Syria Revolution - 2013
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On 06 January 2013, President Al Assad delivered a speech ruling out any negotiations with “terrorists”, stating that a political settlement was only possible with a nationalist opposition that was not seeking “to divide Syria”. He also outlined his vision of a political settlement whereby outside countries would stop arming “terrorist groups” inside the country, after which the Syrian army would halt its military operations but reserve the right to respond to any attacks by armed groups. He proposed the holding of a national conference with the aim of establishing a national charter leading to parliamentary elections and the formation of a new Government.
On 29 January 2013, around 80 dead bodies were discovered in the Qweiq Waterway between Souq Al Hail and Bustan Al Zahra neighbourhoods in Aleppo. These areas are controlled by the FSA. According to reports, most of the deceased had been shot in the head at close range and many had their hands tied behind their backs. They were fully clothed, including with belts and shoelaces, suggesting they were killed shortly after capture. The perpetrator of the killings has not been established and the incident remained under investigation.
Government forces have fired medium and long-range missiles, which have caused widespread damage to residential neighbourhoods in Aleppo. A missile strike in Aleppo city is reported to have killed over 200 people on 18 February 2013. A later strike on 22 February left at least 50 people, including children, dead. Insider accounts detail Syrian Air Force commanders giving orders to shell entire areas of Aleppo city without discriminating between civilian and military objectives. Densely populated neighbourhoods were shelled almost daily, often resulting in their total destruction. Such conduct violates the principle of distinction and amounts to a violation of international humanitarian law.
During the early months of 2013, the Syrian conflict has continuously escalated, albeit unequally, reaching new levels of violence and spreading to new regions. Armed clashes between Government forces and anti-Government armed groups have intensified along with the involvement of multiple actors in what is becoming a protracted civil war. Levels of violence have varied geographically due to the interplay of a number of factors, in particular the sectarian composition of the affected areas and the armed groups’ operational capabilities.
Violence particularly increased in and around major cities, in particular Damascus and Aleppo, where recurring assaults by parties to the conflict have moved frontlines closer to the cities’ centers but insubstantially. Whereas the Government remained in control of the southern and coastal governorates due to the heavy presence of military units and security services, anti-Government armed groups made substantial military gains in central and northern regions driving the Government out of parts of the territory and forcing it to cede the control of several localities, neighborhoods and strategic intersections. Except for major towns, Government forces no longer try to recapture those areas considered as “liberated” by the opposition, instead causing extensive destruction through heavy artillery shelling and aerial bombardment. An escalation was also observed in north-eastern governorates, namely Al-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah, where Government forces have ceded control of several Kurdish localities to a Kurdish militia.
The Government, along with supporting militia, have progressively adopted a strategy based on “contraction” of its forces in facing the mounting insurgency threat. Whereas continuing to focus on securing control of major cities such as Aleppo and Damascus, they have besieged number of other restive localities with layers of security and limited their actions in the countryside to the shelling of areas under armed groups’ influence.
The Syrian army ground operations have mostly taken place inside major towns like Hama and Idlib cities, or in the countryside of governorates that are still under the Government’s control such as Dara’a and Latakia. In central governorates such as Hama and Homs, army units have imposed prolonged blockades of towns located amongst areas under opposition influence purportedly to prevent the anti-Government armed groups from establishing in additional urban zones and to cut the insurgents from their potential popular support. Armed clashes have regularly taken place around these towns — like Khan Sheikhoun or Halfaya — between the army checkpoints and the insurgents operating in the surrounding countryside.
Opposition strongholds like Rastan, Zabadani and Maarat An Numan, have also been extensively besieged and shelled by army units in their attempt to limit the anti- Government armed groups’ geographical influence, cut their logistical lines, and prevent them from geographically connecting with other localities held by other groups. Other areas such as Aleppo northern countryside, Dayr az Zawr southern countryside and Jabal Al-Zawiya in Idlib were ceded to the opposition but continuously targeted by indiscriminate airstrikes. Efforts were also engaged to reinforce army positions along Lebanese and Jordanian borders in an attempt to block the flows of weapons and fighters.
