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Day 1,125: What a monastery looks like after becoming a battleground

Government forces took the Christian town of Maalula yesterday. Here are the photos.


(Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Day 1,125 of the Syria conflict. Today, the UN Security Council is meeting privately to view slides of Syrian corpses showing signs of torture. A few of these images were published by The Guardian in January as part of the so-called "Caesar Report," compiled by three international lawyers from images smuggled out of Syria by the defector known as "Caesar."

Photos from the Syrian government's recent victory in the Qalamun region, mentioned yesterday, are now available through AFP and Getty. The photo above shows government forces celebrating after taking control of the village of al-Sarkha yesterday morning.

Government forces then proceeded to take the ancient Christian town of Maalula later that day. Maalula and al-Sarkha are the last remaining bastions of the Western Aramanic language. Maalula is home to many religious sites, including the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery, whose oldest structures date from the 5th to 6th centuries. A photo below shows the damage to the Mar Sarkis monastery which a journalist working with AFP was able to photograph upon entering the Maalula after government forces had taken it. AFP says the monastery's walls had been "pierced" by mortar rounds.


Damage inside the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maalula, northeast of Damascus, after government forces took control of the town from rebel fighters. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)


The view of Maalula from above. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)


A member of the government forces stands guard overlooking the ancient Christian town of Maalula, northeast of Damascus, after they took control of the town from rebel fighters. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

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Day 1,124: Stomach-turning reports of torture in Syria

"They pulled out two of my toenails with a plier."

Today is Day 1,124 of the Syria conflict.

This morning, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a sickening report on torture in Syria. Within are descriptions of individuals in government detention centers being raped, beaten, and having their hair, teeth, and toenails ripped out. "Our findings confirm that torture is being routinely used in government detention facilities in Syria, and that torture is also used by some armed groups," said High Commissioner Navi Pillay, who is clearly already looking ahead to the coming prosecution battle: "In armed conflict, torture constitutes a war crime," Pillay said. "When it is used in a systematic or widespread manner, which is almost certainly the case in Syria, it also amounts to a crime against humanity." (Recall that last week, Vice profiled the brave individuals smuggling evidence of war crimes out of Syria for use in international prosecution efforts.)

Also this morning, news broke that Syrian government forces have retaken the Christian town of Maalula, adding to the recent string government victories in Qalamun.

Over the weekend, claims circulating on Friday of a new chemical weapons attack intensified. The attack occurred in the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita. The Syrian government is blaming the attack on the extremist Nusa Front rebel group (an Al Qaeda affiliate). The Syrian National Coalition, a more moderate rebel body, called for an international investigation and also claimed that there had been a second chemical weapons attack that day in a Damascus suburb that went unreported by state media.

The 13th shipment of Syria's chemicals departed the port in Latakia today, probably bound for the US MV Cape Ray sitting in the Mediterranean. The Organization for the Porhibition of Chemical Weapons, according to the AP, says the Syrian government needs to step it up to meet the deadlines set by the international community. The whole stockpile is supposed to be destroyed by June 30.

Sunday, an image emerged that perfectly encapsulates the magnitude of the spillover problem with Syria. This photo below is of Iraqi security forces watching as a backhoe digs a trench to prevent people from crossing the border from Syria into Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region.


(Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

The New York Times' Syria conflict coverage out of Jordan continues to be outstanding. You may recall the piece Friday reporting the "open secret" in Jordan that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan run basically an arms-handout center in Amman for Syrian rebels. Over the weekend the same reporter, Ben Hubbard, had a piece on what can only be called jihadist culture among middle-aged men living in Zarqa, Jordan. Westerners hear a lot about jihad as an exclusively Muslim religious concept, but this piece shows that there can be a non-religious aspect, too, and universal one. It's the part, though Hubbard does not draw this comparison, that those quoting Tennyson's famous poem "Ulysses" for the glorious language of its closing tend to ignore: The poem is not just about the will to live and lust for adventure, but also, specifically, about the temptation for men with familiy responsibilities to slip away to a world outside the ordinary. "If I could go back and do it again, I would not come back," one middle-aged fighter tells Hubbard. "Those were the best three months of my life." The piece is worth a read.

Finally, Vanity Fair has published a piece following up on the kidnappings of journalists Austin Tice and Jim Foley in Syria. GlobalPost correspondent James Foley was kidnapped in northern Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012 and remains missing. In the interest of Foley’s safety, GlobalPost has not released details of the ongoing investigation to secure his freedom since a statement made in October 2013.

The conflict continues.
 

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Day 1,121: How much help is the US really giving Syria's rebels?

A few reports from the past 24 hours shed light on the question, but raise a few questions of their own.


Opposition fighters carry a wounded comrade during clashes with government forces in Aleppo on April 9. (Medo Halab/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Day 1,121 of the Syria conflict.

