The assault, launched at dawn Wednesday, capped a three-day offensive against the city that claimed at least 100 lives. Videos posted on YouTube showed tanks rumbling through the streets amid explosions and gunfire, but it was difficult to establish exactly what was happening because of land-line and cellphone communications were cut, as were electricity and the water supply.
In other parts of Syria, security forces killed at least seven protesters overnight when they went out to demonstrate after nighttime prayers for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Associated Press quoted activists as saying Thursday.
On a day when the appearance of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in a cage in a Cairo courtroom illustrated the perils that await dictators who cave, the push into Hama Wednesday sent a powerful signal that Assad’s regime appears determined to stop at nothing to ensure its survival. With the U.N. Security Council meeting to review a presidential statement condemning Syria, the regime also seemed undeterred by world opinion.
An activist contacted by satellite telephone as he hid in his home with his wife and two children described a city gripped by fear — and bracing for a massacre on the scale of one perpetrated in the same city by Assad’s father, Hafez, in 1982, in which at least 10,000 people were killed.
“It’s a massacre. It’s 1982 all over again,” said Saleh Hamawi, his voice quaking as the sound of explosions echoed down the line. “This is a challenge to the international community, which is doing nothing.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney called the brutality “grotesque” and reiterated that the Obama administration is “looking at ways to increase the pressure” on the Syrian government.
Hours after the tanks had reached Assi Square, where anti-government demonstrations had drawn hundreds of thousands in recent weeks, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement condemning the violence and expressing “profound regret” at the deaths of hundreds of people since the uprising began in March.
“The only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive Syrian-led political process, with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population,” the statement said.
It also called on “all sides to exert restraint and to refrain from reprisals, including against state institutions.” The phrase represented a concession to Syria allies Russia and China, which support assertions by the Assad government that the protest movement is armed and equally culpable for the violence.
But activists said the resolution’s significance is blunted by the fact that it took more than four months of bloodshed for the United Nations to act and that it did so only three days after the offensive against Hama was launched. With many feared dead in Wednesday’s assault, “the resolution is meaningless,” human rights activist Wissam Tarif said in Beirut.
Tarif said that at one small private hospital contacted by satellite phone in the morning, 10 people had died and 87 were injured. But the toll was feared to be higher because casualties in other parts of the city would have been taken to other hospitals and ambulances were unable to move.
‘Liberated city’ besieged
If there had been any doubt about the regime’s willingness to use maximum force to quell the uprising, analysts said, the move into Hama, which had become a beacon of hope for protesters elsewhere in the country, seemed to dispel them.
Though the U.N. resolution called for political reforms, “it is absolute folly to think after this that you could have a regime-led transition to democratic reform,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “This tells you that this regime is as brutal as any we’ve seen in the past 30 to 40 years.”
Hama’s history as a center of opposition to the regime and the size of the demonstrations that had occurred there in recent weeks had raised hopes among residents that the government would not dare incur the wrath of the international community or further inflame domestic anger by moving on the city.
After allegedly shooting dead more than 70 protesters on a single day in June, the security forces had pulled back to the outskirts of the city. Hama had effectively become what opposition activists called “a liberated city,” in which the massive crowds drawn to protests on Fridays seemed to signal the depth of anti-government sentiment that might be unleashed if the security forces were to loosen their grip elsewhere.
The crackdown has not been confined to Hama, however. Tanks have also assaulted the eastern towns of Deir el-Zour and Abu Kamal, and security forces have embarked on an extensive effort to suppress dissent in numerous Damascus suburbs where protests had escalated in recent weeks. In the suburb of Zabadani on Wednesday, activists said, security forces threw up cordons and detained every male. In the past three days, Tarif said, thousands have been detained across Syria and more than 140 have been killed.
Risk of a vicious cycle
Whether the offensive will help suppress the revolt is in question, however. Protests have erupted in numerous towns and cities across Syria on a nightly basis since Sunday, fueled in part by anger at the Hama crackdown and by appeals by the protest movement to stage demonstrations.
“We continue to see a systematic carrying out of violence against innocent protesters. And as we’ve said repeatedly, this is only going to strengthen the resolve of the protesters,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “We’ve seen that time and again.”
The risk for the Assad regime is that even those who have not joined the protest movement will now be driven to turn against the government, locking the country in an escalating cycle of protests and reprisals, Shaikh said.
“Who is going to go back to supporting the regime in the future? What pretense of dialogue or reform is going to placate people now?” he said. “We’re going to see more and more atrocities, which is the only thing that will move an international community confused about what to do about Assad, confused about what will come after him and confused about how to stop him.”
In one sign of growing U.S. anger, 68 senators called on President Obama on Wednesday to immediately impose additional sanctions on the Syrian government.
The senators’ letter also called on the administration to urge European countries to cancel their investments in Syria’s oil and gas sector, which are much bigger than U.S. economic interests in the country. Activists say energy sanctions could significantly affect the Syrian government’s ability to survive.
But fears of instability in what is perhaps the region’s most strategically significant nation and worries about who would follow Assad have deterred world powers, including the United States, from pressing too hard for the departure of his regime.
Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.