UPDATED: US fears massacre in #Aleppo, #Syria

July 26th: Remember this day in Revolutionary history

Last Updated 27 July 2012 | 1:18pm pst

Some of the most shameful days in recent world history are likely to happen in Aleppo this weekend. Aleppo is Syria's most populous city with 2.5 million people in it. I reported this morning about the Syrian armored columns and buses full of shabiha thugs headed for Aleppo. The Assad regime has already been "softening up" the rebellious sections of the city with artillery, helicopter gunships and even fixed wing jets. Now it is amassing troops for a big ground campaign and we have seen what that has meant in the past on a much smaller scale. Now even the US State Department is speaking out about the looming massacre.

This looks to be a very bloody event for the people of Syrian and a very shameful one for the people of the world. Shameful because everyone sees this coming and nothing is being done to stop it. Shameful because nothing meaningful has been done after the Assad regime rained down bombs and shells on Homs, Hama and Idlib for so many months. Shameful because its planes have been allowed to fly even as its helicopter gunships raked civilian neighborhoods with canon fire, and more shameful as it started to use its jets to kill civilians and the response of the world, on the eve of this massacre, was to send half of the UN observers home.

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British Foreign Secretary William Hague has issued a statement saying that he was "deeply concerned" and from the Washington Post we have this report:

U.S. fears massacre in Syrian offensive in Aleppo
By Khaled Yacoub Oweisand Mariam Karouny, Thursday, July 26, 5:38 PM

AMMAN, Jordan — President Bashar al-Assad’s forces renewed a ground and aerial bombardment of Aleppo on Friday, trying to crush rebels in Syria’s commercial capital in what the United States said it feared could become a massacre.

Insurgents targeted army roadblocks and security installations, with both sides avoiding close-quarters warfare in the city of 2.5 million people, Syria’s biggest urban center.

The State Department said credible reports of tank columns moving on Aleppo, along with airstrikes by airplanes and helicopters, represented a serious escalation of Assad’s efforts to crush a rebellion that began 16 months ago.

“This is the concern: that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Troops stationed on the outskirts of Aleppo unleashed barrages of heavy mortar rounds on the western neighborhoods of Saladin, al-Sukkari and al-Fardos, while Russian-made MI-25 helicopter gunships struck al-Sakhour in the east with rockets, several opposition activists in the city said.

In the first reported casualty Friday, a man of about 60 was killed near a park in Saladin. Thirty-four people were killed in Aleppo and its environs Thursday, according to opposition activists keeping a tally of casualties in the northern city.

“The rebels have so far been nimble, and civilians have mostly been the victims of the bombardment,” said activist Abu Mohammad al-Halabi, speaking by phone from the city.

“There is lots of internal displacement, and schools have been turned to makeshift shelters that are packed. One shell hitting a school will result in a catastrophe,” he said.

“The regime is massing troops and tanks at the entrances of Aleppo, but it seems it is for now content with bombarding the city, with the rebels constantly on the move.”

Majed al-Nour, another activist, said rebels Thursday attacked a security outpost in the neighborhood of Bustan al-Joz, which is close to the Aleppo city center.

“The rebels are present in the east and west of the city and have a foothold in areas of the center. The regime forces control the entrances of Aleppo and the main thoroughfares and commercial streets and are bombarding the residential districts that fell into rebel hands,”

he said.

Nour said tens of thousands of people had fled Aleppo to nearby rural regions close to Turkey, from which the Syrian army has withdrawn in recent weeks to focus on urban areas.

Demonstration in Aleppo today, people asking God for help after everybody else forgot them.

Even as Assad's goons encircle Aleppo, massive anti-government protests continue | 27 July 2012

Al Arabiya News is reporting:

Syrian opposition braces for ‘mother of all battles’ in Aleppo
Fri Jul 27, 2012 07:05 am (KSA) 04:05 am (GMT)

Syrian opposition forces braced Friday for a decisive “mother of all” battle in Aleppo against President Bashar al-Assad’s army battling to retake the country’s commercial capital in what the United States said it feared could become a massacre.

The Syrian army has been sending waves of reinforcements towards the northern city, and Troops stationed on the outskirts of Aleppo unleashed barrages of heavy-caliber mortar rounds on the western neighborhoods of Saladin, al-Sukkari and al-Fardos, while Russian MI-25 helicopter gunships struck al-Sakhour in the east with rockets, several opposition activists in the city said.

