Gunfire continued in Daraa on Tuesday as residents took refuge from tanks in the streets and snipers on rooftops, and the government cut off water supplies, news services reported.
Human rights groups said security forces have rounded up hundreds of pro-democracy activists across Syria since Friday’s protests.
In response to the increased violence, the State Department on Tuesday urged Americans in Syria “to depart immediately while commercial transportation is readily available” and advised those who must remain to limit travel within the country. Other Americans “should defer all travel to Syria at this time,” it said in a travel warning. The department also said it has ordered all eligible family members of U.S. government employees and “certain non-emergency personnel” to leave Syria.
The Syrian government’s show of force, the largest in weeks of street demonstrations, is sharpening the choice facing President Obama, who has attempted to balance calls for democratic reform in the Arab world with concerns of allies that have counted on President Bashar al-Assad to preserve stability in the volatile Middle East.
As the death toll mounts, Obama is under pressure to harden his largely reactive policy on Assad and echo demonstrators’ demands that the Syrian leader must go. Human rights groups say more than 300 people have been killed in the Syrian crackdown so far.
“The brutal violence used by the government of Syria against its people is completely deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement Monday.
Vietor said that “the United States is pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown and make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.”
The administration has been ratcheting up its criticism of Assad’s response to the popular unrest, now more than five weeks old. But Obama has yet to declare that Assad, who inherited power from his father almost 11 years ago, has lost the legitimacy to rule, as the president declared in the case of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally.
“We very much see our role in these things as one that is behind what the voices in the region are saying,” said one administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking.