BRAKING: Obama stops Putin from re-arming Assad in Syria

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As half of the 300 UN Observers pack their bags and go home, battles rage in Damascus and Aleppo. The Assad regime has managed to gain control of all but a few outlying neighborhoods of Damascus by turning opposition communities into a bloody mess.

Now as jet planes and helicopter gunships pummel Aleppo, I have seen tweets about a Syrian Army convoy of 170 vehicles, including many tanks, headed for Aleppo. Many Free Syrian Army forces are also converging on Aleppo and tomorrow and this weekend look like it will be a very bloody one for the people of Aleppo in what some are calling a decisive battle for the uprising.

Meanwhile on the international front, things are also happening, and largely outside of the UN framework. While I have seen nothing that convinces me that Bashar al-Assad even survived the blast last week, most international actors now realize that his regime cannot survive much longer and the great powers that a few weeks ago seemed at each other throats over Syria, are now more and more collaborating to manage the Syria crisis to deny the people the fruits of the revolution and put in place a transitional government acceptable to them.

It was already rumored that at Rio 2012, Obama and Putin agreed not to disrupt the balance of great powers in the region and that post-Assad Syria would "belong" to Russia so they could keep their base and economic interests. Now it looks like top defector General Tlass is being positioned as a "transitional leader." Many with the opposition suspect that his "defection" was really planned with exactly that role in mind. I have already written a little about the fascist background of the Tlass family and their connection to the French right-wing, today EAWorldView has a special feature I would like to direct your attention to: US Promoting General Tlass as "Transitional Leader"?

I reported on the first indications of a new agreement between Obama and Putin yesterday when I report how Moscow joined in warning the Assad regime not to even consider using its chemical weapons. Today comes word that Obama has convinced Russia to stop providing arms to the Assad regime. From Al Arabiya today:

U.S. convinced Russia to stop sending arms shipments to Syria: Obama adviser
By Muna Shikaki | Thu Jul 26, 2012 07:47 am (KSA) 04:47 am (GMT)

The U.S. administration has managed to convince Russia to stop sending some arms shipments to the Syrian regime, including helicopters that were repaired and were in the process of being sent back to Damascus, an adviser for the campaign of President Barack Obama said.

Michelle Flournoy, who was the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy up until February, defended the Obama administration’s position of not arming the Syrian rebels at a foreign policy debate organized by the Brookings Institution.

“We have had some significant success in preventing Russia from resupplying and rearming the Syrian military. If we were to launch a major American weapons supply program to the opposition, we would lose a lot of leverage with Russia and it could basically open the floodgate for Russia to resupply the Syrian military in full and that would be pouring fuel on the flames on what is looking like an increasingly deadly conflict,” Flournoy said.

More later on these fast breaking developments...

Today EAWorldView had these reports on the struggle in Syria:

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting Continues in Aleppo and Damascus
Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 15:39 | James Miller

A mass rally on Wednesday night in al-Hamdania in Aleppo in Syria

See also, Syria Feature: US Promoting General Tlass as "Transitional Leader"? (Solomon/Dagher)

1530 GMT: Syria. Usually, news revolving around Twitter, or a news agency, revolves around what they write. Today, however, the news is about what hasn't been written.

SANA, the Syrian government's news agency and favorite mouthpiece, hasn't had their website working in days, and it was down several times last week as well. What's even more interesting is that their Twitter account has also been silent.

We could only begin to speculate as to why this is the case, but EA's John Horne suddenly remembered an item posted by activist Rami al Jarrah on Facebook last week:

This is very significant: Syrian State TV is repeating a warning message to its viewers cautioning them "there is an attempt in the process to create a replica of the Syrian Satellite channel and this replica will be on the same frequency and the presenters or journalists on this replica channel might be the same as of the official channel because they might be forced to but this is a conspiracy and if this occurs do not worry this is fake".

can we not officially say that the Syrian regime is expecting a coup?

1511 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordinating Committees report a high death toll already today. In their latest report, they claim 91 have been killed so far:

25 martyrs were reported in Daraa; including 22 in Al-A'ajamy Valley, 19 in Aleppo, 16 in Idlib, 12 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 9 in Homs, 4 in Hama, 5 in Deir Ezzor, and 1 in Qunaitra.

The death toll in Daraa is a forgotten headline, but we've been saying for days that the increased violence there is a symbol of the struggle of the military to control an area that could pose a direct threat to Damascus should it fall into insurgent hands.

1500 GMT: Syria. Channel 4's Alex Thomson is in Damascus, and he reports that the Syrian government is not allowing him to film much of what he sees. Among the things he's seen - entire neighborhoods being bulldozed by the Assad regime in and around the capital. This report is from Harasta (map), but similar reports have come from many neighborhoods, in both the north and the south of the capital, as well as the suburbs to the east.

Bashar al Assad seems to believe that he can save his capital city by bulldozing it.

1449 GMT: Syria. Winning the hearts and minds? Certainly, it's a sign of how much control the FSA has over the center of Aleppo that they are cleaning the streets today:

1440 GMT: Syria. We expected to focus on Aleppo today, but we're surprised at the amount of violence in Damascus. LCC now reports that "dozens" of people were killed in Seit Zaynab (map):

Dozens were martyred and others wounded in Mashtal district when regime forces detonated bombes and heavily fired on Mansoor street.

Beyond the locations we've already talked about, we've already seen reports of shelling in Yalda, Hjiera, and Moadamya (map). This level of violence suggests that the Syrian capital is nowhere near as secure as the regime says it is.

