AMMAN, Jordan - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest crisis in his 11-year rule, deployed the army Sunday for the first time in nearly two weeks of protests after 12 people were killed in the northwest port of Latakia.
Assad, 45, who has been silent since protests started sweeping Syria, is expected to address the nation shortly, officials said, without giving further details.
Dozens have died in pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Deraa and nearby Sanamein, Latakia, Damascus and other towns over the last week. The government blames armed groups for setting off the bloodshed.
Soldiers took to the streets of Latakia on Saturday night to help secret police and security forces control the port, residents said. The army also beefed up checkpoints around Deraa, where Human Rights Watch says 61 people have died.
“There is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is necessary to keep order,” one resident told Reuters. “We do not want looting.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday the United States deplored the bloodshed in Syria but a Libya-style intervention should not be expected.
The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world. People marched, chanting: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries.
Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, made a public pledge Thursday to look into granting greater freedom but this has failed to dampen protests, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told Al Jazeera news network the emergency law hated by Syrian reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services will be lifted, but did not give a timetable.
In another move to placate protesters, Syrian authorities Sunday released a lawyer, Diana Jawabra, along with 15 others who were arrested for taking part in a silent protest demanding the release of the children responsible for the graffiti.
This follows news of the freeing of 260 political prisoners.
Assad also faces calls to curb a pervasive security apparatus, develop rule of law and freedom of expression, free political prisoners and reveal the fate of tens of thousands of dissidents who disappeared in the 1980s.
Syria’s establishment is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam to which the Assads belong, a fact that causes resentment among Sunni Muslims who make up some three-quarters of the population. Latakia is mostly Sunni Muslim but has significant numbers of Alawites.
“An official source said attacks by armed elements on the families and districts of Latakia in the last two days resulted in the martyrdom of 10 security forces and civilians and the killing of two of the armed elements,” SANA news agency said.
The source said 200 people, most of whom were from the security forces, were wounded in clashes. Rights activists told Reuters at least six people were killed in Latakia in two days.
“Decades of pent up feelings are generating these confrontations. But this is not a mass Sunni-Alawite strife,” the Latakia resident told Reuters by telephone. “Cooler heads are prevailing in Latakia.”
Nadim Houry, at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said four police were killed while trying to separate pro- and anti-government groups, but “were apparently killed by armed thugs close to the brother of the president.”
“A Latakia resident told me that the police were killed because they tried to separate them. I can’t tell if it is true and we have not confirmed it,” Houry said.
“So far the army has sided clearly with the authorities, like in Latakia, where the army has deployed,” he added, raising concern that the “killing of civilians will continue unless real reforms are enacted and security forces cease using live fire.”
Deraa is a bastion of Sunni Muslim tribes who resent power and wealth amassed by the Alawite minority. During protests, a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father who ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years until his death in 2000, was toppled.
Asked about security forces opening fire, government spokeswoman Reem Haddad told Al Jazeera on Sunday: “The security forces were given very strict orders not to shoot at anyone and they did not shoot at anyone at all until those people shot at them and at other citizens.
“Now obviously when you have people shooting then it becomes a matter of national security and you can’t just have that happening,” she said.
On whether Assad might make an address to the Syrian nation, Haddad said: “I think it’s very possible that the president will be addressing the Syrian people very soon.”
The United States, France and Britain have urged Assad to refrain from violence. A week ago they launched a U.N.-backed air campaign to protect opponents of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
But analysts see little chance that heavily armed Syria, which is part of an anti-Western, anti-Israel alliance with Iran and sits within a web of conflicts across the region, may face the sort of foreign intervention seen in North Africa.
Syria has a close alliance with Iran and links to the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas and the Lebanese Shi’ite political and military group Hezbollah. Its allies in the region have yet to comment on the unrest.
Assad was welcomed as the fresh face of reform when he replaced his father, a master of Middle Eastern politics, who brooked no dissent at home and made refusal to bend on the Arab-Israeli conflict the heart of Syrian policy for 30 years.
But Western diplomats say resistance from the “old guard” has slowed the political and economic liberalization promised by Assad, an articulate and mild-mannered leader, while foreign policy confrontations upset efforts to improve the Arab state’s ties with the West.
Among the targets of popular anger have been Maher al-Assad, a brother of the president and head of the Republican Guard, a special security force, and Rami Makhlouf, a cousin who runs big businesses and is accused by Washington of corruption.