BREAKING: Syria issues a correction, it has no WMD to use

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Amidst all the rumors and concerns about the Assad regimes possible use of chemical or biological weapons in a final desperate attempt to crush the popular uprising, the Syrian government attempted to allay such fears and assure the international community that such concerns were misplaced. At a press conference in Damascus this morning Jihad Makdissi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said the chemical weapons were meant for foreign aggressors only and would not be used against the Syrian people, according to the NY Times. Robert Mackey of the NY Times also reported on the Syrian Official’s Statement on WMD on his blog July 23, 2012, 2:15 pm:

As video from Syrian state television shows, after reading the statement in Arabic, the spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said in English: “Any stocks of W.M.D. or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possess would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis.”

Video from Syrian state television of Jihad Makdissi, a foreign ministry spokesman, responding in English on Monday to reports that Syria could use chemical weapons against insurgents.

Mr. Makdissi added: “All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possess are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army. These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”

WMD? What WMD?

No sooner than the ink had dried on that headline, that the Information Minister, issued a correction, people were confused, Syria has no WMD:

DAMASCUS, (SANA) – Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said that foreign media and diplomatic sides misconstrued the Foreign Ministry statement and interpreted it however they like, taking it out of context, noting that the Foreign Ministry issued a statement clarifying this.
that when the Foreign Ministry spokesman says that Syria will not use chemical weapons against its people, then this doesn't mean that Syria has such weapons in the first place.

"They interpreted this answer as a saying that Syria admits to possessing chemical weapons; these are their wishes and obsessions, but the meaning is in a whole other context," he concluded.

If the Assad regime thinks that people "misconstrued" a statement that “All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possess are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army" to mean that Syria actually has such weapons, it is easy to see why negotiations with this regime go nowhere.

The earlier promise to use WMD "strictly in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic,” gave little enough solace given that the Assad regime already sees the current uprising as foreign aggression. Now that it has retreated to the position that it has no such weapons, all other promises are rendered moot. We can't even be assured that they are well guarded as promised because even that important goal may be compromised by the need to pretend they don't exist.

Of course, if you believe anything coming out of the Assad regime, then there is no need to put off that Damascus vacation you've been planning, according to a headline from the official news agency, SANA yesterday "Salehi: Situation in Damascus Normal and Calm."

In my search for a video of the Makdisi statement I found a new source of information on the Assad regime, straight from the horse's mouth, you might say, It is the SiriaNews YouTube channel. Its about three months old. The Assad regime is stepping up its propaganda game. This ten minute official Syrian news roundup contains the Makdisi statement.

Dr Makdisi Press conference "Chemical Weapon Won't Be Used Unless in Case of External Aggression".

And this one covers the meeting between Assad and his chief of staff two days ago. It also has the most video footage of Assad seen since the bombing. Notice that between 1:20 and 1:38, you can see Assad and the general talking but you don't hear anything. 18 seconds of dead air and watching lips move. Now how strange is that? Anybody know an Arabic lip reader?

Syria News 21 July 2012. Pres. Assad Receives army Gen, Army forces clean Al-Qaboun from terrorists

EAWorldView has this on Syria today:

Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: A Divided Country
Monday, July 23, 2012 at 13:29 | James Miller

Insurgents drive a captured tank on a highway near Izaz in northwest Syria

See also Yemen Feature: A New Leader Emerges in Taiz Turkey Special: Ankara is Overtaken By Events in Syria's Kurdistan Sunday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Fighting Reaches Aleppo

1948 GMT: Syria. Very interesting news from Aleppo - BBC's
Ian Pannell is in Syria, in Aleppo:

These reports match what we already know from residents, activists, and videos. But here is what we did not know:

Saleh el Dine (map) is in southwestern Aleppo, on the opposite side from today's heaviest fighting, an area where the largest protests have been, and an area that is not far from the Assad Military Academy and artillery bases south of the city:

View Syria - 2012 July 23 - EA Worldview in a larger map

1858 GMT: Syria. Last week, during the initial wave of fighting in Damascus, a large group of Assad's soldiers reportedly defected and joined the Free Syrian Army in Qaboun, a strategic suburb in northeast of Damascus (map). The defection turned the tide for the neighborhood, but by the weekend the FSA had withdrawn from the area, taking the fresh equipment and fighters with them in order to fight another day.

