Middle East
2:11 pm
Tue November 15, 2011

Syria Faces Growing Pressure As Bloodshed Spikes

Originally published on Tue November 15, 2011 4:19 pm

Army defectors ambushed dozens of Syrian troops, and regime forces gunned down civilians during one of the bloodiest days of the country's 8-month-old uprising, which appeared Tuesday to be spiraling out of President Bashar Assad's control.

Up to 90 people were killed in a gruesome wave of violence Monday, activists said. The extent of the bloodshed only came to light Tuesday, in part because corpses lying in the streets did not reach the morgue until daylight.

As the bloodshed spiked, Assad's former allies were turning on him in rapid succession, a sign of profound impatience with a leader who has failed to stem months of unrest that could explode into a regional conflagration.

Pressure From Neighbors

Turkey, Jordan and the 22-member Arab League all signaled they were fed up with Assad's response to the uprising and were ready to pressure him to go.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday he no longer has confidence in the government led by Assad, a 46-year-old eye doctor who inherited power from his father 11 years ago.

"No regime can survive by killing or jailing," said Erdogan, who cultivated close ties with Assad before the uprising began in March. "No one can build a future over the blood of the oppressed."

Erdogan, who disrespectfully addressed Assad by his first name, warned Assad that his brutal crackdown on opponents threatens to place him on a list of leaders who "feed on blood."

Turkey also canceled plans for oil exploration in Syria and threatened to cut electricity supplies to the country, which is burning through the $17 billion in foreign reserves the government had at the start of the uprising. Turkey provides around 7 percent of Syria's total electricity consumption.

A day earlier, Jordan's king said Assad should step down, the first Arab leader to publicly make such a call. In an interview with the BBC, King Abdullah said it's time for Assad to make way for a new phase in Syrian political life.

"I believe if I were in his shoes, I would step down," he said.

After the interview aired, the Jordanian Embassy in Syria's capital was attacked by an angry mob.

The U.S. and its European allies have already called for the Syrian president to step down. They hope pressure from Arab countries will force Russia and China to back a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. Russia and China previously vetoed such a resolution.

Over the weekend, the Arab League took a near-unanimous vote to suspend Damascus from the regional body as early as Thursday if steps aren't taken to end the violence. The decision has enraged Syria, which considers itself a bastion of Arab nationalism.

Syria's foreign minister branded the decision "shameful and malicious," and accused other Arabs of conspiring with the West to undermine the regime.

The only other Arab countries to be suspended from the League were Libya, in recent months, and Egypt, after it made peace with Israel back in 1979.

The Arab League has been meeting with members of the Syrian opposition this week. League officials are expected to convene again in Morocco on Thursday, with Syria at the top of the agenda.

In a sign that Saudi Arabia's rulers now foresee an end to Assad's rule, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, told reporters in Washington that it was "inevitable" that Assad would step down.

"I think what we're seeing here and continue to see is that the drumbeat of international pressure is increasing on Assad," said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

Despite the widespread condemnation, Assad was unlikely to put an end to the crackdown, said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University. The reason is simple: Assad's regime would almost certainly fall if the crackdown ends, she said.

Violence Against Security Forces

Although activists say the anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful, an armed insurgency has developed in recent months targeting Assad's military and security forces.

Thirty-four soldiers were killed Monday in an ambush in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The brazen attack by army defectors suggests a new confidence among troops who have sided with the protesters, and highlights the potential for an armed confrontation to escalate.

The army defectors claim to be protecting unarmed civilians who go out to protest against the government. But this latest violence has many analysts in the region concerned that what has been a mostly unarmed protest movement is turning into a civil war.

Amateur video provided by activists showed what appeared to be an army tank and other military vehicles engulfed in flames in Daraa. "God is great!" a voice cried out. "This is an armored vehicle with a machine gun from Assad's brigades. God is great!"

Other footage showed a fire at the end of an alley sending up a plume of smoke, followed by an explosion. "That's the free army!" a man shouted as gunshots rang out. "That's a sniper," another voice said. "There's a sniper at the school."

Other videos showed tanks on urban streets firing their cannons, and crowds of people running from the sound of automatic gunfire.

An activist in the area said he counted the bodies of 12 civilians killed by security forces' fire. "I saw two army armored personnel carriers, totally burnt," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

A resident near the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh in Daraa province said he heard more than four hours of intense gunfire. Both witnesses asked that their names not be used for fear of government reprisals.

As many as 90 people were killed nationwide Monday, including 19 civilians whose bodies were collected from the streets of Homs and delivered to the morgue.

The U.N. estimates the regime's military crackdown has killed 3,500 people in the past eight months. November is shaping up to be the bloodiest month of the revolt, with well over 300 people killed so far. A recent Human Rights Watch report says abuses by the Syrian regime amount to crimes against humanity.

The latest death toll was compiled by sources including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Local Coordination Committees activist coalition and morgue officials.

In many ways, the violence against security forces plays directly into the regime's hands by giving it a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force, analysts say.

Assad says extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the country's autocratic political system.

Assad has responded with once-unthinkable promises of reform in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. But he simultaneously unleashed the military to crush the protests with tanks, gunfire and snipers.

On Tuesday, the regime announced an amnesty for 1,180 prisoners who were arrested over the past eight months but whose "hands have not been stained by blood." Earlier this month, Assad freed 533 prisoners to mark Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice.

The regime also released Kamal Labwani, 54, one of the country's most prominent detainees, according to the observatory for human rights. Labwani was serving a 12-year sentence on charges of anti-government activities after he met White House officials. He was detained in 2005.

Sectarian Tensions

Still, the gestures ring hollow alongside the mounting death toll and amateur videos posted online every day that appear to show random gunfire and shelling.

The Syrian government has largely sealed off the country, barring most foreign journalists and preventing independent reporting. But details gathered by activist groups and witnesses, along with the amateur videos, have become key channels of information.

The bloodshed also has laid bare Syria's long-simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of Iraq-style sectarian killings.

Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fates of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling the army to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.

To a large degree, the military has remained loyal. Most of the defectors appear to be lower-level Sunni conscripts, not officers. But observers say the tide could change if the military continues to be called upon to shoot unarmed protesters.

NPR's Kelly McEvers contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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