News Live Blog

Syria's War

Breaking news coverage of developments in Syria's War and the broader regional conflict, including allegations of the deadly use of chemical weapons and the international community's response

  • Syria announces June election, with Assad's victory all but certain

    Amid the chaos of a three-year civil war, Syria will mount a regularly scheduled presidential election on June 3, an exercise many suspect will sink the already floundering peace process and inevitably extend the four-decade reign of the Assad family another seven years.

    “I call on the citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic, inside and outside [the country], to exercise their right in electing a president,” parliament speaker Mohammed al-Lahham said Monday, adding that voting would be “free and fair…and under full judicial supervision.”

    Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not formally announced his candidacy yet, he said in January he “saw no reason” why he would not run again — even as activists say more than 150,000 people have been killed in an uprising against his rule.

    Assad, who became president when his father Hafez died in 2000, was re-elected with over 97 percent of the vote in an uncontested referendum in 2007. Syria revised its election rules in 2012 to allow for multiple candidates, but the reform did little to convince the opposition or its Western backers that elections would be any more legitimate this time around.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Welcome to Al Jazeera America's live blog for Syria's ongoing civil war. We're tracking the latest developments on the ground, including recent allegations of the use of chemical weapons and the international community's response. 

    For breaking news and the latest updates, follow us on Twitter at @AJAMLive

    We welcome your questions and feedback. Feel free to submit a comment below. 
  • According to the OPCW, Syria has removed more of its chemicals stockpile:

    The Director-General of the OPCW welcomed delivery of a further consignment of chemicals to the port of Latakia by the Syrian government today.  The chemicals were immediately boarded onto cargo ships upon arrival at the port and removed from the country.


    This raises the overall portion of chemicals removed from Syria to 86.5% of the total, including 88.7 % of all Priority 1 chemicals. Today’s consignment was the 17th to date and the sixth consignment since 4 April, marking a significant acceleration in the pace of deliveries to Latakia this month. 


    “This latest consignment is encouraging," the Director-General said. “We hope that the remaining two or three consignments are delivered quickly to permit destruction operations to get underway in time to meet the mid-year deadline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons."

  • "Not going to speculate" whether POTUS will reconsider use of force after #Syria chlorine use, Psaki says, but "its a good question." #jpost
  • When asked about chlorine gas and the chemicals agreement reached in Syria, Psaki said the State Department was horrified by any use of chemicals in the country.

    She said she had no additional details on how it was delivered, who was responsible, or what chemical was specifically used.

    But, when asked, she did confirm that chlorine was not included in the chemicals agreement reached with the country.
  • In light of the most recent chemical weapons attack allegations, Reuters has investigated how chlorine gas plays into the agreement reached over Syria's chemical stockpiles. 

    From Reuters: 

    Chlorine gas attacks in Syria this month, if proven, expose a major loophole in an international deal which promised to remove chemical weapons from Syria and suggest chemical warfare could persist after the removal operation has finished.


    President Bashar al-Assad agreed with the United States and Russia to dispose of his chemical weapons - an arsenal which Damascus had never previously formally acknowledged - after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of the capital last August.


    Washington and its Western allies said it was Assad's forces who unleashed the nerve agent, in the world's worst chemical attack in a quarter-century. The government blamed the rebel side in Syria's civil war, which is now in its fourth year.


    Syria has vowed to hand over or destroy its entire arsenal by the end of this week, but still has roughly 20 percent of the chemicals it declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).


    In addition, chlorine gas that was never included on the list submitted to the OPCW is now allegedly being used on the battlefield, leading some countries to consider requesting an investigation, possibly through the United Nations.


    Attacks this month in several areas of the country share characteristics that have led analysts to believe that there is a coordinated chlorine campaign, with growing evidence that it is the government side dropping the bombs.


    U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington had indications that chlorine was probably used by government forces in Syria.


    "We are examining allegations that the government was responsible," she said. "Obviously there needs to be an investigation of what's happened here."


  • When asked about the chlorine attack in Syria, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there is nothing more to add but the United States ambassador to the OPCW has been in touch with the organization.
  • Syria announces June election, with Assad's victory all but certain

    Amid the chaos of a three-year civil war, Syria will mount a regularly scheduled presidential election on June 3, an exercise many suspect will sink the already floundering peace process and inevitably extend the four-decade reign of the Assad family another seven years.

    “I call on the citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic, inside and outside [the country], to exercise their right in electing a president,” parliament speaker Mohammed al-Lahham said Monday, adding that voting would be “free and fair…and under full judicial supervision.”

    Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not formally announced his candidacy yet, he said in January he “saw no reason” why he would not run again — even as activists say more than 150,000 people have been killed in an uprising against his rule.

    Assad, who became president when his father Hafez died in 2000, was re-elected with over 97 percent of the vote in an uncontested referendum in 2007. Syria revised its election rules in 2012 to allow for multiple candidates, but the reform did little to convince the opposition or its Western backers that elections would be any more legitimate this time around.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Sen. John McCain released the following statement regarding allegation the Assad regime has again used chemical weapons in Syria:

    “The allegations that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have again used chemical weapons against the Syrian people in recent attacks are deeply disturbing, but not surprising. It is essential that the Obama Administration work with the international community to fully and immediately investigate these reports. If substantiated, it is clear that such attacks violate the spirit of the U.S. agreement with Russia for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and the Assad regime must finally be held accountable for it actions.


