A view of a deserted street strewn with debris in the restive city of Homs, some 160kms north of the Syrian capital, Damascus
Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
UPDATE: The Obama administration pushed back on Wednesday against Sen. John McCain's calls for U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria. Meanwhile, the U.N. humanitarian chief visited the district of Baba Amr in the Syrian city of Homs.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee (on which McCain serves as the top Republican) that unilateral action "doesn't make sense" at the moment, according to the Associated Press. The current strategy out of the Pentagon is to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically and politically.
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos briefly visited Baba Amr with Syrian Red Crescent officials on Wednesday, the BBC reports. She's in the country to urge the Syrian government to allow humanitarian aid into the devastated district after Syrian forces attacked Homs for weeks.
Tuesday, March 6, 3:01 p.m. : As violence in Syria shows no sign of slowing down, the U.S. is drafting a new U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to the bloodshed, first by Assad regime-sponsored forces and followed by opposition fighters, the Associated Press reports Tuesday.
That draft resolution is reportedly being discussed behind closed doors by the five member states of the Security Council—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France—and Morocco, the Arab representative. The resolution would be the first since Russia and China vetoed one last month calling for sanctions against the Assad regime, arguing that the international proposal was too one-sided and only demanded that the government stopped its attacks.
Days after Vladimir Putin’s contested presidential victory, Russia's stance hasn’t seemed to changed much: A top Moscow diplomat urged western countries on Tuesday to encourage the Syrian opposition to stop fighting against the Assad regime instead.
Meanwhile, a day after Sen. John McCain called for U.S.-led air strikes as humanitarian intervention, President Obama has come out against unilateral U.S. action, saying Tuesday that the Syrian situation was much more complicated than in Libya, to which McCain had compared the Syrian violence in his address Monday to the Senate. The AP reports that Obama’s strategy would have foreign powers continue diplomatic efforts and sanctions to pressure Assad into handing over power.
Tuesday, March 6, 10:00 a.m.: At least 14 people were killed in Syria Tuesday as government forces targeted rebel strongholds in the country. According to opposition groups, the military also bombed a bridge near Homs serving as one of the major escape routes to Lebanon for refugees, dissidents and the injured, the Telegraph reports.
According to the paper, Syrian forces have reportedly started bombarding Rastan, a rebel stronghold near Homs. Activists are worried that the district will become the next Baba Amr–the district of Homs targeted by the Syrian military in a weeks-long siege of the city that ended when rebel forces staged a "tactical withdrawal."
On Tuesday, Senator John McCain called for U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria. But, as CNN notes, the U.S. government is staying noncommittal on military force in Syria. This is, in part, because aid to the Syrian government from its ally Iran has been on the rise.
Monday, March 5: The Red Cross on Monday was denied access to the Baba Amr district of the Syrian city of Homs for a fourth consecutive day. As refugees flood out of the city, their accounts of what the Syrian government is doing inside the district support the claims made by activists and humanitarian groups of a humanitarian catastrophe.
The BBC, interviewing survivors outside of Homs, reports that Syrian forces were targeting men and boys as young as 12 for execution, and cutting the throats of prisoners. Former members of the elite military unit tasked with retaking Homs for the Syrian government told the BBC that they were told to target civilians deliberately: "We were told in this operation: 'You shoot anything that moves. Civilian or military—you shot at it.' "
Sana, the Syrian state news agency, reports that authorities are "removing debris" from Baba Amr. Syrian officials continue to assert that the Red Cross is being kept out of the district because it is laden with traps and land mines laid by the "terrorists" who held the district until last Thursday, when the Free Syrian Army announced a "tactical withdrawal."
Meanwhile, Reuters reports, Syrian forces have moved into the city of Deraa after opposition forces attacked checkpoints there. An oil pipeline in Deir al-Zor was bombed on Monday.
Kofi Annan will travel to Syria on Saturday as a special envoy for the U.N. and Arab League, according to CNN. His goal is to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop the killing.
Sunday, March 4: The Red Cross was blocked from entering the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs for a third day Sunday as the agency said it had begun handing out aid to people who had fled the battered area. The Syrian government continues to insist Baba Amr had to be cleared of booby traps, but activists insist officials “are trying to prevent the Red Cross from witnessing ‘massacres’ by Syrian soldiers hunting down and killing remaining rebels,” writes Reuters.
