In some of his sternest comments yet on the bloodshed in Syria, President Obama said he was “appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality.” He called the reports out of Hama “horrifying” and said they “demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime.”
For the first time, troops attempted to crack down in several locations simultaneously, including the eastern town of Deir al-Zour, a protest stronghold near the Iraqi border, and in towns in the north and south.
The coordinated assaults, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan, signaled a strategy to head off protest movement promises to escalate demonstrations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Monday.
Yet as night fell Sunday and sympathy demonstrations erupted in towns and cities around the country, it was unclear whether the strategy would work.
“This uprising is not repressed,” Tarif said. “On the contrary, they have only made people more angry. They want to rebuild the wall of fear, but they can’t do it.”
Saleh al-Hamoui of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, a group that monitors and plans protests, said the army had secured several key locations in Hama, including the mayor’s office and the city hall, but had not penetrated the heart of city, where fresh anti-government demonstrations were held Sunday evening.
Troops had given protesters an ultimatum, telling them to go home by midnight or face worse violence, he said, raising the specter that the killing could continue into Ramadan, which would inflame tempers further.
“We are going to stand against them in the coming hours or days, because we are going to die whether we resist or whether we don’t,” Hamoui said. “So we will resist.”
It was the assault on Hama, whose bloody past endows it with a unique role in the Syrian national consciousness, that resonated most with citizens around the country, as troops used tanks and artillery to pound neighborhoods and soldiers opened fire randomly as they tried to advance into the city.
Hama had emerged in recent weeks as the epicenter of the protest movement, with residents effectively seizing control of the city center and erecting barricades at its entrances to keep soldiers out. Many had hoped the authorities would not dare attempt to retake the city by force, because of its sensitivity as the location of a 1982 massacre in which at least 10,000 people were killed during the suppression of an Islamist revolt by Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.