    “Assad’s forces have systematically committed gross violations of the Syrian people’s basic human rights. Whether by chemical weapons attacks or other barbaric means including barrel bombing and starvation campaigns, the Assad regime continues to carry out war crimes in its slaughter of innocent men, women, and children. Its breach of the chemical weapons agreement should surprise no one, and unless the Obama Administration is willing to force a price for such behavior, we should only expect more atrocities to come.


  • White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the White is examining allegations the Syrian government is responsible for chemical — probably chlorine — being used in the country.
  • State Department Jen Psaki said the State Department has indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical, probably chlorine, in Syria this month, Reuters reports.

    The State Department says it is examining allegations the Syrian government is responsible for the use of chlorine, according to Reuters.
  • Is Geneva2 still alive? State Dept: Many tracks to our process...We're still working to determine what the next steps are. #Syria
  • The Assads have never held a credible, free or fair election, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during the daily State Department briefing.
  • State Dept: #Syria elex neither addresses aspirations of ppl nor moves twd resolution.Regime "massacres" electorate it purports to represent
  • According to a spokesman, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the Syrian president poll — announced Monday — will hamper prospects for a political solution to the country's president poll, Reuters reports.
  • Republican Sen. Bob Corker made some pretty shocking statements Sunday about Syria, saying the 'wisest' thing President Assad did was 'kill 1,200 people with chemical weapons,' according to Business Insider's Brett LoGiurato.

    From Business Insider:

    Both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are following a similar procedure that allows them to stretch the boundaries of legality without worrying about consequences from the United States, Republican Sen. Bob Corker said Sunday.

    Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted President Barack Obama's foreign policy on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, saying he just hopes they do nothing to overtly "embarrass" the U.S. He drew a connection between the current U.S. response to Russia's moves in Ukraine and the response to Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria last August.


    "I've urged in every way that I can for this administration to go ahead and, again, push back now. It's going to be too late," said Corker, who argued Friday the U.S. should consider sending lethal aid to Ukraine in addition to their non-lethal steps.


    "Just like we did in Syria, where in essence, let's face it — I hate to say such a crass thing on Easter Sunday morning — the wisest thing that Assad did really was to kill 1,200 people with chemical weapons. Because, in essence, we said, 'Don't embarrass us anymore that way. You can go ahead and kill another 60,000 people with barrel bombs and by other means, but don't embarrass us.' 


  • Candidates will be able to register for #Syria presidential vote; but conditions mean many in exile can't even if they want to contest
  • Dozens of people have been killed in air strikes on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, a monitoring group said on Monday, including at least 29 people in a single neighborhood.

    Also on Monday, state news agency SANA said two people were killed when mortars struck central Damascus.

    The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes killed 29 people on Sunday, including women and children, in the southern Al-Ferdous district of Aleppo, a city that was once Syria's largest and a major commercial hub.

    Another 14 people were killed in the Baeedeen neighborhood in "barrel bomb" attacks - strikes in which helicopters drop highly destructive improvised explosives - the group said. A further five died in barrel bomb attacks in the village of Tlajabin, it added.

    Western powers have condemned the use of barrel bombs as a war crime, but they continue to fall nearly every day in Aleppo and other parts of Syria.

    SANA said two people were killed in Damascus when mortars fired by "terrorists" - its term for rebel fighters - hit the Al-Salihiya neighborhood of the capital and a nearby area.

    More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which started as a peaceful protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad's rule in March 2011 and turned into civil war after a government crackdown.

    [Reuters]
  • Syria's parliament speaker says the country will hold presidential elections on June 3.

    Monday's announcement by the speaker, Mohammed Lahham, came just hours after a pair of mortars exploded near the parliament building in central Damascus, killing five people.

    President Bashar Assad is likely to seek another seven-year term in office despite an uprising against his rule that is now in its fourth year.

    The country's conflict has killed over 150,000 people and forced one-third of the country's population from their homes.

    Lahham says candidates seeking to run for president can start registering their candidacy from April 22.

    [The Associated Press]
  • In Easter address, Pope Francis calls for end to war, hunger

    Marking Christianity's most hopeful day, Pope Francis made an Easter Sunday plea for peace and dialogue in Ukraine and Syria, for an end to terrorist attacks against Christians in Nigeria and for more attention to the hungry and neediest close to home.

    Well over 150,000 tourists — Romans and pilgrims, young and old — turned out for the Mass that Francis celebrated at an altar set up under a canopy on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.

    So great were their numbers that they overflowed from sprawling St. Peter's Square, which was bedecked with row after row of potted daffodils, sprays of blue hyacinths and bunches of white roses. Waving flags from the pope's native Argentina as well as from Brazil, Mexico, Britain, Poland and many other countries, they also filled the broad boulevard leading from the square to the Tiber River.

    Easter is the culmination of Holy Week and marks Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead after his crucifixion.

    Francis noted that this year, the Catholic church's celebration of Easter coincided with that of Orthodox churches, which have many followers in Ukraine.

    Francis prayed that God would "enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine, so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence."

    Francis also prayed that all sides in Syria will be moved to "boldly negotiate the peace long awaited and long overdue." Syria has been wracked by a three-year civil war that has cost 150,000 lives and forced millions to flee the country.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Four French journalists freed after 10 months in Syria

    Four French journalists held hostage in Syria since June last year were recovered by Turkish soldiers on Turkey’s border with Syria on Saturday.

    Brutal violence attributed to government forces, rebels and Al Qaeda-linked fighters have made war-ravaged Syria the most dangerous place for journalists in the world, with most murders of reporters and photographers going unpunished.

    Turkish authorities found Nicolas Henin, Pierre Torres, Edouard Elias and Didier Francois near the Syrian border, blindfolded with their hands bound, Turkey’s Dogan News Agency said.

