Syria Widens Crackdown in North and East

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 9:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian security forces have expanded their deployment to strategic regions in the north and east of the country in an attempt to crush the popular uprising against authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad.

Activists and residents said Tuesday that tanks and armored vehicles had deployed to the eastern cities of Deir al-Zour and al-Boukamal, a region near the Iraqi border dominated by tribal clans.

Almost daily protests have taken place in Deir al-Zour, and clashes have broken out in al-Boukamal. The area borders Iraq's Sunni heartland and the two sides are linked by numerous family ties and trade routes.

In the north, thousands of civilians fled the town of Maaret al-Numan Tuesday as elite troops loyal to Mr. Assad advanced on the city.

Over the past few days, security forces have arrested hundreds of people following sweeps through nearby Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding villages, after the government accused “armed groups” of killing 120 security personnel.

But residents and soldiers who have deserted said those killed were civilians and security forces who had mutinied, refusing to shoot protesters and joining anti-government demonstrators.

Turkish officials say the number of Syrian refugees who have crossed into the country has topped 8,500. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek Tuesday said nearly half of the refugees are children.

Turkish news reports say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday and again urged him to avoid violence and enact reforms.

The latest military moves are being carried out by the government's most trusted forces, many of them members of the Assad family's minority Alawite sect.

An offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, the Alawites represent about 11 percent of Syria's population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni.

On Monday, refugees reaching Turkey said elite Syrian forces were combing villages back home and arresting men between the ages of 18 and 40. Others told of a scorched-earth campaign with men in black uniforms pouring gasoline on farmlands.

The wave of arrests followed the assault on Jisr al-Shughour by troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships. Residents say loyalist units led by President Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, led Sunday's crackdown, which they say was sparked by a mutiny last week when some soldiers refused to shoot protesters and joined the anti-government side.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday it was clear that “Syria has taken a page out of Iran's playbook” by employing brutal tactics that Iran used after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He said the U.S. believes there is clear evidence that Iran is actively helping Syria as it clamps down on protesters.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.

Rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been killed since President Assad launched a crackdown on anti-government dissent in March.