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The Syrian government intensified its brutal crackdown on protesters this weekend, defying growing international pressure ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting on Thursday.
Tanks entered the coastal city of Latakia (see map here) on Saturday and opened fire Sunday, when they were joined briefly by two gunboats that assisted with shelling the city, the Washington Post reports.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said that residents had asked regime forces to clear the city of armed terrorist gangs and denied that the Navy was used in the assault on the city. But the Associated Press reports that troops were firing on fleeing residents, including women and children.
Although Latakia has been the site of sporadic protests, it also has a large Alawite population, a religious minority to which President Assad and many members of his regime belong. While the mostly Sunni sections of the city, where protests were staged, were under assault, Alawite sections of the city celebrated, the Post reports.
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The assaults on Latakia and other cities comes after Turkey, the regional player with the most influence over Assad, gave Assad 10 to 15 days to end the violence and begin implementing reforms, the Washington Post reports. Many members of the opposition in Syria worried that the deadline would give Assad an incentive to pursue even more brutal tactics in an effort to definitively crush the protests before the deadline.
The Los Angeles Times notes that violence has only increased since then, "a possible sign that the country's rulers feel they have little time left to crush the rebellion before they face harsher punishment from the international community." Harsher tactics also pose a risk for Assad though, the Times notes.
Syria's use of heavy weaponry is a risky strategy. It was Moammar Kadafi's use of tanks and warplanes against civilians in eastern Libya that prompted the imposition of a no-fly zone and the launch of a NATO-led bombing campaign against his forces. The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to discuss the unrest in Syria on Thursday.
Tony Karon writes in Time that the US and its Western allies may be deferring to Turkey on the international response to Syria because they hope that it will naturally move closer to the West.
Whereas Iran and Syria are long-time strategic allies, the support of Turkey -- a genuinely independent and indisputably powerful neighbor, being the second-largest army in NATO -- may be the key political prize in play among the various regional stakeholders at this stage of the Syria conflict. And Assad's refusal to heed its calls for an end to violence and for political reform are pushing Turkey closer to the Western powers and Saudi Arabia on this one. Turkey fears Syria being turned into another sectarian quagmire on the same lines as Iraq, but it's not following the line of its BRIC allies -- Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa -- at the U.N. by simply opposing any move towards intervention. While it certainly opposes any armed intervention, Turkey believes that it is Assad's defiance that represents the greatest danger of an Iraq-style debacle right now.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is working on building an international consensus on the need for Assad to leave power, a demand it could make as soon as this week.
The AP reported Sunday that President Barack Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah on Saturday. Both leaders agreed "that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government must end its attacks on civilians."