Paul Conroy, a Sunday Times photographer who fled Syria after he was wounded in Homs told the BBC there was “systematic slaughter” taking place in Baba Amr. “I've done a fair few wars, I've never seen anything on this level.”
Saturday, March 3: Syrian forces renewed shelling parts of the devastated city of Homs Saturday while they continued to block Red Cross from delivering desperately needed aid to civilians in Baba Amr. Government forces began bombing several of the districts where many residents of the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr had fled after it came under attack two days ago, reports the Associated Press.
The latest assault came a day after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he has received “grisly reports” of executions and torture, reports Reuters. CNN hears word that more than 40 soldiers who tried to defect from the army in Idlib province were executed by government troops.
Meanwhile, the bodies of two Western journalists killed in Syria last month were handed over to diplomats Saturday. Marie Colvin, an American reporting for the Sunday Times of London and Rémi Ochlik, a French photographer, were both killed in Homs Feb. 22.
Friday, March 2, 3:17 p.m.: Aid trucks carrying food, medical supplies, and blankets were turned away from the Baba Amr district of Homs Friday by Syrian forces, according to activists and a Red Cross spokesperson.
International Committee of the Red Cross's president Jakob Kellenberger said it was "unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help," according to Reuters. The Red Cross will remain in Homs and try to enter the district again "in the very near future."
The move is kindling rumors of a massacre in the district by Syrian forces, who took over Baba Amr from opposition fighters on Thursday. According to activists, 14 civilians were executed.
Friday, March 2, 9:56 a.m.: The Red Cross is headed to Homs in order to provide aid to its residents, with the permission of the Syrian government. A convoy of aid trucks left Damascus on Friday, carrying food, milk powder, medical supplies and blankets.
But what, exactly, they'll find there isn't quite clear. According to Reuters, an unnamed Syrian official called the rebel areas of the city "cleansed," and opposition leaders are saying that Syrian forces executed suspected rebel fighters still left in the city after taking control Thursday.
A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights told the Associated Press that they'd received "unconfirmed" reports of a "a particularly grisly set of summary executions" involving 17 people.
The remaining two western journalists trapped in Homs after an attack on a media center last week, meanwhile, have been smuggled out of Syria, the Associated Press reports, and are on their way to France.
Thursday March 1: According to activists, Syrian opposition fighters have started a "tactical" withdrawal from the Baba Amr district of the besieged city of Homs.
The move indicates an apparent agreement between the Free Syrian Army and Syrian troops, quite possibly in order to avoid a final showdown, the BBC explains.
In their statement explaining the withdrawal, (posted on Facebook), the FSA calls for the International Red Cross to "immediately" step in and provide aid to the estimated 4,000 people still refusing to leave the district. Baba Amr is now apparently controlled by Syrian forces.
Homs, under siege for nearly a month, is the current tactical and symbolic center of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's nationwide crackdown on opposition forces. An unnamed Syrian official told Reuters that the regime believes a victory in Homs is essential, saying they "want to take it, whatever happens, without restraint, whatever the cost."
Meanwhile, the exile opposition group Syrian National Council is forming a military bureau in order to centralize organization of opposition forces in Syria, Reuters reports.
Other Syria developments:
—Saudi Arabia and Qatar are calling on the international community to arm the opposition fighters in Syria. The calls speak to the sectarian tension permeating the crisis in Syria, as Reuters explains. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Sunni Muslim-ruled. Syria's current government is Alawite, a sect associated with Shi'ite Islam, but the majority of Syrians are Sunni.
—Only Russia, China and Cuba voted against a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria and demanding humanitarian access to the country's hardest-hit civilians.
—Javier Espinosa, one of four western journalists trapped in Homs after Syrian forces bombed a media center in the city, has made it safely to Lebanon, one day after British photographer Paul Conroy was spirited out of the country. Two French journalists, William Daniels and Edith Bouvier, are believed to still be in Syria.
Wednesday, Feb. 29, 10:08 a.m.: Syrian ground troops on Wednesday were reportedly advancing on the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs.
The Associated Press reports that three western journalists and about 100,000 residents have been trapped by the government-led bombardment of the neighborhood for weeks. An unnamed official told the AP that the district would be "cleaned" within hours.
The AFP reports that activists in the central part of Syria's third-largest city deny that a ground assault is underway. Still, according to most reports, elite troops from the Syrian army have surrounded the district. It also appears that communication has been cut off from the district in most instances, making confirmation of the assault difficult.
The Guardian is liveblogging the news and attempting to confirm reports of the ground assault.