Zilal, who has many contacts in Damascus, tells us that the regime has retaliated against the civilians, looting homes and businesses, and destroying as many as 20 buildings. She also shares with us this video, taken today, of the International Red Crescent building in the area. The regime has held control of the area for days, so activists are saying that this damage could only be the result of the work of regime forces or loyalists:

1843 GMT: Syria. The death toll is once again over 100, according to the LCCS:

The number of martyrs in Syria has risen to 111 so far, among them 25 bodies found in Barzeh and 12 unidentified bodies, which had been tortured and burned, in Mouadamyet Al-Sham. 50 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 20 in Daraa, 14 in Aleppo, 7 in Homs, 7 in Deir Ezzor, 6 in Hama, 5 in Idlib, 1 in Latakia and 1 in Raqqa.

1750 GMT: Syria. Time for a quick check of the headlines from Damascus - the CFDPC, a network of activists who cover Damascus and the surrounding areas, post this report:

Signs of destruction in a house in the Mashrouh area of Barzeh in Damascus (map) after it was hit by a tank shell; electricity and water were cut off 5 days ago and tanks shell the area everyday.

The CFDPC also posts a series of videos showing large amounts of regime soldiers in Nahre Eshe (map), some of whom reportedly raided civilian homes. There is also a picture gallery of the Midan district (map), and the images are striking - this is a relatively important and central neighborhood of the capital, but it looks like a war zone.

The big news, however, is Mezzeh. The area, just west of the center of Assad's power (map), has been heavily shelled today, and regime troops have reportedly entered the area. Al Jazeera posts this report, along with an unverified video claiming to show bodies, via the Revolutionary Leadership Council of Damascus:

"A horrifying massacre against humanity was perpetrated today in Mazzeh No one can imagine that such crimes, full of hatred and rancor, can be committed in our time. What happened today is that many civilians were brutally killed by regime forces, they underwent summary execution. All bodies bear signs of torture, most of them received at least eight bullets, some of them particularly in the eyes, some of them were killed then run over by cars."

A second video reportedly shows widespread destruction in the area. It has also been shared by one of our contacts, Zilal, who is watching Damascus very closely:

1706 GMT: Syria/Lebanon. Al Jazeera offers up a story that is a testament to how chaotic Syria has become, as well as how weak the Assad regime is in its current state:

Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese president has delivered "a letter of protest" to Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to the neighbouring country after violations of the two nations' shared border over the weekend.

Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from the Lebanese capital says Sleiman's protest shows "growing concern in Lebanon" that the tensions in Syria may spill over across the sharted porous border.

Our correspondent said Sleiman's protest shows "how weak the Syrian government has become in the eyes of the people neighbouring countries", particularly because the Lebanese president had not protested the measures taken by the Assad government until this point.

1605 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordinating Committees of Syria now report that 82 people have been killed today, including 20 people, reportedly arrested yesterday, whose bodies have been found in Barzeh and 12 unidentified bodies found in the Mouadamieh district, two important sections of Damascus. The geographical breakdown of the dead is as follows:

44 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs, 11 in Daraa, 10 in Aleppo, 5 in Homs, 4 in Deir Ezzor, 4 in Idlib, 2 in Hama, 1 in Lattakia and 1 in Raqqa.

Despite the rising violence in Aleppo, most of the deaths are in Damascus, where the fighting is far more intense than government reports suggest.

There is another story, however, that has gone under-reported by both EA and the larger media for the past week or so - the fighting in Daraa province. Daraa, south of Damascus, is the location where the revolution started, but because of its proximity to Damascus, Jordan, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon, it is an area that the government has continuously suppressed since the start. The military appears determined to ensure that the Free Syrian Army do not gain a foothold here, a location that, if it fell to insurgent hands, would put Damascus in a pincer and would open yet another front in this civil war.

Despite the lack of insurgent gains in Daraa, the ongoing action there is noteworthy in that it requires huge amounts of the governments resources. In a far less calculating analysis, however, Daraa has paid dearly for its support of the opposition. Many lives have been lost, and the lives of the survivors is more desperate by the day.