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Flames engulf a vehicles following a car bomb in the Syrian city of Homs on April 9. (AFP/Getty)

Today is Day 1,120 of the Syria conflict.

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Day 1,119: The Syrian conflict is filled with ... Australians?

So Australia's attorney general said Tuesday. It's sort of true. But a straight head count turns up more Belgians, believe it or not.


UNHCR and the Syrian Red Crescent arrive at the checkpoint in Aleppo on April 8. (BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Day 1,119 of the Syria conflict. The UN's refugee agency has just announced that, in a "rare and risky" operation with the Syrian Red Crescent, it has successfully delivered the first humanitarian aid to Aleppo in almost a year.

Both sides agreed to and respected a ceasefire "for the duration of the operation," while "food, medicine, blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits and kitchen sets" were unloaded at a checkpoint and then hauled in "270 separate trips" into the contested city, using pull-carts. The press release was not loaded with details, but judging by the photos available on Getty, this operation began yesterday. Those are a few of the 75 aid workers, above, pictured arriving at the checkpoint.

Now on to the rest of the roundup.

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UN warns drought could push millions more Syrians into hunger

The threat posed by drought meant the number of Syrians in need of emergency rations could rise to 6.5 million.

Day 1,118: US and Turkey call claims Turkey manufactured Syria's chemical attack "baseless"

In other news, getting aid into Syria is hard, and it doesn't help when the UN is short on donor funds.


(Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Day 1,118 of the Syria conflict.

Remember how, over the weekend, investigative journalist and Syrian chemical weapons attack skeptic Seymour Hersh accused the Turkish government of manufacturing last summer's chemical attack to get US attention? The White House has said those "conclusions arecompletely off-base." Anonymous "Turkish diplomatic sources" have told English-language Turkish daily Today's Zaman that "these claims are baseless. We do not take it seriously." Make of that what you will, but suffice it to say they're not the only ones who have taken issue with Hersh's theories.

The UN yesterday announced that it will have to cut food rations in Syria due to lack of donor funds. For context on the difficulty of getting aid to Syrians inside the country, take a look at the photo above, which shows members of the Syrian Red Cross and Red Crescent carting aid to a rebel-controlled checkpoint in Aleppo earlier today. That flag isn't for ceremony and those pinnies aren't for a soccer game: It's all to decrease the likelihood of their getting killed. Rebel forces and pro-government forces agreed to a ceasefire to allow the aid in.

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Day 1,117: Tony Blair thinks the West should have intervened in Syria

The former UK prime minister's comments come after a weekend of intense bloodshed.


A picture from Sunday shows a Syrian boy being evacuated from a residential building in Aleppo reportedly hit by an explosives-filled barrel dropped by a government forces helicopter. (Khaled Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Day 1,117 of the Syria conflict. 

Over the weekend, clashes in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp killed one, a car bomb in the Syrian city of Homs killed 29, shelling in Damascus killed two, and attacks on Aleppo continued (photo above), allegedly killing 20. Activists in Aleppo, inspired by the Armenian community's #SaveKasab Twitter campaign for a predominantly Armenian town near the Turkish border (backstory here), launched a #SaveAleppo campaign. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri seems to have taken to YouTube Friday to call for an end to infighting among Islamist rebels in Syria, and also to ask fighters to find out who killed Al Qaeda's "chief representative" in Syria, Khaled al-Suri, in February. (Al-Suri was killed by suicide bombers. Rival rebel groups are suspected.) Seymour Hersh, known for his skepticism that the Syrian government was actually behind the chemical weapons attacks of last summer, has a new piece out accusing the Turkish government of having staged the attacks to draw the Obama administration into action. GlobalPost reviewed the controversy over the sarin attacks in detail here — Hersh isn't the only one skeptical of the official account. That said, this latest piece goes several steps further than his last one in December, which was turned down by both The New Yorker and The Washington Post before being accepted by the London Review of Books. Expect rebuttals in the coming days.

That was the weekend. Monday is opening no better. 

In Homs, a masked militant gunned down an elderly Dutch priest inside a monastery. The priest was known for his Facebook activism on behalf of civilians in the city.

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Day 1,114: The Armenian community is officially angry about Syria

More specifically, Armenians suspect Turkey helped the Syrian rebels take the Armenian town of Kasab.


The location of the village of Kasab, in Syria. (Google Maps)

Today is Day 1,114 of the Syria conflict, and the new protests to watch are coming from the Armenian community, worldwide.

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Yehia, the millionth Syrian refugee in Lebanon, registers at a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) registration center, after fleeing from Yabrud, in the northern port city of Tripoli on April 3, 2014. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Today is Day 1,113 of the Syria conflict.

The UN has now registered over one million refugees in Lebanon. Yehia, above, was the millionth, registered in Tripoli this morning. According to UNHCR, Lebanon now has "the highest per capita concentration of refugees" of any country in the world. 

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