As all this happens in Homs and other rebel held districts in Syria, the U.N. Security Council is again working on a resolution condemning the government's assault in the country. The last U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria was vetoed by Russia and China, so they're trying to draft something that those two countries won't veto this time around by focusing on a demand to allow access for humanitarian aid, the AFP notes.
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 5:56 p.m. It seems that only one journalist, Paul Conroy, made it safely out of Syria, despite earlier reports (and an apparent confirmation from French president Sarkozy) that French journalist Edith Bouvier had also been evacuated to Lebanon.
There are believed to be three western journalists (including Bouvier) still trapped in Homs, possibly split from each other in heavy shelling of the city. The Guardian has more.
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 12:00 p.m. : President Sarkozy has now confirmed that French journalist Edith Bouvier has also made it safely out of Homs, where she was injured in a blast that killed two western journalists. The news comes hours after British photographer Paul Conroy's rescue from the Syrian city was confirmed, ending confusion over her fate.
The BBC reports that Bouvier, who has a broken femur, was rescued by opposition forces with Conroy. At least three of the activist volunteers escorting them to safety in Lebanon were killed by Syrian artillery fire.
Meanwhile, the Syrian military reportedly sent in their elite armored division to rebel districts of Homs on Tuesday. Activists say that at least 25 have died during the latest round of attacks, Reuters reports.
The U.N. has continued to push for a ceasefire in Syria in order to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in the hardest-hit regions. They also seem to be renewing as-yet unsuccessful efforts to move diplomatically on the crisis. In an emergency meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council Tuesday, representatives discussed their diplomatic options, which include submitting a complaint to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, according to the BBC.
B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N.'s undersecretary general told the Security Council that at least 7,500 people have died in Syria since the government began a crackdown on civilian protests 11 months ago, the Associated Press reports. They estimate that over 100 people may be dying in Syria a day in the military attacks.
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 10:08 a.m.: At least three Syrian activists were reportedly killed overnight in the dramatic rescue of Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy from Homs. Conroy was wounded in the Syrian city in a blast that killed his colleague Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik last week.
A spokesperson from the Sunday Times told the Guardian that Conroy is "in good shape and good spirits" in Lebanon after the rescue. Three other journalists still await rescue from Homs: French journalist Edith Bouvier (who has a broken femur); William Daniels, a photographer, also from France; and Javier Espinosa, of El Mundo.
The Syrian volunteers came under artillery fire twice while rescuing Conroy. Three were killed in the first round of fire, while more have reportedly died in a second attack, the Guardian reports.
Conroy is believed to have been evacuated by activists after Conroy and Bouvier apparently refused rescue by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the local affiliate of the International Red Cross. According to the Telegraph, opposition activists believe that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has loyalties to the Assad government.
Monday, Feb. 27, 10:13 a.m.: The Syrian government on Monday announced that this past weekend's disputed voter referendum approved a new constitution, one introduced by President Bashar al-Assad and widely derided as a farce by the Syrian opposition and western diplomats.
The New York Times reports that the government announced the results via a bulletin across the bottom of the screen on state television, saying that the referendum passed with 89.4 percent of voters in favor of it. The new constitution includes term limits and makes room for multiple political parties to participate in government, but it would allow Assad to remain in power through 2028, Reuters reports.
Meanwhile, Syrian forces continued to bombard Homs, killing 21 in the city on Monday. The Red Cross is still trying to secure a pause in the pummeling of the city to bring much needed aid to its civilians, who have little or no access to food or medical supplies. There are four western journalists trapped in Homs, two of whom are injured.
Also Monday: The Council of the European Union voted to impose tougher sanctions on Assad's regime, CNN reports. The assets of seven ministers, along with those of the Syrian Central Bank, will be frozen, Syrian cargo planes won't have access to E.U. airports, and the trade of diamonds and precious metals will barred. But as CNN notes, no attempt to pressure Assad into halting his government's attacks on Syrian people have been successful.
Sunday, Feb. 26: President Bashar al-Assad went ahead with plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution Sunday. But the voting didn’t stop the violence. At least 31 civilians and soldiers were killed Sunday, including nine civilians in Homs, reports Reuters. Assad insists the referendum is the first step toward reform and multi-party parliamentary elections in three months, but the opposition has called for a boycott and the West characterized the vote as a “sham,” notes the Associated Press.