“The special forces were deployed on Wednesday and Thursday on the edges of the city, and more troops have arrived to take part in a generalized counter-offensive on Friday or Saturday,” a security source told AFP of Aleppo.

Opposition fighters also brought in reinforcements, with the source estimating that between 1,500 and 2,000 opposition fighters had arrived from outside Syria’s most populous city to reinforce some 2,000 already fighting inside Aleppo.

“They are mainly present in the southern and eastern suburbs of the city, mainly Salaheddin and nearby districts,” he said.

The airport was cut off from the city, as four of the five roads leading to it were under rebel control, he added.

Rebels also said a regime assault appeared imminent. More ...

Juan Cole has more on the Badawi defection and the toll the mounting defections are having on the Assad regime in:

Defections mount as Syrian Regime invests Aleppo
Posted on 07/27/2012 by Juan

The Baath regime of President Bashar al-Assad is preparing for a major military operation to crush the uprising in Aleppo on Friday afternoon, according to rebel and Western sources. Even as the regime continues to pound rebel-held neighborhoods with tank and helicopter gunship fire, it is massing troops and armor to invest the city.

But while tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships can destroy neighborhoods and force irregular fighters to fade away, the price of treating one’s own population as a military enemy is high. The regime may well win the military fight, but lose the political one.

Ikhlas Badawi, a member of the Syrian parliament representing Aleppo, has just crossed over to Turkey and defected. She is the first member of parliament to do so. More ...

Jon Lee Anderson has this background piece in the New Yorker:

The Armies of Aleppo
26 July 2012| 13:18

The streets of Aleppo, Syria, were a sun-bleached, beat-up mix of edgy activity on Thursday. Everyone here knows that Bashar al-Assad is trying to send troop reinforcements to stage an assault on the city. In a northeastern neighborhood, civilians looked on as Free Syrian Army rebels manned checkpoints and choke-point barricades made out of burned vehicles. There was word of government helicopters above the western stretches of the city, but elsewhere the skies were empty of the warplanes and gunships that have flown over Aleppo in recent days, creating a sense of eerie before-the-storm calm. Here and there, cars raced, in apparent panic, flashing their lights, the drivers waving at each other to turn and follow; the odd clatter of gunfire added to the confusion. All week, minibuses crammed with civilians and tiny Chinese-made vans loaded with stoves, refrigerators, and people have been making their way out of the city, as the residents of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, flee to the countryside to the north, which is mostly rebel-held territory. More ...

These are the tweets I am seeing as I put this puppy to bed.

Good Luck, Aleppo!

Look to this space often in the coming days as we cover this Battle for Aleppo.

More later...

This is the latest report from the Al Jazeera Live blog at 11:45pm pst:

- Aleppo: Government forces are reportedly attacking Salahedin, al-A'thamiya, Bustan al-Qasr, al-Masshad and al-Sukkari neighbourhoods with "heavy machinguns stationed on their helicopters". Explosions have been reported from al-Firdous and al-Marjeh neighbourhoods. Clashes have also taken place in several other neighbourhoods, and the SOHR says one civilian has died of wounds received in al-Zebdiya neighbourhood.

Evidence of chemical weapons use? From AJE Live Blog:

Syrian activists have posted a video online that they claim could potentially be evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons in its crackdown on dissent in residential areas.

The video shows a yellowish/orange smoke emanating during the shelling of the neighbourhood of Jourat al Haya in the city of Homs.

It came amid reports that chemical weapons have been used against opposition strongholds in other parts of the country, including Deir ez-Zour.

The government has denied suspicions that it would use "unconventional weapons" in the country.

The BBC has some very brave reporters in Syria and BBC's Ian Pannell joined a FSA convoy to Aleppo. He filed this report three days ago together with video: Syria: Rebels on 'highly dangerous' Aleppo mission

The NY Times has this article on Aleppo this morning:

Syrian Helicopters Fire on Aleppo as Army Prepares for Possible Assault
Published: July 27, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian Army helicopters fired on neighborhoods in Aleppo on Friday morning, activists said, as the army readied assault troops and armored columns for a possible invasion of the city, Syria’s densely populated commercial capital, where insurgents have embedded themselves over the past week in preparation for a battle.