A map shows locations of today's reports:

View Syria - 2012 July 26 - EA worldview in a larger map

1318 GMT: Syria. Libyan fighters heading to Turkey to fight the Syrian regime? Mary Fitzgerald of the Irish Times has an anecdotal report:

1259 GMT: Syria. An activist working with a network of contacts in and around Damascus, Zilal, both Dumair, northeast of Damascus (map) and Daraya, southwest of Damascus not far from other fighting (map), have been heavily shelled today. Compiling reports from many sources, it appears that elements of the Free Syrian Army who scored many hits on Assad's tanks in Al Asali (map) yesterday have pulled back to Hajar al Aswad (map), where heavy fighting continues.

Yesterday there were reports that somewhere between 2 and 6 tanks were destroyed in Al Asali (with rumors of 6 more damaged) by the FSA. Today, partially because of the withdrawal, there does not appear to be videos of the tanks themselves. But there are other videos. Zilal explains:

There are no videos showing the destroyed tanks; there are only these 2 videos on a youtube channel of the Islam battalion and according to the description the Omayyad Brigade (belonging to the Islam Battalion) targets 2 different tanks:

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us to the afternoon.

1222 GMT: Syria. The inspiration for the rush of articles, such as in The Guardian (see 1115 GMT), pushing General Manaf Tlass as a leader of the opposition? Step forward, Wall Street Journal, which has been fed with the line by US, European, and Arab officials that Tlass, who defected last month, could be "at the center of a political transition">

We post the article in a separate feature.

Meanwhile, The Guardian profits from all sides of the speculation, also putting out a question mark over Tlass:

In an article posted on the Jadaliyya website, Bassam Haddad describes some scary meetings with Manaf Tlass while researching the development of capitalism in Syria (and the related corruption):

"On reform, he asserted the importance of gradualism, a Hafez al-Asad mantra, one that suits the reformers' timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries. But he was also unabashed in asserting the need for top-down control, which to him transcended questions of right and wrong, or democracy and authoritarianism.

The regime had to guide the reform process based on a holistic view, one that takes into account local and regional variables. I interjected that this approach is the norm for regimes like Syria's because reform is not the goal. He did not correct me, and reasserted the need for control.

1129 GMT: Syria. According to citizen journalist Mahmoud Nassar, insurgents in Damascus have retreated to the southern district of Hajar Aswad, under attack for the last six hours.

While the regime has restored control of parts of the capital, Nassar said clashes continue across south of the city.

Nassar mentioned civilian casualties that he had seen, such as a man working on the tyres of his car when he was killed by a tank shell and another man shot by a sniper while shopping for bread. He claimed that regime forces were using heavy machine guns to attack an area that included a Palestinian hospital and that helicopters were firing machine guns and rockets at an area to the south of Hajar Aswad that includes a military base

Nasser suggested that the insurgents were trying to create a safe haven in the Yarmouk camp, where most Palestinians supported the opposition.

1115 GMT: Syria. The Guardian claims, from "Syrian National Council officials and foreign diplomats", that
Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, the confidante of President Assad who defected last month, is being promoted as the "head of an Egyptian-style supreme military council".

The only source cited by The Guardian is General Mustafa al-Sheikh, one of the first generals to join the Free Syrian Army, as it claims "immediate objections that the Republican Guard officer is too closely associated with the regime".

Meanwhile, Tlass has told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat, after a visit to Saudi Arabia, "I am discussing with ..people outside Syria to reach a consensus with those inside. I try to help the best I can to unite the honourable people inside and outside Syria to set out a road map to get Syria out of this crisis.

I realise this is a difficult phase...It's difficult for one person to bear the responsibility of such a phase. A group (including opposition) from inside and outside Syria should cooperate to accomplish this phase.

1105 GMT: Syria. Back from an academic break to find video of a declaration by defecting official Talal Houshan, who was the head of the regime-appointed commission to investigate the mass killing in al-Qubair last month.

Reading a prepared statement, Houshan accuses the Syrian government and its shabiha supporters of killing women and children:

0650 GMT: Syria. A demonstration in the Waer section of Homs on Wednesday night

0630 GMT: Syria. Zeina Khodr of Al Jazeera English reports on Syrians returning from Lebanon, having fled during fighting in the capital:

Some undoubtedly couldn't afford to stay in Lebanon for a long time but many put on a brave face.

They said that their relatives and friends informed them that it was now safe to return to their neighborhoods. But you could feel their fear and anxiety because they know the conflict in their country is far from over. The battle for Syria will have to be won in Damascus.

CNN's Ivan Watson is in northwest Syria, amid insurgents and their families:

0515 GMT: Syria. Amid reports of regime troops being pulled back from other fronts to deal with insurgents in Aleppo, clashes continued in Syria's largest city on Wednesday. There were reports that the Free Syrian Army had captured and/or destroyed a police station, and insurgents showed off what they claimed was a large haul of weapons from regime forces.

Damascus, where insurgents had supposedly been cleared, also saw fighting yesterday in the al-Asali district, and we are keeping an eye on Deir Ez Zor in the northeast, where the Free Syrian Army --- if it can co-ordinate its units --- may make a move on the city.

The Local Coordinating Committees reports that 129 people died at the hands of security forces on Wednesday: 27 in Damascus and its suburbs, 22 in Aleppo Province, 21 in Homs Province, 15 in Hasakeh Province, 12 in Hama Province, 12 in Idlib Province, 11 in Deir Ez Zor Province, and 9 in Daraa Province.

Here are my related diaries on Syria:
Syria: Foreign meddling increases as crisis builds
BREAKING: Arab League asks Assad to step down!
Bashar al-Assad: New images released as slaughter continues in Syria
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BREAKING: Activists report toxic gas attack in Deir ez-Zor, Syria
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BREAKING: I know where Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is!
BREAKING: Massive Fire near #Assad's Presidential Palace in #Damascus, #Syria
BREAKING: Is Syria's Bashar al-Assad dead or dying?
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