1515 GMT: Syria. National Public Radio (NPR) has a reported in northern Syria, in the town of AlTima (map), west of Aleppo and on the border with Turkey. She has been talking with the townspeople about several topics - including the FSA's offensives, and the possibility of more support from the US and its allies.

This town, like so many in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, is completely controlled by insurgents. Protected by the town's remote location, fighting elsewhere, and the shadow of Turkey's weapons just across the border, the town illustrates the reason why the FSA has won there and is now on the march.

But this conflict is likely far from over, and as some residents reflect, many are hoping that the US will intervene and push this teetering regime over:

You can't send troops, you can't enforce a no-fly zone, they say. We know that. But why not send more weapons? The rifles and rocket-propelled grenades we're getting from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not enough, they say. Why not help us coordinate our operations, like NATO advisers did in Libya?

One resident later tells me he has seen two undercover Americans passed through here. He says one gave the rebels a couple of high-end sniper rifles. The other was interested in the types of helicopters used by the Syrian regime.

1357 GMT: Syria. Checking with more sources, it appears that the military did temporarily retreat from eastern Aleppo, but the LCCS warns that this was only temporary:

Military reinforcements, consisting of 5 tanks, are heading in the direction of Sakhour and the eastern neighborhoods.

1347 GMT: Syria. We'll only touch on this lightly today, but we've been thinking about several scenarios that have been haunting our sleep - what if the Free Syrian Army succeeds, and the people who defeated Assad are in control of the country? What if Assad wins, but Syria is embattled in years of civil war? What if the Syrian insurgency eventually does win, but it takes years of intense fighting, and a high death toll, to topple the regime? What will the average Syrian think about the world? NPR reports:

1333 GMT: Syria. Another video shows a destroyed tank in the Sakhour district of Aleppo (map).

What's striking - with 1 tank reportedly captured, and 2 destroyed, there are no signs of regime reinforcements or gunfire in this video. The regime forces have either retreated or have been entirely destroyed in this battle (likely the former).

Looking at our map of the fighting in Syria's largest city, which we will update throughout the day the fighting is happening in the west, perhaps the opposite direction than we would have predicted. The FSA is strongest in the suburbs to the northwest, and will likely be advancing towards the city from the direction of Haritan. Fighting in eastern districts of Aleppo could draw Assad forces away from the advancing insurgents in the suburbs, and potentially puts Assad forces in a pincer if FSA reinforcements arrive.

There are also reports that regime forces have started deploying snipers in these areas, and casualties are mounting as a result. Snipers being deployed is a sign that the regime may be trying to wear the FSA down, but it's also a sign that the FSA may hold some ground for the rest of the day. Clearly, the Free Syrian Army fighters in the area were stronger than the regime anticipated, and if Damascus is any indication the military will likely retreat and rethink its approach before making another serious attempt to reclaim these districts.

This video shows a field hospital that has been set up in eastern Aleppo to treat injured FSA fighters:

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

1240 GMT: Syria - UPDATED. A dramatic image in this video from Aleppo --- at the 2-minute mark, a tank is set on fire in the Sakhour district (map). According to activists, 1 tank has been captured and 2 destroyed:

An 8-minute clip of street fighting in the Hanano district (map):

1236 GMT: Syria. Oksana Boyko of Russia Today sends a message and photograph:

1229 GMT: Syria. A resident of Damascus has told The Guardian that Syrian forces have cleared almost all the capital of insurgents, saying the Midan section, site of almost a week's fighting, "is back to normal" and noting the regime campaign encouraging people to return.

The resident said the nearby neighbourhood of Mezzeh was not fully under regime control, with an orchard on the eastern side of the district used as an insurgent hideout. He added:

Militia are getting more and more weapons and money from outside. They are getting stronger and that's clear. Nobody knows what will happen in the future.

1157 GMT: Iraq. The death toll from this morning's bombs (see 0825 GMT) is now at least 89, with at least 223 wounded.

In Taji, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Baghdad, six explosions --- including a car bomb --- went off near a housing complex, followed by a blast that hit police who had arrived at the scene. At least 32 people, including 14 police officers, were killed with 48 injured.