    The four had been left abandoned in a no-man's land between the two countries overnight Friday, according to Dogan.

    French President Francois Hollande said the four were in "good health, in spite of the very grueling conditions of their captivity." They will be taken to France in the coming hours, Hollande added.

    Dogan reports the the rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had captured the journalists, but that an unknown group brought the journalists to the Turkish border on Friday night. They would be handed over to French officials after medical checks, it said.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • When asked if she expects UN envoy on Syria Brahimi to resign, Psaki said he has served in a difficult role but she will let him speak to his future plans.
  • 'The situation on the ground is catastrophic' and all those who have influence should exert that, Psaki said when asked if the department thinks the Russians and Iranians could do more to end the bombings.
  • State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her briefing by calling on 'all those with influence' on the Assad regime to get the regime to stop its current behavior in the country.
  • State Dept briefing opens with condemnation of the 'tragic,' 'dire' situation in #Homs . Says typical of Assad's starve, besiege approach
  • UN envoy: Homs evacuation deal has collapsed

    The deal that allowed some civilians to leave Syria’s besieged city of Homs has broken down, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, said Friday. The same day, a car bomb killed at least 9 people in a pro-government district of the city, according to activists and Syrian state television.

    The explosion, which Syrian state television said killed 14 and occurred outside a mosque, underlined the bleak state of affairs in Homs, which has seen constant shelling on remaining rebel-held pockets and spurts of violence around the city despite a U.N.-led diplomatic effort to pause the fighting and improve humanitarian access to areas that have been under siege for nearly two years.

    “It is a matter of deep regret that negotiations were brutally stopped and violence is now rife again when a comprehensive agreement seemed close at hand,” Brahimi said in a statement. “It is alarming that Homs, whose people have suffered so much throughout these past three years is again the theater of death and destruction.”

    The special envoy, who mediated two failed rounds of peace negotiations between the Syrian regime and representatives of a Western-backed rebel faction, called for talks to be resumed to lift the siege on Homs.

    Syrian troops and pro-regime militiamen have fought their way into several rebel-held neighborhoods this week, a development that has disheartened the opposition in the city considered the capital of the rebellion. Some of the biggest anti-government demonstrations first erupted in Homs three years ago.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syrian state TV is reporting 14 people have been killed in a car bomb near a mosque in a pro-government district of Homs, The Associated Press reports.
  • Q.Any readout on Kerry/Brahimi mtg on #Syria ? State Dept: Don't think it's happened yet. Pushed back bec of #Ukraine talks. #WhitherSyria
  • In a major exclusive, Reuters reveals Syria has submitted a 'more specific' list of its chemical weapons.

    From Reuters:

    Syria has submitted a "more specific" list of its chemical weapons to the global regulator overseeing the destruction of its stockpile after discrepancies were reported by inspectors on the ground, officials said.


    Damascus agreed to give up its chemical arsenal after Washington threatened military action following the death of hundreds of Syrians in a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus during Syria's civil war last August. But Damascus is several weeks behind schedule in handing over its lethal toxins.


    A diplomat said questions had been raised by member states at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) about the details of its chemical arsenal submitted by President Bashar al-Assad's government last year.


    The officials said the original list had been based on estimates, not exact amounts of toxic agents found in storage and production facilities across Syria.


    The joint U.N./OPCW mission in Syria found "discrepancies between what they found, and what was on the original declaration", one diplomat told Reuters.


    OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan confirmed a revised list had been submitted. "For some of the stockpile, ranges of quantities had been provided. Now they are being replaced with specific amounts," he said.


    The exact amounts came to light after inspectors visited the sites, took inventory, and packaged the chemicals for transport to the port town of Latakia, he said. Official could not provide specific details about the discrepancies.


  • U.N. envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has released the following statement on the Old City of Homs:

    Press Statement by the Joint Special Representative for Syria Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi



    Recent discussions between the Syrian authorities and a Negotiating Committee representing the civilians and fighters still trapped in the Old city of Homs as well as the inhabitants of the Al-Waer neighbourhood were followed with keen interest and great hope by people all over Syria as well as elsewhere in the region and the world.  The Government Media in Damascus wrote very positively about the process. 





    It is a matter of deep regret that negotiations were brutally stopped and violence is now rife again when a comprehensive agreement seemed close at hand. It is alarming that Homs, whose people have suffered so much throughout these past three years is again the theatre of death and destruction. 





    We have reached out to all those who could help put an end to this tragedy. We urge all the parties to return to the negotiating table and complete the deal which was on the verge of being signed. 


  • According to The Huffington Post's Max Rosenthal, activists in Syria are fighting, albeit failing, to spark action as the country's civil war rages on.

    From HuffPost:

    When the Syrian civil war began more than three years ago, Mariam Hamou took to Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about the brutality of the Syrian government and encourage Western governments to halt the violence. From her home in London, Ontario, she is still pursuing the same mission today, and no closer to achieving it.


    Hamou and her Toronto-based colleague, Bayan Khatib, work for the media office of the Syrian National Coalition, the official governing body of the Syrian opposition. They plan media campaigns, arrange speaking tours by dissident Syrians to Islamic community centers and college campuses in North America, post -- and argue -- on Facebook and Twitter, doing anything that helps spread news from the war to a wider audience.


    With few journalists or outsiders able to cover the war from inside Syria, activists have become a key source of information. Their efforts -- alongside a network of Syrians who deliver a steady flow of videos and images of suffering from the battlefield -- have succeeded in shaping public opinion on the conflict. But after more than three years, Hamou and other activists around the world aiming to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad are frustrated with their lack of a winning strategy. Western governments -- and their citizens -- have failed to intervene with forceful action. And no one, least of all the activists themselves, seems to know how to change that.