As Aleppo girded for fighting, opposition figures said on Friday that a member of the Syrian Parliament from the city’s northern district had defected and crossed into Turkey. The lawmaker, Iklhas Badawi, was elected in May to a Parliament that was seen as a rubber stamp for the predominance of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party. The elections were dismissed by opposition figures as a sham.
The United States expressed alarm about the possibility of mass civilian casualties in Aleppo, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the Middle East’s most storied cities. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington that there was “concern that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for.”

But Ms. Nuland also indicated that the United States was not reconsidering its stance against military intervention, saying, “We do not think pouring more fuel onto the fire is going to save lives.” More ...

We also now have a statement from Ikhlas al-Badawi, the Syrian parliamentarian from Aleppo who defected:

“I crossed to Turkey and defected from this tyrannical regime... because of the repression and savage torture against a nation demanding the minimum of rights,”

Results of the bombing of civilians in Aleppo | 27 July 2012

Syrian military and security people taken lrisoner in Aleppo | 27 July 2012

From EAWorldView we have this report on events in Syria:
Syria Live Coverage: Aleppo --- Expecting the Regime Assault
Friday, July 27, 2012 at 9:25 | James Miller

1558 GMT: Syria. Poland has evacuated its embassy staff from Damascus.

The move also halts representation of US interests, covered by Poland since Washington withdrew its diplomats in February.

1537 GMT: Syria. Microblogger and activist @markito0171 believes that the building captured in the video we posted earlier is a major military base in the Bab al Hadid area of Aleppo (map). That report seems to correspond to others we're beginning to see emerge from Aleppo. Combined with the news of other FSA gains in the area, it suggests that while the Syrian military is still readying itself to retake Aleppo, Syria's largest city, the Free Syrian Army is mopping up regime checkpoints, sniper nests, and bases, and is making preparations to resist the Syrian army.

The common knowledge analysis is that the regime will be able to overwhelm the FSA. But the FSA is significantly outgunned in many areas of Idlib, in and around Homs, and in the northeaster suburbs of Damascus - all areas that the regime has either failed to regain control of, or areas that have put up strategically significant resistance in the past.

1529 GMT: Syria. The LCC now reports that 70 people have been killed by regime forces so far today:

21 martyrs in Daraa, 15 martyr in Damascus and its Suburbs, 11 martyr in Aleppo, 10 martyrs in Homs, 6 in Deir Ezzor, 2 martyrs in Lattakia, 2 martyrs in Hama, 2 martyrs in in Idlib and 1 martyr in Raqqa.

Many of those killed in Daraa are victims of shelling, the military response to FSA fighters in the area.

1517 GMT: Saudi Arabia. Arrests have been made in Qatif, after police and protesters clashed in the eastern part of the country, an area that is growing more tense by the day.

The arrests took place in the city of Qatif after "rioters" set tyres on fire during an overnight demonstration, an interior ministry statement said.

It said there were no casualties, but witnesses said several people were wounded when police opened fire.

1455 GMT: Syria. It looks like there may be another victory for the FSA in Aleppo:

This building does not look like the other one captured by the FSA today, and Bab al Hadid (map) is in the very center of the city, not the southern outskirts.

1445 GMT: Syria. The Guardian has talked to an activist in the Fardous district of Aleppo (map), who says that "bombs and helicopters" fell in the area, killing at least 15 and wounding another 25. They have also posted a graphic video of the aftermath of the event.

He also adds that the FSA has made a significant victory in the area, freeing captured detainees in the process:

Omar said the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of the Sour al-Hajj roundabout in al-Fardous as well as a five-storey building that had been under the control of regime forces. After capturing the building, the FSA found 75 detainees that no one had known about, he added..

It is not known whether this building is the same as the one we showed in entry 1241. Either way, it is a significant victory for the FSA.

1436 GMT: Syria. More signs that the FSA has been underestimated in Aleppo - this video reportedly shows dozens of regime military, security, and "shabiha" captured by members of the Free Syrian Army:

1426 GMT: Syria. Another video shows smoke rising in the Mahatta area in the center of Daraa (map, see update 1149). Two more videos show tanks racing through the city (1, 2), a sign of the kind of firepower that the regime is willing to use to keep Daraa under control.

1404 GMT: Syria. Three major cities in the east, al Bukamal, al Mayadeen, and Deir Ez Zor (map), are all locations of heavy fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the Assad military. Al Bukamal and Deir Ez Zor have been heavily shelled today, and the LCC reports that a military convoy has stormed al Mayadeen.