Two car bombs in Shi'a areas in and near Baghdad killed 11 people and wounding 73. In Kirkuk, five car bombs killed six people and wounded 17, while explosions and gun attacks on security checkpoints around Diyala Province, killed six people, including four soldiers and policemen, and wounded 30.

Two car bombs parked near a military checkpoint killed five people and wounded 22 in the town of Khan Bani Saad, 30 kilometres (19 miles) northeast of Baghdad. Gunmen killed four soldiers and wounded five in an attack on a checkpoint in the town of Udhaim, 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of the capital.

1124 GMT: Syria. Massoud Barzani,the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, has said it is training Syrian Kurdish fighters who will be sent back to the country to defend their territory.

“A good number of the young Kurds who fled have been trained. We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained."

Barzani said the fighting force, made up largely of Syrian Kurds who deserted the army and made their way across the border, would take its orders from a new high committee between two major Kurdish opposition groups in early July.

“They have not been sent to Syria. They are still here - if this high committee requires them to go they still could --- if not they will wait for the situation to be sorted out because these people are from these areas and they will go back eventually,” Barzani said. “This was aimed at filling the vacuum that will be created.”

1117 GMT: Syria. An interesting passage in the first-hand account of the BBC's Paul Wood from an insurgent-held town near Damascus:

The men showing us around are with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There is another, rival armed group here: the Salafis --- hardline Islamists. They are the biggest group in this town, because they are getting guns and money from outside while the FSA is relatively poor.

There are even two rival media centres attached to each group. Abu Mohammed is with the Free Army's.

"We want a civil state," he says. "We have Christians here. What would happen to them under Sharia?"

The Salafis are calling for an Islamic emirate, he goes on. "But that is not the time for that. Now is the time to finish the regime."

1109 GMT: Syria. Insurgents try to repel a regime attack near Jabal al-Zawiya in the northwest:

Claimed footage of insurgents capturing a regime tank in the Sakhour section of Aleppo (map):

A LiveStream this morning showed Free Syrian Army fighters on the streets of the Tareeq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo (map).

1055 GMT: Syria. Back from an academic break to find the declaration from Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi that Damascus will not use chemical weapons in the internal conflict.

The spokesman declared, "No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."

Makdisi asserted, "Syria will never use (chemical weapons) against Syrians no matter what."

Earlier today, the Arab League offered President Assad a "safe exit" for him and his family if he gave up power.

A meeting of foreign ministers of the League's members also promised $100 million for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.

The European Union strengthened its arms embargo and increased sanctions against the Assad regime, imposing asset freezes and travel bans against 26 more officials and banning EU companies from doing business with three more Syrian entities.

In addition, under new embargo rules, EU governments will also be required to search airplanes and ships suspected of carrying weapons or other banned equipment into Syria.

0825 GMT: Iraq. At least 39 people have been killed and 118 wounded in bombings today.

The explosions included a car bomb and a suicide attack in and around the Iraqi capital Baghdad, as well as four car bombs in the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

On Sunday, at least 17 people were slain by bombs across the country.

0640 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report that 111 people were killed by security forces on Sunday, including 65 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0540 GMT: Syria. Most headlines this morning are focusing on the clashes in Damascus and the largest city Aleppo, with regime forces trying to clear areas of insurgents, more than a week after the Free Syrian Army attacked the capital.

However, there is a significant story building beyond the two cities. While President Assad's military have tried to deny the opposition both territory and the symbolic victory of a presence in the regime's heartland, the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish forces have been claiming a series of towns in the northwest and northeast of the country.

The FSA may not have the forces to hold all its gains --- the Syrian military retook two of three posts on the Iraqi border, occupied last week by the insurgents --- but there is no sign that the Kurds will be dislodged. Indeed, this weekend the two largest Kurdish groups announced plans to appoint a ruling council to run affairs in the area.

Instead, the regime appears to be trying to hold larger towns and cities. Fighting was reported through the weekend in Qamishli in the Kurdish northeast, and Deir Ez Zor, Syria's seventh largest city, may soon be contested. The big prizes of Homs and Hama will be out of reach of a direct offensive by the Free Syrian Army, but the opposition will be hoping to build strength among the residents, hoping to erode support for an Assad regime shaken after last week's attacks and Damascus bombing.

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