Protest against Assad entered a potentially decisive phase


Syrian forces equipped with dozens of tanks were reportedly massed outside a near-deserted town near the Turkish border as the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad entered a potentially decisive phase.

Human rights campaigners and people who have been in the vicinity of Jisr al-Shughour said there had been shooting near the town on Friday, where there has been shelling in recent days. Witnesses have claimed up to 5,000 troops are involved, which appeared to confirm reports on Syrian state TV that the regime has started a new military operation on the town where a mass defection of troops to rebels has also been credibly reported. Damascus has admitted 120 officers and security personnel based in the town were killed by “armed groups”.

Information about events on the ground remained patchy, since most foreign journalists are banned and there are heavy restrictions on local media, but previous Fridays have seen increased violence across Syria as protesters and forces loyal to Assad have clashed.

Jisr al-Shughour usually has a population of 41,000 but thousands of people have fled to nearby villages and across the border into southern Turkey, where the authorities are offering humanitarian assistance. They have been reluctant to let most people speak to waiting media, although some refugees making their way independently have managed to give their accounts of the latest crackdown on the national uprising which began three months ago and is said by human rights groups to have cost at least 1,300 lives. The government says 500 members of the security forces have been killed.

Nadim Houry from Human Rights Watch, which is monitoring the situation from Beirut, told the Guardian: “We managed to get through to someone in a town not far from Jisr al-Shughour and they reported hearing gunshots in a town called Sermaniyyeh. That seems to confirm what Syrian state TV indicated earlier today that the army has started its ‘military operation’ on Jisr al-Shughour.

“Based on what’s happened over the last three months we are very worried that we are going to see yet again a large number of killings of protesters.”

Houry said: “Based on various testimonies there have been some defections, what we don’t know is the scale of these defections. In Egypt and Tunisia, the decision of the army to stop shooting at protesters or to refuse orders was key to convincing the regime that it was time to go [but] we have to wait and see what’s going to happen in Syria. Things are playing out differently there, the loyalty of the officers in Syria remains clearly with the regime.”

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had close ties to Assad, on Thursday criticised the crackdown.

Interviewed on Turkey’s ATV television, he said some images coming out of Syria were “unpalatable” and suggested Turkey could support a UN security council decision against Syria. “They are not acting in a humane manner. This is savagery,” he said.