CAIRO — Tanks and troops appeared Monday to unleash indiscriminate fire into residential areas of Daraa, the southern Syrian city where the uprising against President Bashar Assad began, in a widening crackdown on peaceful nationwide protests that seek the ruling dynasty’s overthrow, according to amateur video footage.
Although a precise casualty toll couldn't be learned, news reports and activists put the number of confirmed dead at eight to 18 people in Daraa. Violence also was reported elsewhere, including the capital, Damascus.
Assad’s turn to military force suggested that the Syrian leader, who once billed himself as a reformer, has chosen violence over concessions in a bid to save his family’s grip on power from the most serious challenge it's faced since his late father seized control of the nation of 21 million in a 1963 coup.
The Obama administration, which had restricted itself to condemning the regime’s brutal suppression of the six-week-old protests, announced that it “is pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown and make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.”
The White House declined to elaborate, an indication that it was trying to coordinate a response with European allies and other nations, the course it followed with the onslaughts that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi unleashed against anti-government demonstrations. “I think it’s safe to assume that the United States and this administration is doing everything it can, including discussions with allies, with the United Nations, leaders and governments in the region, to make clear its policy position and to make clear to the Syrian government that we believe it needs to cease and desist from the violence it’s been perpetrating against its own citizens,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Security forces and pro-regime thugs unleashed by Assad are thought to have killed more than 300 people.
It was uncertain whether Assad could be compelled to alter course. The United States already maintains tough unilateral economic sanctions on Assad’s regime, whose closest ally is Iran.
“Frankly, there isn’t a playbook for this kind of stuff. This isn’t easy in any way,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not like the Assad family has tremendous assets in the United States.”
Syria sealed its border with Jordan as Soviet-designed T-55 tanks and troops moved into Daraa, a city of some 300,000 people, where outrage over the arrests last month of young students grew into a nationwide uprising inspired by the pro-reform revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
“I saw the tanks with my own eyes, along with a huge army presence that was basically besieging the city of Daraa. None of the locals could come out, and none of us trying to get in were able to,” said a Damascus-based activist who traveled to Daraa on Monday. He spoke to McClatchy by telephone only on the condition of anonymity, because authorities are rounding up anti-government activists.
“There was a boy who tried to make his way into the city through the farms, but they spotted him and shot him down,” the activist said. “I learned later that he was 16 years old.”
News agencies, citing witnesses from Daraa, painted a picture of a city under assault. Locals were quoted as saying that up to eight T-55 tanks rolled into the city’s old quarter early Monday while snipers took positions on rooftops. Throughout the day, the forces occupied two mosques and a “martyrs’ graveyard,” two activists said.
After firing began, the reports said, there were corpses in the streets and no safe way to retrieve them.
At least 18 people were killed Monday in Daraa, Reuters reported, citing unnamed activists. Two activists told McClatchy that eight deaths were confirmed, but the final toll could be as high as 25. Dozens of arrests were reported.
Clashes also were reported in Damascus and one of its suburbs. The Al Jazeera satellite channel reported three deaths in the coastal city of Jableh, where security forces have cracked down on public gatherings for two days.
Casualty and arrest figures were impossible to verify. There’s no independent or opposition news media in Syria, and foreign media either are kept out of the country or operate under surveillance and travel restrictions.
Some of the most active Syrian human rights advocates have gone into hiding, moving from house to house and using satellite telephones to evade authorities. The few who are still reachable prefer to speak anonymously for fear of government retaliation.
The most reliable information from Monday’s military operation came from a handful of amateur video clips uploaded to YouTube and disseminated globally via Twitter and Facebook.
In one video, bystanders keep a safe distance as uniformed soldiers run alongside tanks in what appears to be a field that’s described as “near Daraa.” Another video broadcast on international news channels showed Syrian tanks and troops firing from a position near a wall.
In another widely circulated video, protesters carrying a bloodied young girl ran through a street. The video purportedly was shot Monday in Damascus.
“The Syrian military is fighting its own people,” says a man’s voice that’s heard on one video posted Monday. “People aren’t allowed to speak a word about freedom; people can’t breathe. Only Assad’s family is allowed that right.”
Some activists said they’d received reports that five officers — two captains and three lieutenants — had defected from the army in protest. Nine soldiers were said to have joined them out of loyalty to the revolts in their hometowns of Tartous, Homs and Lattakia. The defections couldn’t be confirmed.
When Assad succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, through an uncontested 2000 referendum, he pledged sweeping reforms to loosen restrictions on free speech and political participation. The younger Assad won — and still has — broad support in regions of Syria, in part because of his fiery criticism of Western intervention in the Middle East.
After a brief “Damascus spring,” however, Assad’s promises of reforms evaporated and his forces began rounding up intellectuals, Islamists and other dissidents. Syria’s close alliances with Iran and the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah cemented the country’s pariah status in the West.
(Landay reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Andrew Bossone contributed to this article from Beirut.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
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