    "I can't even tell you what the answer is," said Hamou during a phone interview from Ontario, the exasperation evident in her voice. "I have no idea."


    While not all activists support military intervention, foreign governments have largely focused on whether or not to dedicate supplies and manpower to Syria. The Syrian National Coalition works with the Free Syrian Army, a moderate, Western-supported rebel group, and has called for increased foreign weapons shipments, including anti-aircraft missiles. The coalition was also a strong backer of proposed airstrikes against the Assad government following its use of chemical weapons last August. With its media campaigns, it aims to encourage civilians around the world to put pressure on their governments to get involved in the war.


  • Report: Journalist killings in Syria most likely to go unpunished

    A spike in targeted murders of journalists in Syria landed the war-shattered country for the first time on the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual Impunity Index, joining a list of countries where journalist killings are most likely to go unpunished, the international watchdog said Wednesday.

    CPJ said the murders add a new threat to the mix in Syria, already deemed the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to do their jobs, with unprecedented numbers of abductions and high rates of fatalities in combat and crossfire.

    Iraq, another Middle Eastern country wracked by unrest and sectarian violence, remains on the list along with Somalia and the Philippines as the worst places on the 2014 Index. One hundred journalists have been murdered in Iraq in the past decade, all with impunity, CPJ said. After a respite in 2012, nine murders took place last year.

    Syria joined the list for the first time this year as a surge in militant groups operating in the country has made it increasingly dangerous for journalists, both local and international, to cover the conflict, leading many news organizations to suspend reporting trips to opposition-held northern and eastern Syria, deeming it no longer worth the risk.

    More than 60 journalists have been killed by crossfire in the past three years, according to CPJ. At least 61 were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, most by rebel forces, it said. Some of the journalists have since escaped or been released.

    Deliberate murder added a new chilling dimension to the mix, according to the report, which said at least seven journalists were fatally targeted in Syria since 2012. The perpetrators were not punished in any of the murders.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of a new poison gas attack in the Syrian capital on Wednesday, posting footage of four men being treated by medics.

    They said the chemical attack, the fourth the opposition has reported this month, was in the Harasta neighborhood.

    Reuters could not independently verify the footage or the allegation due to restrictions on reporting in Syria.

    Activists posted a video on YouTube on Wednesday of four men being treated with oxygen. A voice off-screen gave the date and said Assad's forces used "poison gas in Harasta." It did not say if there were fatalities.

    The face of one of the men appeared to be covered in vomit. He was shown shaking and moaning as doctors treated him.

    The voice off-screen said chemical weapons were also used in Harasta on Friday.

    A U.N. inquiry found in December that sarin gas had likely been used in Jobar in August and in several other locations, including in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where hundreds of people were killed.

    The inquiry was only looking at whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them. The Syrian government and the opposition have each accused the other of using chemical weapons during the three-year-old civil war. Both sides have denied it.

    The Ghouta attack caused global outrage and a U.S. threat of military strikes, dropped after Assad pledged to destroy his chemical weapons arsenal.

    But the Syrian government failed to meet a February 5 deadline to move all of its declared chemical substances and precursors, some 1,300 metric tons, out of the country. Syria has since agreed to remove the weapons by late April.

    More than 150,000 people have been killed in the civil war, which began as peaceful protests against Assad's rule, a third of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Millions have fled the country.

    When opposition activists reported that helicopters had dropped chlorine gas on the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita on Friday and Saturday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told ABC's "This Week" the attack was so far "unsubstantiated".

    On Sunday, activists posted photographs and video they said showed an improvised chlorine bomb to back up claims that Assad's forces used chemical weapons in Kfar Zeita, which the government blamed on rebels.

    [Reuters]
  • Jordanian air force destroys vehicles entering from Syria

    Jordanian air force fighter jets destroyed an undetermined number of vehicles trying to enter the kingdom by crossing the border from war-torn Syria, military officials said Wednesday.

    "Royal air force jet fighters today destroyed a number of vehicles that attempted to cross into Jordan from Syria," the Jordanian army said in a brief statement without elaborating.

    An army spokesman declined to give any more details, while government officials were not immediately available for comment.

    Damascus has denied the targeted vehicles belonged to the Syrian Army, according to a tweet from the Hezbollah-affiliated, pro-regime news outlet Al-Manar.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syria said that several vehicles destroyed by Jordanian warplanes on Wednesday do not belong to the Syrian Army.

    "No vehicles belonging to the Syrian Army moved towards the Jordanian border and what was targeted by the Jordanian Air Force does not belong to the Syrian Army," Syrian state news agency SANA said, quoting an unnamed military source.

    A Jordanian security source said earlier that the targets were Syrian rebels in civilian cars mounted with machine guns.

    [Reuters]
  • According to Syrian state media, a Syrian military source says vehicles destroyed by the Jordanian air force do not belong to the Syrian army, Reuters reports.
  • #Syria with more movements today over 72 % of CW material now removed and destroyed
  • Saudi Arabia replaces spy chief, architect of Syria policy

    Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the architect of Riyadh's attempts to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been removed from his post, state media reported Tuesday.

    His departure, months after he was quoted warning of a "major shift" from the United States over its Middle East policy, may help smooth relations with Washington as Riyadh pushes for more U.S. support for Syrian opposition fighters.

    "Prince Bandar was relieved of his post at his own request and General Youssef al-Idrissi was asked to carry out the duties of the head of general intelligence," state news agency SPA said, citing a royal decree.