Disinclined to put overstrained troops into hazardous urban operations, the Government forces intensified its use of air force, artillery and mortars shelling. Intense and brutal bombing has targeted opposition strongholds as well as areas newly infiltrated by armed groups including in many cases intentional targeting of non-military facilities such as bakeries and gas stations. Different types of ammunition were used in the shelling including explosive barrels, cluster aerial bombs and artillery cluster shells. The commission documented the increased use of cluster ammunition by Government forces including since early December, artillery cluster shells fired by units equipped with BM-21 Grad Multi Rocket Launchers near the cities of Idlib and Latamnah.
In comparison with the first half of 2012, defections have decreased likely due to the Government forces limited ground engagements, increased control of military and security personnel movements, and possible perception among potential defectors that the time for defection was over. As a direct consequence, proportion of civilians among insurgency ranks have augmented over 70 percent forcing their way to most leadership positions as well.
Some minority communities, notably Alawites and Christians, have formed armed self-defense groups supposedly to protect their neighborhoods from anti-Government fighters by establishing checkpoints around their areas. Some of those local groups — also known as Popular Committees — were allegedly armed and equipped by the Government and have participated alongside Government forces in military operations in Damascus and Homs. Statements indicated that some of these groups were also supported by external sponsors in neighboring countries. Armed clashes have occurred between these Committees and anti-Government armed groups in multi sectarian localities and neighborhoods or cases where armed insurgents have reached areas inhabited by minority communities.
Despite its persistent fragmentation and inability to unify under a single command, the Syrian armed opposition has continued to mature into a fighting force increasingly able to challenge the State’s control of the country and to strike at strategic targets. During the early months of 2013, anti-Government armed groups have reached strategic regions and were able to challenge Government forces control of sensitive infrastructure such as oil fields, major highways, as well as military bases and airports. Unable to progress in key cities because of Government forces’ airstrikes, anti-Government armed groups have recently started targeting the Government forces’ main supply routes and fighting for control of bases and airports mainly across the north of the country.
In northern, eastern and central provinces, armed groups have extended their control over increasing swathes of territory due to, among other reasons, an increased access to efficient military assets allowing them to seriously challenge the army’s tactical superiority. Meanwhile, armed groups in the southern and coastal governorates have struggled to establish themselves and are able only to briefly attack isolated checkpoints and bases.
Anti-Government armed groups have improved their access to weaponry, though those in the south tend to be less well armed. While important quantities of lethal military equipment were looted from army bases, weapons and ammunition have also been provided by external sources and smuggled in across borders with neighboring countries in significant quantities and on an increasingly regular basis. Currently, most armed groups are equipped with individual light weapons and small arms, typical to any insurgency, and seem to benefit from an increased availability of munitions that allowed them in many occasions to sustain combat against the army for days. Some armed groups also possess mortars, heavy machine guns and heavy anti-aircraft machine guns. A few have obtained anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles though in limited quality and quantity but enough to affect Government forces’ use of armored vehicles and air assets.
Despite the numerous endeavors made to unify and structure the indeterminate number of anti-Government groups, the armed opposition is still largely fragmented and unable to coalesce behind a reliable leadership. Among these groups, the lines of separation between the Salafi, FSA and other armed groups are ambiguous with fighters shifting from one group to another based on the availability of funds and weapons.
Fragmentation of the armed opposition has been aggravated by — if not the result of — the fact that the financial and material external support delivered by different sponsors, instead of promoting integration, has been provided to different armed groups in exchange for rival loyalties. However, differences between the FSA and independent groups, Salafi or not, have not significantly hindered their cooperation. In general, they have collaborated and coordinated their actions in a pragmatic approach aiming at using all available forces to achieve the ultimate declared objective, namely the ousting of the regime.
The escalation of violence and increasing intervention of external sponsors has also led to radicalization among the anti-Government armed groups, and the proportion of fighters with Salafi inclinations has augmented including local and foreign extremists. The financial support provided by donors not only strengthened Salafi factions but also pushed mainstream insurgents toward joining them due to their better ability to provide them with the necessary logistical supplies. Statements indicated that the level of the financial support provided by external conservative sponsors to an armed group depends on its operational efficiency, numbers of fighters and particularly its willingness to embrace Salafi ideology with the associated symbols and speech.