This video reportedly shows some of the damage in Deir Ez Zor, a city that is starting to resemblles Homs:

1355 GMT: Syria. Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the former head of the United Nations observers, has said, "Sooner or later, the regime will fall." He added:

The spiral of violence, the lack of proportion in the regime's reactions, its incapacity to protect the civilian population, mean that the regime's days are numbered, but will it fall in a week or in a year? That is a question I do not dare answer.

Mood warned that the toppling of Assad might not end the conflict:

Many think that if Bashar al-Assad falls or that if he is given an honorable exit...the problem will be solved. That is an over-simplification one should be wary of. The situation could even get worse.

1344 GMT: Syria. The Guardian reports that the FSA offensive actions in Aleppo appear to be expanding:

The Free Syrian Army have surrounded the south-west Aleppo district of al-Ansari a resident told the Guardian, writes Rima Cherri.

Ahmad Mejbi said the rebels were placing road barriers in Salahaddine, which neighbours Ansari to the north.

"Last night the government's forces bombed Jamil Qabbani school between 10pm and 11pm last night in the al-Mashhad, which is next to Ansari on the eastern side.

"Today, there were helicopters around Salahaddine, Mashhad and Sukuri, in the south, he said.

"Yesterday at 2pm Ahmad said he saw 24 buses packed with rebel fighters on a in Ansari."

With FSA action in the Salah el Dine district (map), it is now clear that the FSA will not wait around for the regime to attack. These preemptive actions are a clear action that the FSA will defend the city, but they are also attempts to rob the Syrian regime of the initiative.

While others are predicting a massacre, we suspect that the Syrian military will pay heavily for an assault on Aleppo, even if they do eventually retake these areas.

1340 GMT: Syria. A secret base in Turkey is supplying arms, intelligence, and communications equipment to the Free Syrian Army, according to Reuters.

See also Syria Feature: The Allied "Nerve Centre" in Turkey Aiding Insurgents (Doherty/Bakr)

1332 GMT: Syria. This video was taken near the Shafei Mosque, in the Masaken al-Sabil district in Aleppo (map). Zilal, who is familiar with Aleppo, says the area is a very nice, quiet residential area of the city. The protest is fairly large, but at the very end of the video gunfire erupts:

1318 GMT: Syria. An activist gives a tour of a street in the Al Sakhour district (map), an attempt to show damage he says was caused by Syrian air force jet fighters. However, sitting in the middle of the street is a sign of why the Syrian government has resorted to bombing its largest city - a tank destroyed in recent fighting:

1305 GMT: Syria. We've been speaking with Zilal, an activist working to sort the news from Syria. She shows us this video, reportedly showing a vehicle, driven by FSA fighters, tearing into regime forces in Ma'arrat al Nouman, in Idlib province (map). According to reports, the FSA successfully stopped a military convoy headed towards Aleppo, and the city is now being heavily shelled:

1250 GMT: Iraq and Syria. The Kurdistan News Agency, AK News, reports that Iraqi military and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government's peshmerga forces have clashed near the country's border with Syria.

AK News, citing KRG Deputy Minister of Peshmerga Anwar Haji Osman, claimed that two Iraqi brigades assaulted the 8th Peshmerga Brigade early this morning. Later in the day, however,
Maj. Gen. Jabbar Yawar, spokesman for the KRG forces, said the report was baseless.

Yawar claimed a regiment from the 10th Iraqi Division was to be deployed to the border with Syria on Friday morning, but that the 8th Peshmerga Brigade prevented the army from entering, saying they had already secured the area.

“There was no sort of war or confrontation between the Iraqi army and peshmerga,” Yawar said.

1241 GMT: Syria. Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop in Aleppo - the sudden attack on the positions held by the Free Syrian Army by Assad military forces that have been staging nearby. However, it seems the FSA is not waiting at all, and is on the offensive in the city. Fighting is reported in many areas, and the FSA has successfully managed to liberate this building (the Hreitani building, according to some activists), in the Al Sukkari district in southern Aleppo (map). The building was a military checkpoint, and was reportedly filled with regime snipers.

1233 GMT: Syria. Destined to be lost in today's chaos, large protests have happened in many areas of Syria today, some of them very close to where there is heavy fighting.