    The decree did not say if Bandar would continue in his other position as head of the National Security Council. A former ambassador to the U.S., Bandar was appointed intelligence chief in July 2012, in charge of helping Syrian rebels bring down Assad — who is an ally of Riyadh's biggest regional rival, Iran.

    Saudi media reported that the Syrian dossier has been transferred to the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who cracked down on Al-Qaeda following a wave of deadly attacks in the Gulf state between 2003 and 2006.

    Syrian state media in Lebanon have repeatedly lashed out at Bandar, accusing him of supporting Sunni Muslim radicals in Syria. He was also closely involved in Saudi support for Egypt's military rulers after they ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last year, diplomatic sources in the Gulf have said.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syrian army enters Homs

    Syrian army troops backed by pro-government militia members have entered rebel-held neighborhoods of the central city of Homs after laying siege to the districts for nearly two years.

    Homs is the last major rebel stronghold in central Syria, and the fight to take it underscores how Syrian forces have methodically taken back opposition-held areas, bolstered by fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group.

    Activists on the ground and the Britain-based pro-opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Tuesday both confirmed the operation.

    "The Syrian army and the National Defense Forces have achieved key successes in the Old City of Homs," Syrian state television said.

    It said troops were advancing in several besieged neighborhoods in the area, and had "killed a number of terrorists," a reference to rebel forces.

    "They have entered into one area, Wadi al-Sayeh, which lies between Juret al-Shiyah and the Old City," said Abu Bilal, an activist trapped inside the blockade, told the AFP news agency.

    Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used heavy machine-gun fire, tank fire and aircraft shelling to pound rebels holed up in the Old City, said an activist who uses the name Abu Bilal. He said Tuesday was the heaviest day of fighting Homs had experienced in months.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • According to Jordan state TV, the Jordanian airforce has hit and destroyed vehicles trying to cross from Syria, Reuters reports.
  • Fifth day of shelling on Old Homs, insurgents report, as government appears to be starting offensive to take remaining areas.
  • According to Reuters, videos from rebels in Syria show U.S.-made rockets in the country.

    From Reuters:

    Online videos show Syrian rebels using what appear to be U.S. anti-tank rockets, weapons experts say, the first significant American-built armaments in the country's civil war.


    They would signal a further internationalization of the conflict, with new rockets suspected from Russia and drones from Iran also spotted in the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.


    None of that equipment, however, is seen as enough to turn the tide of battle in a now broadly stalemated war, with Assad dominant in Syria's central cities and along the Mediterranean coast and the rebels in the interior north and east.


    It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the videos or the supplier of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank rockets shown in the videos. Some analysts suggested they might have been provided by another state such as Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, probably with Washington's acquiescence.


    U.S. officials declined to discuss the rockets, which appeared in Syria around the same time Reuters reported that Washington had decided to proceed with plans to increase aid, including delivery of lower-level weaponry.


    U.S. officials say privately there remain clear limits to American backing for the insurgency, given the widely dominant role played by Islamist militants. A proposal to supply MANPAD surface-to-air missiles was considered but rejected.


    National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the Obama administration was giving support she did not define.


    "The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition," she said in response to a query over the rocket videos.


    "As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance," she said.


    While the number of U.S. rockets seen remains small, reports of their presence are steadily spreading, analysts say.


  • Security Council to see photos of Syria's war dead

    The United Nations Security Council is schedule to meet privately on Tuesday to view projected slides of the dead, who offer mute testimony to the savagery of a Syrian civil war in which more than 150,000 have died.

    France, which is hosting the closed-door meeting, says the photos to be displayed are part of a collection of 55,000 digital images of Syrians who were tortured and slain by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. France says a majority of them were collected by a Syrian military police photographer code-named "Caesar," who smuggled them out on flash drives when he defected.

    Syria's Justice Ministry has dismissed the photos and accompanying report as "politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism," a "gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom have turned out to be foreigners." The ministry said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups.

    The presentation at the Security Council is part of a process of documenting evidence of Syrian war crimes in the hope of eventually referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

    However, because Syria never accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC, the only way a case can be opened while Assad is in power is for the Security Council to order a referral.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • "We have not been able to corraborate" reports of a chlorine gas attack by Assad regime in Syria says @presssec
  • When asked about President Assad's comment this weekend that the tide of the war is turning in his favor, as well as the fact that government soldiers have retaken the town of Maaloula, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this is a 'war of attrition.'


    She said neither side has been able to hold an area for a significant amount of time. She said it was obvious that Assad would say he was winning so she didn't put much stock in his comments.

    Psaki also repeated her oft-uttered statement that there is no military solution in Syria.
  • Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters recaptured the town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, on Monday, military sources and state television said, further squeezing rebels' supply routes through the Qalamoun mountains into Lebanon.

    Islamist fighters, some from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, had taken over part of the ancient Christian town in December and held several nuns captive until releasing them in March in a prisoner exchange deal.

    Government forces have recaptured several rebel-held areas and border towns in recent months, closing off supply routes from Lebanon and securing the main highway leading north from Damascus towards central Syria, Homs and the Mediterranean.

    "They are inside Maaloula now. It is under their complete control, including the monastery of Mar Thecla," a military source in contact with government fighters on the ground said.

    At another ancient Christian site, Mar Sarkis - a Greek Orthodox monastery, on a hilltop above Maaloula, which dates back to the fourth century - a Reuters witness saw crosses and pictures of saints smashed and covered with dust on the floor.

    "God willing, the army will be able to free all of the Qalamoun area within days," a Syrian army officer in Maaloula told Reuters. "Most of the terrorists have been killed and others fled to nearby villages.

