Syria crackdown escalates, spreads

May 8, 2011

The Syrian regime tightened its grip on protest hot spots around the country Sunday, dispatching tanks into the town of Tafas in the south and continuing to shoot and detain citizens in other locations, part of a relentless crackdown aimed at suppressing a seven-week-old revolt.

At least 14 people were killed in the morning in the major city of Homs in central Syria, apparently by sharpshooters deployed on tall buildings who have been firing at anyone who stepped outside, according to Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan. Tanks moved into the city Friday in a bid to quell protests that erupted there after noon prayers.

But with communications to many parts of the country severed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find out what is going on in the growing number of towns under Syrian military siege, he said.

Tanks were sent into the small town of Tafas, near the besieged city of Daraa, and they have been deployed in recent days in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Harasta, Saqba and Zabadani. The northern coastal town of Baniyas has been cut off from the outside world since tanks were dispatched there Saturday.

Tarif said he had received the names of 1,800 people who have been detained since Thursday, bringing to nearly 10,000 the number of people taken into custody since the uprising began in March. The death toll stands at 716, he said.

Yet even as the crackdown intensifies, reports are coming in from other parts of the country of fresh anti-government protests. In the town of Jassem in southern Syria, amateur video posted to YouTube showed a huge crowd of demonstrators demanding an end to the crackdown in other cities, and there were reports of protests in a neighborhood of Aleppo and the northern town of Jabla.

A funeral for three women killed on the outskirts of Baniyas during a demonstration Saturday turned into yet another anti-government protest, Tarif said.

The demonstrations, which began with modest demands for reform, have mushroomed to encompass virtually the entire country, presenting the regime now led by President Bashar al-Assad with its biggest challenge since the 1982 uprising when his father was in power.

The question is whether the largely leaderless and spontaneous revolt can persist in the face of the military's ruthlessness. In those towns where the military is present in force, the crackdown has effectively succeeded in crushing the protests, Tarif said.

“They are paralyzing the ability of people to move, but it is only being done by extreme force,” he said. “There’s effectively a curfew, and people can’t go outside. But the question is, for how long can they succeed in keeping people in their homes?”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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