The Free Syrian Army [FSA] remained a brand name despite its leadership and supporters’ efforts to create a central command and link it to regional and local command structures. Due to its inability to logistically sustain its followers, FSA leadership failed to produce and maintain a leadership hierarchy capable of uniting field commanders and units fighting under its banner. A new initiative sponsored by external supporters was launched on December in Antalya with the creation of the “Supreme Joint Military Command Council” and its General staff Committee led by Brigadier General Salim Idriss — promoted to Major General — and linked to five geographical regions regrouping major local revolutionary councils. It is still attempting, with limited success as of yet, to unify all opposition fighting forces and secure the loyalty of all local military and revolutionary councils.
Besides the FSA, independent military alliances have managed to unify the efforts of several armed groups engaged in military operations in specific circumstances and areas. The Al-Tawhid Brigade which formed before the anti-Government armed groups’ campaign in Aleppo represented the most advanced attempt yet in uniting local brigades under a single command hierarchy. Some others like the Union of Homs Rebels have even tried to establish a governance structure including military, security, judicial and administrative components to fill the gap left by Government authorities in “liberated areas”.
Increasingly radical ideologies are gradually defining the character of the conflict. The accompanying radicalization favors armed groups that openly adopt Salafism. The Al-Nusra Front stands out among these groups due to its superior level of operational effectiveness and its use of more aggressive tactics clearly benefiting from better financial support. Other independent Salafi groups, like the Ahrar Al-Sham Battalions in Idlib and the Al-Islam Brigade in Damascus eastern suburbs have also attracted more radical elements of the opposition and subsequently gained more legitimacy among the opposition armed groups.
Foreign fighters constitute an important faction of the insurgency but their numbers and organization are still hard to assess with accuracy. It is sure that they represent a small proportion within the anti-Government armed groups’ ranks but their expertise and experience in matter of IEDs and insurgency warfare have brought a substantial contribution to the opposition’s tactical effectiveness. They have integrated armed groups all over the country and contributed to the radicalization of anti-Government insurgents. According to several statements, foreign fighters are drawn from countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, many from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
Government forces have continued their extensive and indiscriminate use of all available fire power assets including artillery, air force assets and most recently, surface-to-surface ballistic missiles against insurgent held areas. The Syrian regime continued to rely on its elite and most reliable army units including the 4th Army division, Republican Guard and Special Forces regiments. Government affiliated militias and paramilitary forces including the Shabbiha militia and the local Popular Committees, which initially operated as self-defence groups in pro-Government communities, regularly reinforce Government forces. By March 2013 the regime had begun to integrate the Popular Committees along with other sympathising groups in a new paramilitary force called “the National Defence Forces,” institutionalizing the existing militias and organizing them into an operational structure.
In Kurdish areas, the Popular Protection Units (YPG) mostly formed by armed elements of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) (affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)) have been in control of most Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods in Aleppo and Al Hassakah since the withdrawal of Government forces. The predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria have been marked by mounting tensions between the PYD and anti-Government armed groups. The newly created Kurdish Popular Protection Units, commonly known as the YPG, responsible for maintaining order and protecting the lives of residents in Kurdish neighborhoods have captured most of the Kurdish towns in the North, as Syrian security forces withdrew without any major resistance. Since July, clashes have periodically erupted in Aleppo Kurdish neighborhoods and other Kurdish towns between the YPG and the Free Syrian Army because of the latter’s intrusions into Kurdish territories.
Improved military capabilities have enabled anti-Government armed groups to expand their control to new areas, increasingly challenging Government forces during ground operations and causing considerable damage to Government military facilities. Across the northern and eastern governorates and more recently in Dara’a and Damascus governorates in the south, anti-Government armed groups have bolstered their military gains, largely due to their increased access to weaponry. Armed groups have attacked military bases, seizing equipment including tanks, mortars, artillery guns, surface-to-air missiles and man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS). In addition, they have also acquired weaponry from external sources, including anti-tank rocket and grenade launchers.