    "We can say that 80 percent of Qalamoun is under the control of the Syrian army."

    Syrian state television aired pictures of bodies it said were Nusra fighters killed during the offensive.

    Maaloula, 5 km (3 miles) from the main road linking Damascus to Homs, has changed hands at least four times in attacks and counter-assaults by rebels and government forces.

    Control of the road would help secure President Bashar al-Assad's grip over central Syria, and would also enable safe passage for hundreds of tons of chemical agents which are due to be shipped out of the country this year to be destroyed.

    Assad, who appeared on the verge of defeat last year, said on Sunday that the conflict was at a "turning point" in his favor.

    In the last few weeks, his forces have recaptured strategic towns along the Lebanese border including Yabroud and Rankous near Maaloula.

    Maaloula's churches and monasteries attracted both Christian and Muslim pilgrims before the conflict. Some of its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, and the monastery of Mar Thecla has a reputation among believers for miraculous cures.

    Syria's Christian community, about 10 percent of the population, is wary of the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement.

    Only a small percentage of Christians have taken up arms in the civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.

    [Reuters]
  • A Hezbollah-owned TV channel says three of its journalists were killed in an attack on a Christian town in Syria, The Associated Press reports.
  • According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a little more than 65 percent of Syria's chemical stockpile has been moved out of the country.

    From OPCW:

    The Syrian government has completed the delivery of the 13th consignment of chemicals to Latakia, which was removed today from the port on cargo ships. This follows a shipment that took place on 10 April. 


    The deliveries have raised the overall portion of chemicals removed from Syria to 65.1% of the total, including 57.4 % of the Priority 1 chemicals. Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü described these movements as ‘necessary and encouraging’. 


    Noting that Syria had reaffirmed its commitment to meeting its obligations, the Director-General observed, “Both the frequency and volumes of deliveries have to increase significantly to restore alignment of actual movements against the projected time frame.”

  • Syrian opposition activists have posted photographs and video that they say shows an improvised chlorine bomb to back up claims that President Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons in two attacks last week.

    Rebels and the government have blamed each other for the alleged poison gas attacks on Friday and Saturday on rebel-held Kfar Zeita village in the central province of Hama, 125 miles north of Damascus.

    Both sides said chlorine gas - a deadly agent widely used in World War I - had been used. The gas, which has industrial uses,

    is not on a list of chemical weapons that Assad declared to the global chemical weapons watchdog last year for destruction.

    It is a so-called dual-use chemical, which would have to be declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a spokesman said.

    State-run television on Saturday accused the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front of carrying out the attacks, which it said wounded dozens.

    On Sunday, activists from the "Syrian Revolution in Kfar Zeita" posted video footage and pictures of an unexploded canister with the chemical symbol for chlorine, Cl2, on its side which they said was found in the village.

    Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video or pictures.

    Eliot Higgins, a respected UK-based researcher who trawls daily through online videos of Syria's civil war to verify weapons in them, could not verify the opposition's claims but said the videos did appear to show an industrial chlorine cylinder.

    "It looks like they (the government) have taken an industrial chlorine cylinder, put it in a improvised barrel bomb and dropped it out of a helicopter," he told Reuters.

    The yellow paint on the cylinder complies with international standards on industrial gas color codes indicating it contains chlorine, he said.

    BEHIND SCHEDULE

    A U.N. inquiry found in December that sarin gas had likely been used in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where hundreds of people were killed.

    The inquiry only looked at whether chemical weapons had been used, not who used them. The Syrian government and the opposition have each accused the other of using chemical weapons on several occasions, and both have denied it.

    The Ghouta attack sparked global outrage and a U.S. threat of military strikes, which was dropped after Assad pledged to destroy his chemical weapons.

    Syria has destroyed or surrendered 65.1 percent of the 1,300 metric tons (1 metric ton = 1.1023 tons) of chemical weapons it reported possessing but must increase the pace if it is to meet deadlines it agreed to, the global chemical weapons watchdog said on Monday.

    A 13th shipment was loaded onto cargo ships in the port town of Latakia on Monday to be destroyed abroad, it said.

    OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu said while the latest handover was encouraging, "both the frequency and volumes of deliveries have to increase significantly to restore alignment of actual movements against the projected time frame."

    Syria has until June 30 to completely abandon its program but is running several weeks behind schedule.

    Syria's three-year civil war has killed more than 150,000 people, a third of them civilians, and caused millions to flee.

    [
    Reuters]
  • Egypt has arrested a veteran of the Syrian civil war on suspicion of planning terrorist acts inside Egypt, the state news agency reported on Sunday.

    The Egyptian prosecutor's office in Suez City ordered the arrest of Wael Ahmed Abdel Fattah for 15 days, MENA reported, adding that he was suspected of working with Islamist militant groups.

    MENA said Abdel Fattah, a former oil company employee, battled in Syria alongside the Nusra Front, seen as the most effective rebel group fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Since the army toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last July, Islamist militants based in the Sinai Peninsula have stepped up attacks on police and soldiers, killing hundreds. The insurgency has spread to Cairo and other cities, where senior security officials have been targeted.

    The Egyptian state and militants are old foes. Islamist-leaning soldiers assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, mainly because he signed a peace treaty with Israel.

    It took former president Hosni Mubarak years to put down an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

    Egypt's army-backed government says it will defeat Islamist militants, who carry out shootings and bombings.

    It's not clear how many Egyptian militants have fought in Syria but any serious numbers returning from the battlefield could complicate efforts to contain violence if they wage a holy war at home.

