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Syria's military shows signs of division amid crackdown

Some soldiers reportedly refused to open fire against civilians in Deraa today, sparking clashes between units. A divided military could prove the undoing of Assad's regime.

By Correspondent / April 25, 2011

The Jordanian side of the border with Syria is seen closed April 25. Syria closed all its land border crossings with neighboring Jordan on Monday, officials said, following the deployment of Syrian army tanks in the southern border city of Deraa to crush a pro-democracy uprising.

Majed Jaber/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

Cracks may be emerging in Syria's military as more soldiers appear to be taking a stand against firing on protesters six weeks into the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

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Syrian security forces launched an offensive against several flashpoint towns at dawn today, closing the border with Jordan and using tanks and live ammunition to clear streets and arrest suspected protesters, according to opposition activists and eyewitnesses. But Syrian military units reportedly clashed with each other in Deraa when soldiers refused to open fire.

The report follows numerous other refusals as well as a spate of assassinations of military officials said to be sympathetic to the protesters, according to opposition activists.

Any split that emerges in the Army, which together with the intelligence services forms the state's principle means of enforcing its will, would present an unprecedented challenge to the Assad regime's four-decade rule and cast serious doubt on its ability to survive.

Today's intensified crackdown came after the worst protest violence yet witnessed, with more than 120 people killed since Friday. The sudden surge of casualties appears to have spurred the United States into considering sanctions against Syrian officials, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The report comes a day after Human Rights Watch called for sanctions against Syrian officials found responsible for using violence to suppress the anti-regime protests that have swept the country since mid-March.

Showdown in Deraa

At dawn today, as many as 3,000 Syrian troops backed by armored vehicles entered the southern town of Deraa, where the uprising first took root, and opened fire, killing anywhere between five and 20 people, according to various eyewitness accounts. The border with Jordan, which lies just 2.5 miles south west of Deraa, was closed and telephone lines and electricity in the area around the town were cut.

According to opposition activists, the troops belonged to the elite Fourth Division, which is headed by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president.

Eight tanks were deployed in the old quarter of the town. Several bodies lay uncollected in the streets because of the presence of soldiers and bursts of gunfire.

A witness in Deraa told Reuters that snipers positioned on government buildings were shooting at people.

A video clip uploaded to YouTube shows a Syrian T-72 tank grinding down a road and over a makeshift barricade as young men look on.

“Let the world know that Bashar al-Assad is attacking Deraa with tanks,” a male voice says on the clip.

Another witness quoted by Reuters said, “People are taking cover in homes. I could see two bodies near the mosque and no one was able to go out and drag them away.”

There were reports of Syrian troops moving into towns near Deraa including Nuwaima, Jassem, and Inkhel, which also have seen protests. The Shaam News Network, an opposition Facebook page, claimed that there were “dozens of martyrs” in Nuwaima. The claim could not be verified.

The Syrian Flash News Page on Facebook said that “the raiding forces are shooting at everything that is moving and banned ambulances from moving towards the victims.”

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