Updated | 11:12 a.m. As tanks and armored divisions moved into a town in northwest Syria that has been the scene of intense clashes over the last several days, activists and opposition figures called once again on the international community to condemn the regime’s bloody crackdown on protests, which has so far killed more than 1,300 people, according to human rights organizations.
Thousands fled the town of Jisr al-Shoughour in a desperate bid to escape the violence, crossing over into nearby Turkey as the Syrian army amassed tanks and infantry on the outskirts of the town. Witnesses in Turkish refugee camps reported that the city is now “pretty much empty,” said Nadim Houry, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, in an interview from Beirut.
Syrian soldiers have been dispatched to Jisr al-Shoughour, a quiet market town on the country’s northwest border with Turkey, after a series of violent clashes that the regime claimed left as many as 120 police dead. The official state news agency called the incident a “massacre” perpetrated by “armed terrorist gangs.” But Houry and others have disputed that account, saying the deaths resulted instead from the soldiers’ refusal to fire on unarmed protesters.
“What the witnesses are saying is that the army refused to fire,” Houry said. Reports from refugees indicate that “there was some sort of defection, or at least a decision not to fire on the protesters, and that this decision has led to security services — particularly the political security and the military security — opening fire on those soldiers who refused the shooting orders.”
He added: “There was some sort of firefight between the soldiers that refused to attack the protesters and others.”
In a sense, the defections are an indication that the balance of power may be shifting. As Houry noted, neither the protesters nor the government show signs of shrinking from the increasingly bloody confrontations. “We have seen that the government is not willing to back down its violent crackdown and oppression, and we’ve also seen protesters have been incredibly resilient, and who now realize they need to continue with their protest movement,” he said. “So neither side will back down.”
The fear, then, is that the bloodshed will continue unabated, with low-level military defectors joining the rebellion and elite divisions, such as the Republican Guard, intensifying their brutality against peaceful protesters. The potential for spiraling violence, Houry said, requires a strong condemnation from the international community. France and Britain have offered a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to halt its attacks on dissidents, but it’s unclear whether they can overcome the objections of Russia and China, both of which have expressed strong opposition to such a measure.
“The fear right now is that the government will continue to shoot protesters,” Houry said. “And this is why it’s very important that the Security Council meet and actually discuss the resolution that was introduced by the French and the British that would condemn the use of violence, and that would send a clear signal to Syrian authorities not to continue shooting the protesters.”
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has independently urged the Syrian regime to end its violent repression of peaceful protesters. “It is utterly deplorable for any government to attempt to bludgeon its population into submission, using tanks, artillery and snipers,” Pillay said. “I urge the government to halt this assault on its own people’s most fundamental human rights.”
Opposition figures, however, have accused the international community of dithering. Ammar Abdulhamid, a democracy activist and Syrian exile who has been acting as a foreign spokesman for the protest movement, wrote on his blog this week that the conflict threatened to reach an impasse, with protesters refusing the back down and the regime intensifying its campaign of terror.
“The question confronting the international community is whether to allow them to continue to get away with it, or accept the need for change in the country,” Abdulhamid wrote. “Lacking serious leadership on part of the United States, the international community will continue to dither in their stand on the current developments in Syria, massacres will continue and a descent into a bloody quagmire will be ensured.”