    Egyptian militants who fought in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s returned home and eventually trained their weapons on Mubarak's pro-Western government.

    [Reuters]
  • Syrian government media and rebel forces said Saturday that poison gas had been used in a central village, injuring scores of people, while blaming each other for the attack.

    The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said the poison gas attack Friday hurt dozens of people in the village of Kfar Zeita in the central province of Hama. It did not say what type of gas was used.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that people suffered from suffocation and breathing problems after the attack, apparently conducted during air raids that left heavy smoke over the area. It gave no further details.

    State-run Syrian television blamed members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front for using chlorine gas at Kfar Zeita, killing two people and injuring more than 100.

    The TV report claimed the Nusra Front is preparing for another chemical attack against the Wadi Deif area in the northern province of Idlib, as well as another area in Hama. It did not explain how it knew the Nusra Front's plans.

    Activists in the village could not be reached Saturday.

    An activist from Hama who is currently in Turkey and is on contact with activists and residents told The Associated Press that the attack occurred around sunset Friday. The man, who goes with the name Amir al-Basha, said the air raids on the rebel-held village came as nearby areas including Morek and Khan Sheikhoun have been witnessing intense clashes between troops and opposition fighters.

    An amateur video posted online by opposition activists showed a hospital room in Kfar Zeita that was packed with men and children, some of whom breathing through oxygen masks. On one bed, the video showed six children on a bed, some appearing to have difficulty breathing while others cried.

    The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the attack.

    Chemical weapons have been used before in Syria's 3-year-old conflict. In August, a chemical attack near the capital, Damascus, killed hundreds of people. The U.S. and its allies blamed the Syrian government for that attack, which nearly sparked Western airstrikes against President Bashar Assad's forces. Damascus denied the charges and blamed rebels of staging the incident.

    The Syrian National Coalition called on the United Nations to conduct a "quick investigation into the developments related to the use of poisonous gas against civilians in Syria." The coalition claimed that another chemical weapons attack Friday struck the Damascus suburb of Harasta, though state media did not report on it.

    An international coalition aims to remove and destroy 1,300 metric tons of chemicals held by the Assad government by June 30 in the wake of the August attack. Syria's government missed a Dec. 31 deadline to remove the most dangerous chemicals in its stockpile and a Feb. 5 deadline to give up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons. Assad's government cited security concerns and the lack of some equipment but has repeated that it remains fully committed to the process.

    In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and one-time commercial center, the Observatory and state television reported intense clashes Saturday, mostly near a main intelligence office in the city's contested neighborhood of Zahra.

    Syrian state news agency SANA reported earlier Saturday that several mortar shells hit the government-held neighborhoods of Hamidiyeh and Khaldiyeh, killing at least six people and wounding 15.

    Aleppo became a key front in the country's civil war after rebels launched an offensive there in July 2012.

    [The Associated Press]
  • As Syria's civil war continues into another year, Hezbollah has developed new tactics, The Associated Press reports. 

    From the AP:

    The commandos infiltrated Syrian rebel-held territory near the Lebanese border, watching rebel fighters come and go from a two-story villa before slipping inside to plant a powerful bomb. The next morning, they detonated it as three rebel explosive experts and four assistants met inside, turning the villa to rubble in seconds.


    The operation late last month in Syria's western Qalamoun region was carried out by fighters from Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, several Lebanese officials close to the militants have told The Associated Press. The Shiite group has sent hundreds of its fighters into Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad's overstretched troops, helping them gain ground around the capital, Damascus, and near the Lebanese border.


    But with its own casualties mounting in a civil war that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people in three years, officials say Hezbollah has turned to a variety of new tactics — including complicated commando operations — to hunt down rebels and opposition commanders.


    The aim of the new strategy, that includes hit-and-run attacks as well as reconnaissance missions, is to help Assad hold onto power, limit Hezbollah casualties and attack groups that want to launch attacks inside Lebanon itself.


    "Hezbollah is also well aware of its comparatively limited manpower capacity," said Charles Lister, an analyst with the Brookings Doha Center. "So exploiting an ability to inflict damage on the enemy without expending significant resources ... is a natural strategic development."


    Hezbollah has a long history of guerrilla attacks. It fought Israel in the wake of its occupation of south Lebanon until it pulled out in 2000, relying on hit-and-run assaults to combat Israel's army.


    In Syria, the turning point in Hezbollah's strategy came after the group helped secure the Syrian border town of Qusair last June, said the Lebanese officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Hezbollah military tactics. After that battle, they say rebels ambushed and killed four elite Hezbollah fighters after Syrian troops told them the area was secure.


  • According to Al Jazeera Arabic, at least 10 people were killed and dozens injured when the regime’s helicopters dropped explosive barrels on the town of Haritan, which is in Aleppo’s countryside.

    Several people were also wounded during the bombing of the town of Andan. Barrel bombs were reportedly used, according to Al Jazeera Arabic.

  • URGENT: BEIRUT (AP) — #Syria government, rebel forces say poison gas used in a central village, injuring scores. Each blames the other.
  • Experts on board a cargo ship transformed into a multi-million dollar chemical weapons destroyer said on Thursday they were ready to start working on Syria's stock of toxic arms in the middle of the Mediterranean as early as May.

    Now they just have to hope the weather holds and Damascus delivers on time.

    Former container vessel Cape Ray, docked in southern Spain, has been fitted out with at least $10 million of gear to let it take on about 560 metric tons (617.29 tons) of Syria's most dangerous chemical agents and sail them out to sea, said officials.