By March 2013 Anti-Government armed groups had wrested control of some areas of the county from the Government. In the fighting in Syria in late March 2013, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels have seized a 25-kilometer strip of land near Syria's southern border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The group said the rebels captured several military checkpoints in the strategic region in recent days, further weakening Mr. Assad's control.
As they take control over territory, some groups begin exercise aspects of civilian governance. They have assumed some of the roles and functions akin to a de facto state authority, as evidenced by the establishment of quasi-judicial mechanisms and law enforcement structures. While attempting to fill the vacuum left by disintegrating Government institutions, armed groups remain uncoordinated. As a result, there existed a number of courts in governorates such as Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and Dayr az-Zawr which operated independently on uncertain principles and with no or little apparent judicial oversight. Captured soldiers and Government affiliated militia members are regularly executed.
Following his meetings with Syrian Coalition President al-Khatib, members of the Coalition’s leadership, and international partners supporting the Syrian opposition, on April 20, 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry announced the United States’ intention to double non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, as well as provide additional humanitarian aid to Syrians in need.
Government forces continued to prioritise the control of major urban centres and main lines of communication connecting strategic regions. Excepting Al-Raqqah, By mid-May 2013 the Government held all major cities despite facing serious challenges in Aleppo, Dara’a and Dayr Al-Zawr. It launched ground operations in the Damascus countryside, Dara’a and Homs governorates to expel armed groups from strategic positions and maintain the country’s main supply routes. In other operations, Government forces sought to cut supply lines connecting armed groups with their support networks in neighboring countries.
Syrian government troops and Hezbollah guerrillas captured the strategic border town of Qusair from anti-government rebels in early June 2013. The two-week-long battle for Qusair involved government air strikes, artillery bombardments and close-quarter fighting. It finally fell with an overnight Hezbollah ground assault that opened the way for Syrian government tanks to penetrate the north-side of the town where last rebels were holding out. The victory marked a significant Hezbollah victory over Jabhat al-Nusra, which had taken the lead in defending Qusair and which had sent in reinforcements from the eastern town of Raqaa.
Qusair, once a town of between 30,000 and 40,000 people, is 17 kilometers inside Syria on the main highway leading into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and on to Beirut. The rebels had held Qusair for more than a year in their overall struggle to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Its loss to government forces represented a major blow to rebels, whose most effective fighting units, the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra front, were defending the town. In the final days of fighting for the town, more than 2,000 Hezbollah fighters from the militant Lebanese Shia movement were re-directed to Aleppo instead of being sent to strengthen the assault on Qusair. Diplomats said there would almost certainly be a renewed government-led offensive on the northern city of Aleppo.
The retaking of Qusair will make life much more difficult for the rebels in central Syria. The town was important for the rebels’ logistics and supply routes from Lebanon. "Whoever controls Qusair controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria," Syrian Brigadier General Yahya Suleiman said on Beirut-based Mayadeen television.
In regions held by armed groups in northern and eastern governorates, Government forces resumed their brutal and often indiscriminate campaign of shelling, using a wide variety of weaponry. Besides the continuous use of aerial bombardments, they have fired strategic missiles, cluster and thermobaric bombs. This appears to be part of a broader strategy aimed at eroding civilian support for anti-Government armed groups and at damaging infrastructure. The majority of these attacks targeted towns and neighborhoods controlled or infiltrated by armed groups, rather than targeting those groups’ military bases.
The Syrian Army launched a major offensive in Aleppo to retake the rebel-held northern city, the Al-Manar website said on 09 June 2013. The operation dubbed the Storm of the North started early on Sunday and the Syrian Army had several achievements in the following regions: Kafar Hamra, Haryatan, Andan, Hayyan, Sheikh Maqsood Syria, Bustan Al-Basha, Bustan Al-Qasr, and Al-Ameriya, on the outskirts of Aleppo, the report said.
