With the relentless shelling of Homs, the targeted killing of Western journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, and Saudi Arabia calling for the rebels to be armed at the "Friends of Syria" conference, Syria continues to exist in a state of routine chaos.
As I'm sure you're already aware, Marie Colvin, a veteran conflict correspondent and journalist for The Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, a 28-year-old French photographer, were killed in the Baba Amr district of Homs when a shell hit the media center they were staying in on Wednesday. Many in the country claim that the Syrian army used the media center's satellite phone signal to coordinate their attacks, which is backed up with messages intercepted by the Lebanese intelligence services.
Their deaths seemed to bring the international community one step closer to a military response, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy left in a particularly fighty mood. "That's enough now, this regime must go," he said. "There is no reason that Syrians don't have the right to live their lives and choose their destiny freely. If journalists were not there, the massacres would be a lot worse."
The fighting in the country has also claimed the lives of some of Syria's numerous citizen journalists, who've strived to cover the conflict from its very beginnings, often livestreaming the violence on mobile phones. Rami al Sayed was one of the more prolific and daring, shrugging off wounds to cover some of the worst atrocities committed in Homs for his syriapioneer YouTube channel. Rami was killed on Tuesday, when the car he was trying to help a family escape from Homs in was hit by a shell.
On Friday, the "Friends of Syria" conference was held in Tunis, Tunisia, as the world tried to embolden the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Suad al Faisal, declared his belief that arming the Free Syrian Army would be "an excellent idea," before walking out complaining that no one else was doing enough to stem the violence. On the same day, the Palestinian militant group Hamas publicly backed the Syrian revolutionaries, condemning the regime that had previously offered them a safe haven and an operating base in Damascus.
Meanwhile, Homs has been under bombardment for 23 days now. The International Red Cross spoke to Assad's regime, and managed to successfully negotiate the evacuation of wounded civilians and journalists. Unfortunately, the violence continues, and, at 2:30 PM EST on Sunday, Syrian government forces launched a large-scale attack on Homs, heavily shelling six of its districts.
At least 2,000 refugees were trapped within the city's suburbs while attempting to flee, and another 5,000 are blocked by regime forces on the outskirts of Jobar. Finally, six Sunni families have been taken hostage in the city by the Shabiha government militia. The news reports claiming they've been slaughtered is not helping to calm anyone down at all.
Here's the latest dispatch from activists on the ground:
"Baba Amr is being annihilated.
"Although the sky is clear, it's raining rockets, flesh and death. Homs is still suffering from the barbaric campaign carried out by the criminal Assad forces, and the humanitarian condition has become disastrous in the city where no food or medical supplies are available. The lack of medical supplies is turning yesterday’s wounded into today’s fallen heroes. Meanwhile, all communication services and electricity are still cut off. The shelling continues with increased intensity, with Assad forces using rocket launchers and heavy artillery."
Outside experts who've watched these videos have confirmed that the Syrian regime has been using 240mm mortar rounds during its bombardment of Homs. These are the largest mortar rounds in the world, and are fired from Tulip vehicles that take nine men to operate and are quite possibly supplied by Russia.
The attack that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik also wounded two other Western journalists, Paul Conroy and Edith Bouvier. They are in desperate need of medical care, but the regime has rejected negotiations with the IRC to allow them to be evacuated.
In last week's update, activists talked about the use of chemical weapons by the regime forces in Homs. These claims are hard to verify, but in this report, former regime fighters who've defected to join the FSA, now also claim that the regime has used chemical weapons. In their fight back against the siege in Homs, residents have gotten around the lack of weapons by building their own. They're kinda ingenious, but unlikely to strike fear into the regime:
Although I wouldn't like coming up against one of these:
Thankfully, despite having been outgunned, the residents of Homs have the FSA to protect them. If this picture's anything to go by, they're using what look like technicals with mounted machine guns. Libyan militias ride in similar things.
Just before the death of Marie Colvin, a French photo-journalist named Mani was filming with the FSA as they battled regime forces in Homs for a month. The film he made with Channel 4 captures some of the clearest and most vivid footage of the FSA yet.
Other movements towards justice have been made: On Thursday, international investigators submitted a full list of Syrian regime officers and political figures to the UN, accusing them of war crimes. The day before in Aleppo, a normally quiet city, students held a large publicprotest against Assad's regime.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of its size, the demonstration attracted the attention of the army who opened fire on the protesters, killing two and injuring dozens more.
In the northern province of Idlib, the regime has started shelling residential areas indiscriminately. Even children aren't spared the violence there, though if they launch a full-scale ground invasion of Idlib they'd come up against scenes like this, risking embarrassment and further large defections:
With the option of ground assault curtailed for now, pro-regime Shabiha militia have been resorting to kidnapping men of fighting age and executing them on the spot in an effort to demoralize the enemy. All that it ends up doing, though, is inspiring more huge defections to the FSA:
Finally, in an effort to show the world that the regime is trying to "reform," Assad today called for a referendum on a new constitution, which has been boycotted and labelled a sham by the opposition. Over the weekend, hackers also forced the regime to shut the parliament website, after they reversed a government poll to show that 90 percent of Syrian people were against the constitution. The people in Homs also had a rather dark way of registering their votes, with the exploded shells of mortar rounds:
So, Western journalists were killed, but the great reporting continued; the international condemnation grew stronger; the Red Cross managed to evacuate some of the wounded; and Bashar still looks like Screech from Saved By The Bell. Not the best week possible for the regime, right?
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Previously: Syrian Slaughter Update - Week Two