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Syria's regime cracks down hard. But is the military on board?

Syrian troops are attacking the northern town of Jisr al-Shughur, which has a history of rebellion against the regime. Increasingly, however, there are reports of dissent within the military.

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Syria’s state-controlled television said Sunday that troops had entered the town and “purged the state hospital of armed groups.” It also said that one soldier was killed and four others wounded in a clash with an “armed terrorist organization.”

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According to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, on Saturday troops arrested two leading groups of the “armed gangs” in Jisr al-Shughur and seized from them an assortment of weapons, explosives, detonators, and Turkish SIM cards for mobile phones. The security forces routinely shut down mobile phone networks in areas where they are operating, but residents of towns lying close to Syria’s borders with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan often use foreign SIM cards enabling them to communicate. A picture of the weapons allegedly collected in Jisr al-Shughur showed several pump-action shotguns and two AK-47 assault rifles.

A leading opposition portal, the Syrian Days of Rage Facebook page, claimed that security forces were bombarding Jisr al-Shughur with tanks and that helicopter gunships were flying low over the town firing at random. It added that the town’s landmark bridge spanning the Orontes river (known in Arabic as the Assi) had been blown up.

Dissent between loyalists and Sunni conscripts?

The crackdown against the opposition protest movement is being carried out mainly by the elite 4th Division and the Republican Guards regiment, which collectively consist of some 20,000 soldiers and are commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother.

They are the best trained and equipped units in the Syrian army and are dominated by the Alawite sect, a splinter of Shiite Islam that forms the backbone of the regime. These regular units are supported by an unspecified number of personnel in various Syrian intelligence branches and the Shabiha, an Alawite paramilitary group.

Much of the rest of the army is comprised of Sunni conscripts fulfilling the mandatory army service, many of whom will have little loyalty to the regime. The opposition has published several video-taped testimonies from defecting soldiers in which they describe being ordered to open fire on civilian protesters.

Reports emerged Saturday night of soldiers in the coastal town Latakia preventing pro-regime Shabiha militiamen access to some neighbors. If confirmed, it points to further indications of dissent within the Syrian military.

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