Defections and casualties affected Government forces’ strength and cohesion. To generate combat power, the Government increasingly relied on militia recently transformed into the National Defense Army, a paramilitary force. Drawn mainly from pro-Government communities, these self-defensee forces were systematically engaged in combat operations alongside army units.
Armed groups were still equipped mainly with small arms and light weapons, but with an increase in anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, as well as indirect fire assets, provided predominantly by supporting countries and armed groups in the region. They used mortars and artillery guns to target army positions, but also pro-Government localities, usually those hosting army positions.
Military encroachments on sovereignty have opened the possibility of violence consuming the region. The Secretary - General of Lebanese Hezbollah publicly asserted his group’s intervention in the conflict on the side of the Syrian Government, while some Lebanese Sunni clerics have called for, and recruited, volunteers to fight in Syria. Jabhat Al-Nusra’s proclamation of allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and the group’s public admission of association with Al -Qaeda in Iraq, raise concerns about Syria’s becoming embroiled in the global jihadist cause. The Syrian war affects the domestic political dynamics of neighboring states and strains the relationship among their diverse communities, threatening their fragile internal stability.
The People’s Protection Committees (YPG) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), officially affiliated to the Kurdish Supreme Council, reinforced its authority over several Kurdish towns. Trying to avoid the fighting , it has sporadically clashed with both Government forces and anti-Government armed groups over control of Kurdish localities in northern and north-eastern Syria. Clashes were becoming more frequent with anti-Government armed groups despite having local military agreements and occasional coordinated joint operations, such as in Sheikh Maqsood in Aleppo.
There are fears that violence will spread increasingly to one of Turkey’s most culturally and religiously mixed areas. At the 30 April 2013 Security Council meeting, Jordan’s Permanent Representative stated that, at the current pace, the exodus of Syrian refugees could soon represent “a threat to our future stability.” Israel has increased its involvement in the Syrian crisis by targeting what it alleges are weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah and other sites inside Syria. Exchanges of fire also occurred in the Golan Heights.
By June 2013 Government forces had seized the momentum, which they retained in the following three months, recapturing some of the areas lost previously to the armed groups and consolidating their control over contested regions, particularly in Homs and Damascus countryside. With the exception of Aleppo city, government forces reinforced their hold over major cities and economically important areas. Despite the efforts of armed groups, government forces successfully held most strategic military positions, air force bases and main lines of communication in Aleppo and Idlib. They disrupted supply lines linking armed groups to their networks across the borders.
Government forces continued to rely on heavy and often indiscriminate firepower to target areas they were unwilling or unable to recapture through ground operations. A variety of fire assets, including missiles, jet fighters and artillery, were systematically employed against restive localities to prevent a return to normality under armed group control and to sanction the local population.
Anti-government armed groups reinforced their control over large swathes of the northern and eastern governorates, but failed to hold key positions in Homs and Damascus. Persistent divisions and lack of logistical support seriously limited their operational capacity to face the latest offensives of government forces.
A number of diverse and initially profoundly divided insurgent groups have evolved into a more organized force. Alliances operated across several fronts, with increasing collaboration among groups. They failed, however, to unify their structures under a coherent command owing to their divergent objectives and resources. The efforts of the Supreme Joint Military Command Council were undermined by its inability to centralize logistical support and to integrate existing command networks. More recently, discord grew among groups with different loyalties, occasionally leading to confrontation over areas and resources.
The fluctuating and erratic support provided by a number of countries and wealthy individuals to the armed groups was sufficient to escalate hostilities, but is unlikely to fundamentally determine the course of the conflict. Support mainly benefited the armed groups operating along the borders. Those positioned in central areas recently lost control of their supply lines.
Anti-government armed groups were equipped mainly with small arms and light weapons, although they occasionally increased their use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems. They also employed mortars and artillery guns to target military and security positions, including those within residential areas.
Despite efforts to limit the extremists’ influence in opposition circles, the radicalization of anti-government fighters continued. Alongside a growing number of foreign fighters, the discipline and operational abilities of radical fighters, combined with better access to reliable sponsors, allowed them to outmatch the fractious moderate groups. The most radical, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), developed their own strongholds in the north.