    The Damascus government, fighting rebels for three years, agreed to hand over its stockpile, which include precursors for deadly nerve agents sulphur, mustard and sarin gas, under an international deal backed by Washington and Moscow,

    On the Cape Ray, the specialized crew will transform much of it into a much less poisonous soup of chemicals, ready for disposal back on land.

    The process, say officials on the hulking grey, five-storey vessel, is fairly simple. The main agent to neutralize the agents is hot water.

    But things could get trickier if the seas turn rough.

    "Everything depends on the roll of the ship and they have tested that," said Michael Luhan, spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which is running the disposal operation with the United Nations.

    "They had some trial runs with the Cape Ray before it set sail and they are confident they should be able to keep operations going in relatively calm seas," he added.

    If they are calm, the Cape Ray - with a 10-country security escort - will head to somewhere in international waters and take about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralize the chemical agents, said Rear Admiral Bob Burke, director of U.S. naval operations in Europe and Africa.

    If seas are rough, the process could stretch out to 90 days, though the weather at that time of year is usually fine, he added.

    Whatever happens, there would be no risk to the blue waters of the Mediterranean, both officials insisted. "The ship will store every drop of effluent from the destruction process. Not a drop will go into the sea," said Luhan.

    JUST ADD HOT WATER

    Another source of uncertainty is whether the Syrian government will deliver the deadly agents on time.

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to hand over his chemical weapons after Washington threatened missile strikes in reaction to a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the outskirts of Damascus in August.

    Syria now has until June 30 to eliminate its chemical weapons programme and has already handed over roughly half its stockpile, which has been loaded onto Norwegian and Danish ships in the Syrian port of Latakia, OPCW officials said on Thursday.

    Almost all of the rest of the agents have been packed up and are now located at a few sites near the Syrian city of Homs, the OPCW added.

    But President Bashar al-Assad's government has missed several deadlines.

    "The Syrians control the timeline. They've committed to deliver the materials no later than the 27th of April. If they meet that commitment we would be starting the process within days," Burke told journalists touring the vessel at the U.S.-funded Rota naval base.

    Assad has cited unrest around Latakia as the most recent reason for delays in delivering the chemicals still in Syria.

    Once they get to Latakia, the blister agent mustard and sarin precursor chemicals, considered top priority chemicals for destruction, will be put on board Danish ship Ark Futura for transport from Syria to Italian port Gioia Tauro, said officials.

    From there they will be transferred to the Cape Ray in a ship-to-ship operation.

    The Cape Ray, used by the U.S. government for special missions, dates back to the 1970s. But it has been filled with the latest air pressurizing systems and filters, safety equipment, an emergency helicopter pad and two treatment units, housed in tent-like structures.

    Experts on the ship will use the hydrolysis process - where hot water is added to the agents to cause a reaction that turns them into low-toxicity effluent.

    The result will be thousands of tons of liquid toxic waste that the Cape Ray will store and then deliver to Germany and Finland for commercial destruction, most likely incineration, Burke said.

    Luhan said the destruction mission was unprecedented in terms of funds, the large number of countries involved in security, equipment and technology, and the attempt to destroy the entire chemical weapons arsenal of a government involved in a civil conflict.

    The rest of Syria's chemical weapons - 800 metric tons that are not processed on the Cape Ray - do not need to be neutralized with this process and will go straight from the Latakia port to commercial destruction facilities in various countries.

    [Reuters]
  • Blasts in the city of Homs kill 25

    Two car bombs exploded Wednesday in a government-held district of Syria's battleground city of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100, state media said.

    The blasts hit a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar al-Assad's minority Alawite sect in the city, where government forces have been imposing a heavy siege on rebel-controlled districts.

    Syria's uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule in March 2011, has since evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim opposition forces against an Assad government that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group that monitors violence on both sides through a network of sources in Syria, said the dead might have included some pro-government gunmen.

    The conflict has left over 150,000 people dead and forces millions to flee their homes.

    Homs, a city of about 1 million, has shown great sympathy for the opposition since the early days of the uprising. The city was once known as "the capital of the Syrian revolution" before government forces captured large parts of once oppositon-held neighborhoods such as Baba Amr and Khaldiyeh.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Syria's state-run news agency says two car bombs have killed 25 people in the central city of Homs.

    SANA says the blasts that struck a busy street also wounded 107 people.

    It said the dead and wounded in Wednesday's explosions included women and children.

    SANA said one car was parked near a sweets shop, and that half an hour later another car blew up.

    SANA said the wounded included its photographer in Homs, Syria's third-largest city. It said the blasts went off in the Karm el-Loz neighborhood.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the neighborhood is mostly inhabited by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect.

    [The Associated Press]
  • According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the ceasefire in Syria allows the first aid into an Aleppo neighbor in nearly a year.

    From UNHCR:

    The UN refugee agency and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), with agreement from the government and opposition forces, have delivered the first humanitarian aid into a besieged area of Aleppo since last June.


    The ceasefire, agreed for the duration of the operation, was fully respected as two truck-loads of supplies were moved by hand into the Boustan al Qaser neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo.


    The food, medicine, blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits and kitchen sets were unloaded at the last checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. The aid -- moved the final 1.5 km to a SARC warehouse using 54 pull-carts and 75 workers in 270 separate trips -- will now be distributed to the population.


    UNHCR staff had seen the dire humanitarian situation inside eastern Aleppo, reporting acute shortages of food, water and basic supplies. No humanitarian aid has reached the population since UNHCR last accessed the area in June 2013.


    It is estimated that some 6.5 million of Syria's 22 million people have been displaced inside the country, while another 2.6 million are now refugees, mainly in neighbouring countries. The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.


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