An activist posts a video from Kobani (map), an area liberated by Kurdish forces last week:

Every Friday, the Idlib town of Kafranbel never fails to supply witty and cutting slogans. With fighting in Ma'arrat al Nouman, just east of here (map), the protesters are still not deterred:

1216 GMT: Syria. Another journalist, Fredrik Johansson, points us in the direction of a possible spark (or outcome, it's not yet clear) of today's fighting in Daraa. According to the Local Coordinating Committees, a police station was captured in the Palestinian camps (map) by members of the Free Syrian Army.

Sami al-Hamwi shares another video, one filled with blood and gunfire:

1149 GMT: Syria. We showed the videos from Daraa (below) to Syrian activist Sami al-Hamwi, who confirms that this is Daraa. He also shares with us a series of videos from a report from the Local Coordinating Committee in Daraa, showing battles in the Palestine camp next to Mahatta (map). This appears to be the source of the report.

A contact has previously pointed out the irony that the Palestinians inside Syria appear to be taking up arms against the Assad regime, first in Damascus, and now in Daraa.

1135 GMT: Syria. The Mahatta district, in the very center of Daraa (map), has been heavily shelled today.

However, a different series of videos has emerged showing FSA fighters firing machine guns at a tank in the area, and there are suggestions of an even wider battle. One of the videos is below:

1118 GMT: Syria. All eyes are on Aleppo, but another significant development may have happened in Idlib province. Today, Ma'arrat al Nouman, on an important crossroads in Idlib province (map), has been heavily shelled. Here's another video that shows shells falling at dawn:

Based on what we know from statements from the Syrian military, forces are being redirected from other areas, particularly from Hama and Idlib provinces, towards Aleppo. It's surprising, then, to find this level of violence. A Pakistani journalist has a remarkable claim - that the fighters from the Free Syrian Army have attacked, and successfully stopped, the advance of a convoy of military troops and vehicles headed towards Aleppo. Even more interesting - he says he heard these reports from a Kurdish commander in the region.

We can't verify this specific detail, but his report matches other reports, mostly in Arabic, circulating on Twitter today.

1101 GMT: Syria. According to the Local Coordinating Committees of Syria (LCCS), a network of activists working to verify news from the war-torn country, 35 people have been killed already today:

9 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs, 8 in Daraa, 5 in Aleppo, 5 in Homs, 2 in Lattakia, 2 in Deir Ezzor, 2 in Idlib, 1 in Hama, and 1 in Raqqa.

But things are really just getting going. Reports of violence in Aleppo are starting to pour in at a faster pace. It's still too early to tell if the regime has really ramped up its efforts to retake the city yet, however.

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

0940 GMT: Syria. United Nations Human Rights Commissoner Navi Pillay has spoken about the "likelihood of an imminent major confrontation" in Aleppo and appealed to all sides: "Civilians and civilian objects --- including homes and other property, businesses, schools and places of worship --- must be protected at all times. All parties, including the government and opposition forces, must ensure that they distinguish between civilian and military targets."

Pillay spoke of a "discernable pattern" in regime attacks to clear insurgents: "All this, taken along with the reported build-up of forces in and around Aleppo, bodes ill for the people of that city."

The Commissioner also said attacks were continuing in Homs and Deir Ez Zor.

0854 GMT: Syria. Alex Thomson of Britain's Channel 4 reports:

0823 GMT: Syria. In Tehran, a Syrian delegation and Iranian officials have signed two memoranda of understanding for the expansion of bilateral cooperation over electricity and water.

Iranian Minister of Energy Majid Namjoo said, "The Islamic Republic of Iran will not leave Syria alone in such a difficult situation."

0815 GMT: Syria. Activists report regime firing in the southwest of Aleppo in the Salaheddin, Bustan al-Qasr, Sukari, Al-Mashhad, and Al-Azamiya neighborhoods, as well as clashes in the central Jamiliya district, Mahatat Baghdad, and Saadallah al-Jabiri Square.

In Salaheddin, an AFP photographer saw insurgent preparations for a a regime assault, with improvised barriers made up of sandbags and a bus and makeshift clinics set up inside schools and mosques.

