Syrian troops strike flashpoint town as refugees recount violence
The assault on the restive northwest town of Jisr al-Shughur may prove to be a pivotal moment in the rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Announcing the start of the operation early Friday, Syrian TV claimed it was a response to "citizen" calls to "put villages around the city under control and to detain the armed elements which attacked people and committed atrocities."
But many of the 2,800 Syrians who in recent days have fled the town and neighboring villages for Turkey speak fearfully of the outcome as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad appears to be fighting for its life.
Events in Jisr al-Shughur are proving a pivotal point in the three-month rebellion against Mr. Assad's dictatorial rule that is coming under growing international scrutiny and condemnation.
Damascus says that "armed gangs" killed 120 police and security forces during days of battle last weekend in the town, which is 12 miles from Syria's northwest frontier with Turkey. But activists say pro-regime militiamen killed the troops because they refused to shoot at protesters.
Syrian forces on Friday also blasted tank shells at the village of Sirmaniya, six miles southwest of Jisr al-Shughur, according to an opposition activist who witnessed the event and spoke to CNN by telephone. From a hillside vantage point, he saw black smoke rising and heard tank cannons "firing several times a minute," CNN reported.
Erdogan's harsh criticism
Syria's violent response to opposition protests has yielded mounting global criticism as the death toll nationwide has climbed to perhaps 1,300.
Even Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose warm relations with Assad prompt both men call each other "brother," said late Thursday that Syria's actions were "savage" and could not be defended at the United Nations.
"Unfortunately they are acting in an inhumane way," said Mr. Erdogan. "The savagery right now ... these images are hard to eat, hard to swallow."
The Turkish leader – who is likely to win a third term in national elections Sunday – said he had spoken to Assad in recent days, “but they underestimate the situation.”
Erdogan said Syria’s attacks against unarmed civilians were “unacceptable,” and that the UN would “necessarily” have to take action.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Assad – who took over in Syria 11 years ago after the three-decade reign of his father Hafez – and his Alawite minority, are losing their legitimacy.
“The slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and concern for everybody,” said Gates in Brussels. “And whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern in his own country after this kind of slaughter I think is a question everybody has to consider.”
False rumors spark moment of joy
Even though the prospect of more violence loomed in Syria, joy erupted momentarily across the main camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey, upon rumors that the Assad regime had fallen.
On Friday, more than 2,500 refugees leapt up with screams of delight, and arms raised and with smiles on their faces converged at the center of the camp.
The refugees shouted "God is great" repeatedly, as Turkish police raced to complete the hanging of a tarp blind along the camp fence, to prevent journalists seeing the celebration – or anything else – among the tents inside.
Soon enough, however, reality sunk in that not only was Assad still in power, but he had ordered pro-regime forces to recapture their hometown.
"If I can get Bashar al-Assad, I will strangle him with my own hands," says a refugee from Jisr al-Shughur who would only give his name as Abu Ali.
"Everywhere, in all these cities, it is the same like what happened in 1982," he says, referring to the brutal Syrian crackdown in Hama to put down the Muslim Brotherhood uprising. That assault killed between 10,000 to 40,000 people. “Israel hasn't even done this to the Palestinians."
Refugees kept from journalists
Though Turkey has said its doors are “open” to the refugees, local police and authorities have been ordered to prevent journalists from having any contact with the refugees, who have frequently made clear their desire to tell their tales of brutality at the hands of Assad loyalists.
Three separate camps had sprung up by Friday, with the Turkish Red Crescent making preparations for many thousands more said to be in villages just inside the Syrian border.
The Syrian government denies any brutal actions throughout the weeks of protest.
"The only instance where security forces have fired is when they have been fired at," Syrian government spokeswoman Reem Haddad told Sky News. "How have these people been killed for goodness sake if no one is firing at them?"
Syrian state-run media said that residents of a village six miles from Jisr al-Shughur had greeted advancing soldiers with roses, cheese, and yogurt.
A resident of one village near the town, named as Ahmed Ali, told state TV that "we are very pleased to see the army who came to rescue us from those criminals," according to an Associated Press translation.
Such claims were at odds with the fearful narratives given by refugees in Turkey, 57 of whom have so far required medical treatment, mostly from bullet and shrapnel wounds.