The conflict is deadlocked, with both warring parties convinced that a military victory is possible. This has led to an intensification of hostilities along distinct, though fluid, battle lines. Fighting continued, with both sides consolidating forces in their primary strongholds. Government forces continued to control major cities and lines of communications, while anti-government armed groups reinforced their presence in large swathes of the northern and eastern governorates, and areas along the Jordanian border. More regional actors were sponsoring flows of fighters and equipment, increasingly along sectarian lines, leading to a rise in corresponding violence. Meanwhile, the conflict has expanded beyond the country’s borders, re-igniting tensions in fragile neighboring countries and threatening regional peace and security.
The conflict in Syria has reached new levels of brutality, including the systematic imposition of sieges, the use of chemical agents and forcible displacement. War crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations continue apace.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 110,371 casualties since the beginning of the uprisings in 18/3/2011, from the first casualty in Dera'a, up till 31/08/2013:
- Unidentified casualties (documented by pictures and footages): 2,726.
- Civilians: 40,146. Including 5,833 children and 3,905 women.
- Rebel fighters: 15,992.
- Rebel fighters (most of which are non-Syrian and others are unidentified): 3,730.
- Defected soldiers and officers: 2,128.
- Regular soldiers and officers: 27,654.
- Popular defence committees, National defence forces, Shabiha and pro-regime informers: 17,824.
- Fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah: 171.
In The Human cost of the Syrian Civil War, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, published on 03 September 2013, Anthony H. Cordesman wrote "We also estimate the real number of casualties from regular forces and rebel fighters to be twice the number documented, because both sides are discreet about the human losses caused by clashes."
This would suggest that about 45,000 rebel fighters had been killed over the first two years of the war, with over 50,000 government troops killed in action over the same period. These numbers are a little difficult to understand. By mid-2013 all opposition groups combined were estimated to include about 120,000 fighters. It is plausible that these groups could have made up their losses through fresh recruitment. The IISS Military Balance for 2013 reported that "The nominal pre-war strength of the army has likely been reduced by half: the result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties." The relatively small number of defected soldiers and officers killed would tend to suggest that the deserters [who abandoned the battlefield] vastly outnumber defectors [who switched sides]. By IISS estimates, the strength of Syrian army had fallen from 220,000 to 110,000. Accepting Cordesman's estimate of over 50,000 battle deaths implies about 25% of the Syrian army has been killed in action. Accepting a standard 3-to-1 ratio of wounded to killed would imply 150,000 wounded, given 50,000 killed. Taken together, these number suggest that most of the Syrian army present at the outbreak of hostilities had either been killed or wounded two years later.
During the Great War, Russia mobilized 12,000,000 troops, of whom 1,700,000 [14% of those mobilized] were killed before the Russian army collapsed. Germany mobilized 11,000,000 troops, of whom 1,800,000 [16% of those mobilized] were killed before the Russian army collapsed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had documented 130,433 casualties since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 18/3/2011 with the first protestor shot and killed in Der'a, up till 30/12/2013. The dead include:
- 46,266 civilians (including 7,014 children and 4,695 women)
- 19,937 rebel fighters.
- 2,233 defected soldiers and officers.
- 6,913 ISIS and al-Nusra fighters, the vast majority being non-Syrian. Some yet to be identified by name.
- 32,013 regular soldiers.
- 2,794 unidentified casualties (documented with pictures and footages).
- 19,729 combatants from the Popular Committees, National Defence Forces, Shabiha, and pro regime informers.
- 262 fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah.
- 286 non-Syrian pro-regime Shi'ite militiame
The death toll did not include more than 17,000 detainees and missing persons inside of regime prisons, nor the more than 6,000 regular soldiers and pro regime militants held captive by rebel fighters and the ISIS. Nor does it include kidnapped civilians. The Syrian Observatory estimated that there were about 50,000 casualties from regular forces and rebel fighters and non-Syrian fighters that the Observatory had not been able to document, because both sides were discreet about the human losses resulting from clashes.
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