Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters pressed ahead Sunday with a two-pronged attack against a rebellious town in northern Syria, amid reports of clashes and the sound of explosions and gunfire.
But amid conflicting reports about the violence it is still unclear who the Syrian forces are supposed to be fighting in Jisr al-Shughur, a mainly Sunni-populated town of 45,000 residents.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says it is targeting “armed criminal groups” inside the town responsible for killing 120 soldiers and security personnel June 6 in a series of ambushes and attacks. The opposition does not dispute the casualty figure but says the fighting was between troops loyal to the regime and army deserters who sided with local protesters. Foreign journalists are banned in Syria and determining the truth is almost impossible.
According to accounts from opposition sources, most soldiers who are alleged to have deserted are now hiding under the protection of protesters rather than directing their weapons against the security forces. If army deserters are not shooting back and if the majority of Jisr al-Shughur’s population has indeed fled as reports suggest, it would appear to add credence to the regime’s claims that armed groups are roaming the area.
This is not the first time Syrian troops has come down hard in Jisr al-Shughur, which along with the surrounding area in northern Syria has a history of rebellion against the Assad regime. In March 1980, an anti-regime demonstration turned deadly when protesters burned down the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and raided a nearby army barracks, stealing weapons and ammunition.
Even if the security forces are not facing armed gangs, as claimed by the regime, the crackdown this weekend – including the alleged destruction of property and crops – could be intended as a demonstration of force and retribution to serve as a warning to other potentially rebellious areas.
State media report arrest of armed gangs
As Syrian troops moved into the area last week in preparation for an offensive against the town, thousands of residents fled to the border with Turkey, 12 miles to the west.
Troops launched the operation at dawn on Friday, pushing into surrounding villages before advancing on Jisr al-Shughur.
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.”
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.