0700 GMT: Syria. Ma'aret Nu'man in Idlib Province has reportedly been under sustained regime shelling this morning --- footage of a large explosion:

0650 GMT: Syria. Ikhlas al-Badawi, an MP for Aleppo, has defected and crossed the Turkish border.

"I have crossed to Turkey and defected from this tyrannical regime...because of the repression and savage torture against a nation demanding the minimum of rights," al-Badawi said.

Badawi represented the "labourers and peasants" sector, the state-backed labour and farmers bloc who are guaranteed half the places in the 250-seat assembly.

0620 GMT: Syria. The English text of Thursday's Asharg Al-Awsat interview with defected General Manaf Tlass, part of what appears to be his promotion as a "transitional leader" (see separate EA feature), has been posted. An extract:

I am not looking for power; I am looking for security and stability for Syria, and if I have the opportunity to participate – as any ordinary Syrian citizen – in rebuilding Syria, then I am ready. However I am not looking for power, and I did not leave Syria in order to lead the transitional period. I am aware that this will be a difficult period, and it would be very difficult for any single individual to shoulder this responsibility during this period. Therefore what should happen is that a team comprising internal and external [Syrian] figures should be formed to cooperate to achieve this [transitional] period. As for myself, I did not leave Syria seeking to obtain any role; I left because I refused to participate in the security solution…that is the main reason for my leaving Syria.

0610 GMT: Syria. A rally in al-Sha'ar in Aleppo last night:

The gathering at the Amneh mosque in the Saif al Dawleh neighbourhood:

0545 GMT: Bahrain. Since the start of Ramadan, activists have been reporting an increase in late-night police raids and violent crackdown of protests in certain Bahrain villages. Over the weekend, security forces were especially focused on Sitra and Bilad AlQadeem.

On Thursday, the reported violence was even more widespread, with activists claiming incidents in AlDair, Karzakan, Aali, Daih, Sadad, Malkiya, Sehla and Mahooz, as well as Bilad AlQadeem and Sitra, where police clashed with protesters armed with Molotov cocktails. The police weapon of choice was shotgun armed with birdshot. Fatima AlHalwachi, head of monitoring for the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights claimed:

Said Yousif of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights tweeted one such injury:

One reported case appears especially troubling. 11-year old Mohammed Mansoor Mattar was allegedly shot on his body with birdshot and arrested. His family claim he was taken to BDF Military Hospital where they were denied access, until his mother was given permission to see him around 3am local time.

Last nights violence follows a press conference by oppositon party AlWefaq on the issue of house raids:

$10 million worth of property and cash has been stolen during house raids in Bahrain over the past year, said Al Wefaq National Islamic Society during a press conference to launch a new campaign “Gangs of Darkness”.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of the “constant attacks on homes” in Bahrain by security forces. According to Al Wefaq’s documentation department 270 homes were “raided, robbed or vandalized” in June and July 2012 alone.

0535 GMT: Syria. State news agency SANA makes no reference to the battle in Aleppo other than "Units from the armed forces on Thursday clashed with armed terrorist groups in Salah Eddin and al-Sukari neighborhoods....An official source told SANA reporter that the clash resulted in killing and wounding a large number of terrorists."

Its lead story? "President al-Assad Issues Law on Establishing Court to Look into Terrorism-linked Crimes".

0525 GMT: Syria. After a week of fighting in Aleppo, the country's largest city, there is expectation of a regime assault in an attempt to clear out insurgents. The Assad military has been moving troops and tanks from other areas in the north amid reports that it is already attacking with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft as well as ground fire.

The news brought a high-profile statement from the US State Department, via spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, on Thursday:

This is the concern: that we will see a massacre in Aleppo and that's what the regime appears to be lining up for. Our hearts are with the people of Aleppo, and again this is another desperate attempt by a regime that is going down to maintain control, and we are greatly concerned about what they are capable of in Aleppo.

There was no indication, however, of a response by Washington: "We do not believe that pouring more fuel on the fire is going to save lives," Nuland said. "The route out of this is not more violence ... the route out of this is an end to the violence and a beginning to a true political transition process."

Beyond the headline news, the insurgents scored a notable victory on Thursday, taking the city of Al Raqqah, halfway between Aleppo and Deir Ez Zor in the north.

The Local Coordination Committees reported late Thursday that 200 people had been slain by security forces, including 48 in Aleppo Province, 46 in Damascus and it suburbs, 30 in Daraa Province, 27 in Idlib Province, and 21 in Homs Province.

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