious in estimating the strengths of the insurgency, and this is saying something because we have been consistently more hawkish (and I would argue more accurate) than many media outlets who assess the strength of the Syrian insurgents.

In the last four days, the Free Syrian Army has won clear victories in Aleppo province, capturing the 12 kilometer long base belonging to the regime’s 46th regiment, and capturing many pieces of important weaponry in the process. There are many reports that the FSA siege of the Wadi al Daif base near Ma’arrat al Nouman has intensified, and the insurgents have destroyed more key equipment there in recent days. There are also reports that the FSA is pushing further northeast on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. Meanwhile, all the FSA forces that have been sieging the 46th regiment’s base will be free to push south towards Idlib and east towards Aleppo. The trend is clear – eventually, without a complete reversal of fate, the FSA will have a united front from Lattakia to Aleppo city. The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months, and without fresh supplies and reinforcements for the Assad military, and in light of significant surges in troops and equipment in the ranks of the insurgents, this trend is unlikely to reverse.

In 4-5 days the FSA has captured Al Bukamal, the Hamdan air base outside of it, and anotehr major airbase near Deir Ez Zor. It is clear that the FSA has broken the stalemate in the east, and with Assad forces focused on the west, the insurgents may pick up momentum. Either way, they have also captured lots of equipment, while knocking out several of Assad’s largest and most feared air bases.

In Damascus, in 2 days the FSA has captured at least 2 major bases, and possibly a third (one to the east, 1-2 in the southwest). The FSA is also pushing deeper into the suburbs on both sides of the city. Beyond this, the FSA has captured at least 3 other major air defense bases to the east of the city in the last two months. While the insurgents have not tried to hold these bases, they have been raided for equipment. It is also possible that the FSA has now captured so much anti-aircraft weaponry in the region that the regime’s airforce is afraid to directly attack the insurgents. This is a hypothesis, but one that we’re uncertain of. Regardless, the stepped-up efforts to focus on Damascus have not resulted in a weakened insurgency.

Things to watch for – there were reports of large battles inside Hama and inside al Hassakah, two other regions that are now in play. Whether these are skirmishes, or the start of larger campaigns, is not known. Similarly, in Lattakia, the FSA continues to push deeper into the mountains, slowly working its way towards the coast, and in Daraa there are now daily reports of battles between the regime and insurgents. The FSA is not yet in a position to directly establish control of either region, but these battles will distract the Assad regime and eat away at the Assad military. Furthermore, if the FSA is not taken seriously in both places, it is possible to have a relatively small force of insurgents capture territory, which would significantly broaden the fronts.

The trends are extremely clear – the Assad regime is foundering militarily. But it still has considerably strength, in pure numbers, bases, tanks and territory, that it will have to shed before it completely collapses.

0550 GMT: Syria. As I was editing and posting James Miller’s analysis of the military situation yesterday, he and I discussed the conclusion. I had slightly toned down his portrayal of the scale of insurgent victories over the last 72 hours, so he asked, “My conclusion on the syria piece too strong? It’s my understanding that the regime has lost huge amounts of territory.”  I replied, “Maybe not but let’s give this a few days to see if these advances ‘bed down’.”

Within hours, my caution may have been obsolete. In a series of notable developments yesterday afternoon and evening, the Free Syrian Army and other units took regime positions, including airbases. They did so not only in the north, where we had been expecting the advance, but also around Damascus. Opposition fighters advanced to the northeast of the capital, took position in al-Hajar al-Aswas to the south, and made progress in East Ghouta to the east.

Miller summarised, “It’s not clear from either Reuters nor our own sources whether these victories were any larger than we initially thought,” but he came back to our conversation earlier in the day with this observation:

    This does not diminish the narrative that the Assad military is in serious trouble. Even though the regime’s military may be collapsing, it still has a lot of territory to lose before it implodes.

Is this the start of both a military and a political endgame? I suspect EA staff will continue the discussion today, with my own position that we are somewhere in the middle — beyond any hope that the regime can re-establish control, but still not at the point where the departure of President Assad and his inner circle is imminent.