UN Observers say violence in Syria is ‘Unprecedented’

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Yesterday the NY Times carried an article about the assessment of Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the chief of the UN observer mission of conditions in Syria:

U.N. Commander Says Syria Violence Is ‘Unprecedented’
Published: July 5, 2012
LONDON — The officer commanding United Nations monitors in Syria said on Thursday that violence there has reached “unprecedented” levels, making it impossible for his unarmed observers to resume their work, which was suspended last month.
Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway, who commands the United Nations monitors, told reporters on Thursday that “the escalation of violence, allow me to say to an unprecedented level, obstructed our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue.”

It would be impossible to revive his mission without a cease-fire, General Mood said. But, in the third installment of an interview which Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper has published this week, Mr. Assad showed no readiness to heed either cease-fire calls or a plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the special envoy on Syria, for a transitional government.

A month ago, before they had even given up, the UN Observers found that they were not able to do their work, now they have stood down. The UN reported:

7 June 2012 –
United Nations observers in Syria have been obstructed in their attempts to reach the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir today, to verify reports of large-scale killings there.

“Their mission is being obstructed by three factors: First, they are being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back; second, some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area; thirdly, we are receiving information from residents of the area that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter the village,” the head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), Major-General Robert Mood, said in a statement.

“Despite these challenges, the observers are still working to get into the village to try to establish the facts on the ground,” he added.

There was another big protest rally in Aleppo today | July 6, 2012

Meanwhile on the military front the FSA takes out a Syrian Army convoy | July 6, 2012

The Wall St. Journal is carrying an interview with Abdo Husameddin, Syrian deputy oil minister who was one of the most important members of the Assad Regime to defect.

Mr. Husameddin attributes the lack of high-level defections largely to stepped-up security measures, a characterization echoed by other, lower-level state employees who have turned against the Assad regime. Safe passage out of the country is becoming increasingly tricky, Mr. Husameddin said, and there are few incentives to risk uprooting families and livelihoods to join a fragmented opposition.

Many state employees in Syria have turned against the regime but are staying in their jobs, he added, saying they are "defecting silently."

"When the regime falls, we need these people," he said. "We don't want the state to collapse. In fact, they will be beneficial in the next phase."

One former state employee, who worked as a teacher in a state school, characterized government institutions as "totally infiltrated" with informers. He said he had been detained twice over the past year for long periods on vague charges—in connection, he suspects, with writing outspoken comments against the government in Arabic chat-forums online and often writing letters to magazines in the Middle East.

His account couldn't be verified, but was consistent with recollections of Mr. Husameddin. The former teacher said the prospect of speaking out against the regime has become "pure suicide" in recent weeks as the crackdown has intensified.

Mr. Husameddin, 58 years old, worked in Syria's state-controlled oil industry for 33 years. He was long a member of Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party, and served as deputy minister of petroleum and mineral resources since 2009, one of two deputies under the minister. In the three decades before that, he held various executive positions at state-run oil companies, and as adviser to the minister.

Few government officials, he said, believe the government's version of Syria's uprising, which holds that the regime is battling foreign-backed terrorists. "Everyone inside government knows exactly what is going on," he said.

The turning point for Mr. Husameddin came, he said, after he heard officials in a meeting at the ministry openly agreeing that the opposition "deserved nothing less than to be rolled over by tanks."

From EAWorldView today we have this report:

1447 GMT: Syria. Dramatic images are emerging that reportedly show the heavy shelling of the Jouret al Shayah district of Homs today (map). This first video is from the very reliable Sham News Network. The other is from a series of videos from another usually reliable account, but the videos carry yesterday's date. If we had to guess, we'd say that the owner of the Youtube account is confused about the date. Then again, this neighborhood has been under nearly constant bombardment for weeks:

1444 GMT: Syria. More from today's protest in Kafranbel:

1414 GMT: Syria. There will be plenty of news about violence in Syria, but part of today's focus needs to be on the impressively large protests happening nationwide. The protests are the backbone of the revolution, as they are what give the Free Syrian Army legitimacy and what gives the Assad regime a direct challenge to his authority.

A large crowd in Majib, a relatively small town northeast of Aleppo (map):

The protests in the El Waer district of Homs rarely disappoint. Today's crowd is no exception (map):

Another very large protest in Aleppo, in the Bustan al Qusour district (map):

Another amazing video from the Salah el Dine district of Aleppo (map):

1352 GMT: Syria. The Guardian brings us the weekly "Kafranbel report," by posting the always-clever slogans from this small Idlib town (map). Here's today's entry:

Kafranbel is usually the uplifting story for the day, as Foreign Policy Magazine's collection of Kafranbel's colorful posters demonstrates, but Kafranbel is also an area that finds itself closer and closer to the epicenter of the fighting every single week.

1344 GMT: Syria. Earlier we carried LCC reports of a battle between FSA fighters and the military in Kafer Souseh, an important area of Damascus (map). Now, LCC reports two powerful explosions overheard in the area, and they have shared a video which reportedly shows the gunfire.

We've also discovered this video, which was clearly taken in Kafer Souseh based on the hill in the background, and matches the reports:

1150 GMT: Syria. Every Friday there are protests, but today's look particularly large. So far, however, the most impressive appears to be taking place in Aleppo, in the Saleh el Dine district (map):

A live-stream from Aleppo which appears to have stopped just moments ago but may start again:

1143 GMT: Syria. Another possible headline stealer - The LCCS reports heavy fighting between insurgents and the military in Kafer Souseh, a central district in Damascus:

Violent clashes are reported between the Regime's army and the Free Syrian Army near al-Na'aeem Mosque in order to free residents praying inside from the regime's siege.

The mosque is in the southwestern corner of arguably the most important neighborhood in Damascus (map) and is very close to the center of Assad's government and civic buildings. It's a story worth watching carefully as the day moves on.

1100 GMT: Syria.
According to French politician Laurent Fabius and other unnamed Western diplomats, Manaf Tlass, a high-ranking general in the Republican Guard, is now en route to France after having defected and traveled to Turkey.

This will be today's headline, and it could be the wrong headline. While Tlass's defection is notable, and a sure sign that more may follow, it is unclear how hard Bashar al Assad's former friends will push for regime change in Syria. So far, all we know is that he has left the regime, a move which may spark more defections, but is unlikely to, in and of itself, cause a major crisis for the regime.

And today there appears to be what could be more significant news (for now). According to The Guardian, the opposition stronghold of Khan Sheikoun, in Idlib province (map), has fallen to regime forces. According to Abu Haman, a rebel spokesman who spoke to Reuters, a large force of military, armor, and helicopters stormed the town:

The Free (Syrian) Army withdrew from the town last night after it ran out of ammunition, (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad's army is in control of it.

They are burning the houses. They have burned my own house. I see the smoke covering the sky from where I am now.

That's significant news. Khan Sheikoun is a strategic town, on the road between key cities in Idlib and Hama province. It's also a town that has been the focus of fairly regular military strikes for weeks, as have towns to the north. Earlier this week and late last week, evidence surfaced that Assad was pulling his armored units out of the mountains to concentrate on these crossroad towns. They are important to the regime.

But because of this, the fact that the military has taken the town is not a huge headline. The fact that, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, the death toll in the town could top 100, is.

If 100 or more are dead, this will become another major rallying cry for the opposition. Perhaps more significantly, it is a sure sign of how large a threat the insurgency poses the regime in south-central Idlib province.

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

0800 GMT: Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims regime forces have shelled the town of Darraya this morning, killing at least one civilian.

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