Syria Sends More Tanks, Troops Into Southern City


Despite the rising death toll from weeks of unrest, people across Syria continue to protest the government of President Bashar al-Assad. See events by day.

BEIRUT—Syria sent more military tanks and troops into the southern city of Deraa on Saturday, a day after a crackdown on protests across the country killed 66 people, despite a condemnation from the United Nations and a U.S. asset freeze on members of President Bashar al-Assad’s family.

To view popup window put your cursor on the blue words

Syria and Damascus

“The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinousStrongs 4654: mappalah, map-paw-law´; or mappelah, map-pay-law´; from 5307; something fallen, i.e. a ruin:—ruin( ous). heap.”
—Isaiah 17:1

Tens of thousands of people defied a government ban on protests on Friday and marched across Syria, including the largest demonstrations yet in the major cities of Damascus and Latakia, according to witnesses and activists. An opposition group also on Friday called on the military to lead a transition to democracy, in one of the first attempts by protesters to bridge the widening gap between backers of the regime and those demanding its end.

In Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, thousands of people marching out of Friday prayers were dispersed first by security forces firing rubber bullets, and then by heavy rainfall in the afternoon, a resident said. Security forces shot live ammunition into the crowd when the protesters came out in larger numbers after the rain subsided, the resident said. In Damascus and Aleppo, antiregime protesters faced demonstrators loyal to Mr. Assad.

More than 100 additional tanks and 1,000 soldiers moved into Deraa after dawn on Saturday, a resident reached by telephone said. About 28 people were killed and more than 100 injured on Friday when troops shot through thousands of people marching from surrounding villages into Deraa to demand the end of a military siege on the city, the resident said.

“They want to raze it to the ground because this is where the protests started,” he said.

An additional 138 members of the Ba’ath Party from the Houran region, of which Deraa sits at the southernmost tip, resigned in protest of the violence on Saturday, according to an e-mailed copy of the collective resignation letter. More than 230 members quit the party—a pillar of Mr. Assad’s tightly-knit regime—earlier this week. The documents could not be independently verified.

Major protests in Syria started seven weeks ago, sparked by people demonstrating in Deraa against the jailing of some teenagers who had scrawled anti-regime slogans on a wall. A crackdown by security forces on protests as they moved into other cities—to Banias in the west and Al Qamishli in the northeast—has killed over 500 people since the unrest began in mid-March, according to human rights groups.

Residents of Deraa say they have been cut off from electricity, water, and phone services since Monday, when the military first moved in. They say they are still unable to step outside for food or medicine, or bury their dead, as artillery continues to pound the city. On Saturday, tanks shelled homes around the al-Omari mosque, a central gathering place for protests in recent weeks, according to activist accounts.

The U.S. on Friday announced sanctions against senior government officials, including members of Mr. Assad’s family, as part of a growing international effort to pressure Syria’s regime to abandon the violent crackdown on political protesters. The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva called for a formal investigation into the violence.

But Mr. Assad has ignored appeals from the international community to halt the use of violence and introduce meaningful reforms.

Syria’s government said five members of the military and security forces were killed on Friday by “extremist terrorist groups,” while two soldiers in Deraa were recovered after being abducted by an armed terrorist group that attacked a military location. “The military units continue to carry out their mission of preserving stability and calm in the city,” the government said in a statement carried by the state news agency.

International efforts, in which most countries, including the U.S., have abstained from calling for Mr. Assad to leave office, have sought to overcome divisions between protesters and the large population who continue to support his rule.

Vast parts of Syrian society, including the urban middle and upper class of Sunni Muslims— the country’s majority sect—and the substantial Christian population still support Mr. Assad, as do his security forces.

That bodes poorly for protesters, in contrast to the recent uprisings in countries such as Egypt, where the middle class, and ultimately the military, supported the transitions from an entrenched regime. On Friday, a group of Syrian activists called on the army to follow in the footsteps of the Egyptian military and lead a transition to a democratically elected government.

The initiative represented the most unified front yet by Syria’s loosely organized opposition since protests began, against a regime that has ruled for four decades and violently squashed dissent before.

The initiative was coordinated by three opposition figures abroad, who said it has been signed by 150 politicians and activists inside Syria.

“The best option is for the leadership of the regime to lead a transition to democracy that would safeguard the nation from falling into a period of violence, chaos and civil war,” the opposition group said in a statement.

Activists say there are several such plans in draft form. Syria’s better-known opposition figures, including members of the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, haven’t signed on to the initiative. In addition, it may prove difficult to garner support from activists who have seen brutal force. That suggests the opposition group may be banking on a rift in the military.

The proposal singled out Defense Minister Ali Habib, a member of the ruling Alawite minority like Mr. Assad, and army Chief of Staff Gen. Dawud Rajha, as credible regime figures to lead a transition process. Neither official responded publicly to the proposal.

“We’re giving the president a test today and tomorrow, to demonstrate whether he is in control and he has still authority over the people around him,” said Ausama Mounajed, a spokesman for the initiative, who has lived in the U.K. since 2004. Two other coordinators, Radwan Ziadeh and Najib Ghadbian, are based in the U.S. Mr. Mounajed said the opposition movement chose Mr. Habib for his credentials as a professional army man, and as a message to Syria’s Alawite community.

Between the 45-year-old Mr. Assad and his father, Hafez, the Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970. Their Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, rules over a Sunni majority.

“They’ve chosen an Alawite figure and suggested that he could lead this, which could possibly create a fracture within the regime,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “You are making the Alawites take a long look at whether it’s worth it to keep the Assads any longer in power.”

On Saturday, activists reported soldiers in Deraa defecting and joining the protesters, following reports earlier this week of clashes between army units in the southern city. In a statement Friday, an official military source quoted by the state news agency said “allegations…about a split in the army” are untrue.

The prolonged confrontation has polarized the country. Many Syrians are sticking with the regime—especially the substantial population of Christians and other minorities, and the urban middle and upper classes of Sunni Muslims with a large stake in the system the Assad family has built.

Their support is quiet, even reluctant, and often stems from fear that chaos and sectarian conflict could result if the regime lost control. But their support has been critical to the regime’s response to the crisis.

Even amid the violence in Deraa, one resident reached by cellphone on Friday said she still supported Mr. Assad.

“We love Bashar, but the people below and around him aren’t listening to him anymore,” she said. “I love his positions…But I never expected this, not from him and not from the regime.”

The theme that Mr. Assad isn’t responsible for the violence was echoed by a graduate student in Damascus, who said his support for the leader had to do with “the combination of his lovable personal character and his courageous confrontation with American policies over the past years.”

Copyright © In The Days