ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY
BOYNUYOGUN, Turkey — Syrian tanks and the government’s most loyal troops pushed into more towns and villages Tuesday, trying to snuff out any chance that the uprising against President Bashar Assad could gain a base for a wider armed rebellion.
Facing the most serious threat to his family’s 40-year ruling dynasty, Assad has abandoned most pretenses of reform as his military seals off strategic areas in the north and east — including the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which was spinning out of government control before the military moved in on Sunday.
“The (Syrian forces) damage homes and buildings, kill even animals, set trees and farmlands on fire,” said Mohammad Hesnawi, 26. He fled Jisr al-Shughour over the weekend and spoke to The Associated Press from this border area of Turkey, where some 8,000 Syrians are seeking refuge in camps.
Pro-democracy activists, citing witnesses, said the military also surrounded al-Boukamal, along the Iraqi border, an area that was a major smuggling route for insurgents and weapons into Iraq in the 2000s. Syrian officials have expressed concern over a reverse flow of arms into Syria, and in March security forces seized a large quantity of weapons hidden in a truck coming from Iraq.
Activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since the popular uprising began in mid-March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Assad initially responded with vague promises of reform, but the increasingly deadly government crackdown has only added fuel to the movement. Thousands of protesters across the country now vow to continue until Assad leaves power.
There is no sign of that, however. The crackdown has obliterated a view held by many in Syria and abroad of Assad as a reformer at heart, one constrained by members of his late father’s old guard who were fighting change, especially privileged members of the Assads’ minority Alawite sect.
An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawites represent about 11 percent of Syria’s population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. The sect’s longtime dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria.
But Assad is now relying heavily on his Alawite power base to crush the resistance, particularly amid rumors that Sunni army conscripts have been refusing to fire on civilians.
The president and commander-in-chief’s latest military moves in the north and east are being carried out by his most trusted forces — many of them Alawites whose fate is linked to the regime’s. The bloody new push, against civilians who took up arms and reportedly military mutineers, was clearly designed to keep the opposition from establishing a base, as happened in Libya, where rebels trying to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi took over Benghazi.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. condemns the “barbaric acts” in Syria. In a statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Iran of assisting its ally Syria in the opposition crackdown.
She didn’t detail such assistance, but Syrian human rights activist Ammar Qurabi, at a Paris news conference, claimed the Iranians have sent guns and electric batons to Syrian authorities, and Iranian computer experts were in Damascus hacking into activists’ email and Facebook accounts.
For its part, Tehran on Tuesday warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Syria. “This would be a mistake and an engagement in a scene which can bring dire consequences for the region,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters.
Washington and its allies have shown little appetite, however, for intervening in yet another Arab nation in turmoil, as NATO has done in Libya. There is real concern that Assad’s ouster would spread chaos around the region.
Assad has had to juggle many factors in the Syrian political landscape: its sizable minority populations; a majority Sunni population drawn in part to Muslim fundamentalism; an influential military, and alliances with such external Shiite forces as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The government crackdown has brought intense international condemnation and sanctions on Syrian figures including Assad, a soft-spoken, British-trained eye doctor who told the Wall Street Journal in January his country was immune to the unrest sweeping the Arab world because he is in tune with his people’s needs.
Now an international pariah, Assad will struggle to regain a semblance of legitimacy if he manages to quell a revolt spreading quickly across the country and to a wider cross-section of society.
On Tuesday, activists said about 2,000 doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and engineers protesting in the central city of Hama called for the regime’s downfall — a significant shift in a movement that so far appears dominated by the young, poor and disenfranchised.
For the most part, the opposition has yet to bring out the middle and upper middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two key cities. The monied classes have been Assad supporters, preferring a heavy-handed regime to instability.
If that support unravels, Assad’s dictatorship could begin to wobble, 11 years after he inherited power from his father, the late Hafez Assad, who ruled with an iron hand for three decades.
It was impossible to independently confirm the crowd estimate of the Hama protest, made by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, a group that documents the anti-regime movement.
Only sketchy reports are emerging from Syria, since foreign journalists have been expelled and local reporters face tight controls. Most witnesses inside the country speak on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from the government.
Refugees in Turkey offer a grim picture of what they left behind, but the Turkish government has largely prevented access to the camps. Turkey’s prime minister has accused Assad’s regime of “savagery,” but also said he would reach out to the Syrian leader to help solve the crisis.
Neil Sammonds of Amnesty International appealed to Turkey to allow access to the camps. But he stressed that inside Syria, thousands are still desperate for help.
“They’re living under trees, exposed to the elements,” he said. “Last night was a terrible storm - rain, thunder, lightning and all the rest of it. And that’s women, elderly, children, who have been walking for days from the Jisr-Al-Shugour area. No one is helping them until now.”
Many seemed to be helping themselves. Male refugees emerging from Syria on Tuesday could be seen carrying bread, water and milk for children, as well as diapers, to distraught families just across the border in Turkey.