The Red Cross, describing the humanitarian needs as “very urgent,” says it still has not been able to enter the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr and rescue the two Western journalists who are wounded there. Two other journalists were killed in the Homs bombardment last week. As could be expected, for the people in Homs, voting is the last thing on their minds. “What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or by bullets? This is the only choice we have,” an activist in the Khalidiyah district of Homs tells Reuters.
The New York Times points out that the vote “was apparently moved forward” to try to give allies like Russia and China cover for their insistence that the government’s offers to reform must be given a chance to work. Even though the new constitution would impose term limits and open up the political sphere to other parties, Assad could still rule until 2028.
The BBC’s Lina Sinjab, who is in Damascus, says that while the city is filled with billboards encouraging people to vote, “the polling stations I visited were nearly empty.” A leader of an opposition group tells al-Jazeera that Syria’s new constitution will be “meaningless” because the government has shown no respect for current laws. “The major problem is that the government is violating the current constitution,” he said.
Friday, Feb. 24 3:22 p.m.: The Red Cross has started evacuating women and children from some areas of Homs, following negotiations earlier today, the BBC is reporting. Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulances are transporting evacuees from Baba Amr. Those needing evacuation include foreign journalists.
Friday, Feb. 24 9:53 a.m.: Today's "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia has resulted in a handful of developments in diplomatic attempts to intervene in the Syrian government's ongoing siege of Homs and other opposition-heavy parts of the country. More are expected as the conference reaches full speed later in the day.
The conference has already had one setback: A group of about 200 supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad tried to storm the hotel in which the conference is being held, forcing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be diverted back to her hotel and delaying the start of the meeting, the Associated Press reports.
The "Friends of Syria" conference includes representatives from the U.S., Europe, and Arab countries. The group is expected to call on the U.N. to send a peacekeeping mission to Syria—once the hostilities in the country are over. They're also expected to demand a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the country.
The Red Cross has also called for a ceasefire so that it can provide aid to Syrian civilians in the heaviest-hit areas of the country, the Guardian reports. Without access to food, drinking water, or medical supplies, residents of Homs are starving to death and unable to seek care for injuries. The Syrian government has been uncooperative with humanitarian requests so far, and has not responded to the Red Cross's ceasefire request.
France's diplomat to Syria has returned to Damascus today, the Guardian reports, apparently in order to repatriate the body of Rémi Ochlik, who was killed in Homs on Wednesday, and to aid the retrieval of an injured French journalist in Homs's Baba Amr district.
Meanwhile, it's not clear who, if anyone, could step in to form a coherent government in Syria should Assad step down or otherwise be removed from power. The "Friends of Syria" conference, clearly willing to support opposition forces in the country, will have to figure out who they believe represents the country's opposition groups. For more on that, the New York Times reports on the fractures within the opposition movements in the country, and on efforts to install the opposition coalition of the Syrian National Council as the "official" representative of opposition forces in the country. The U.K. has already recognized the SNC as a representative of the Syrian people.
Thursday, Feb 23: A U.N. panel accused the Syrian government of crimes against humanity on Thursday, as President Bashar Assad's forces continued their weeks-long shelling the city of Homs.
The Associated Press reports that human rights experts on the panel have suggested that the U.N. has a secret list of top Syrian officials who could face charges for the crimes. The list is believed to include Assad and several of his top advisers.
The condemnation comes one day before a major conference in Tunisia is expected to call for Assad to announce a cease fire in order to allow humanitarian aid workers into the hardest-hit areas. In districts targeted by the regime's forces, food, water, and medical supplies are reportedly running dangerously low.
The U.N. report, delivered to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, was based on 369 interviews with witnesses, victims, defectors and others with knowledge of what's going on in the country. That process was necessary, as the the New York Times notes, because U.N. investigators were not permitted into Syria to do their jobs first hand. The investigators concluded that "the highest levels of the armed forces and the government" in Syria have committed "gross human rights violations."
The report depicts a country on the verge of civil war -- "the continuation of the crisis carries the risk of radicalizing the population, deepening inter-communal tensions and eroding the fabric of society" -- and also details the torture of civilians.
Two western journalists and a popular Syrian blogger (who provided one of the only livestreams of violence in the country) were killed and others wounded in attacks on the Baba Amr district of Homs Wednesday that left at least 30 people dead.
One of the journalists killed was veteran American war correspondent Marie Colvin. In her last report from Homs, Colvin described the city after weeks of siege:
Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets...
...It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.