Syria's army takes control after mutiny

2011-06-13 08:49

Beirut - Elite Syrian troops backed by helicopters and tanks have regained control of a town where police and soldiers joined forces with the protesters they were ordered to shoot - a decisive assault from a government prepared for an all-out battle to keep power.

Troops led by the president's brother shelled Jisr al-Shughour as the gunships hovered overhead, paving the way for scores of tanks and armoured personnel carriers to roll in from two directions. By early afternoon on Sunday, the sounds of battle faded. The army was in control.

Sunday's developments, and actions by opponents of the Syrian government, marked a major departure from what had been a largely peaceful protest movement. Among them: The discovery of a mass grave filled with uniformed bodies and the increasing willingness of mutineers and outgunned residents to fight back.

President Basher al-Assad's response in Jisr al-Shughour, the first town to spin out of government control since the uprising began in mid-March, mirrored his father's 1980 assault there. It was a clear message to anyone contemplating defiance.

Syrians who were among thousands to flee for the nearby Turkish border said about 60 mutineers were defending the town alongside some 200 unarmed residents. Their fate was unknown late on Sunday, but the government reported three deaths in the fighting - one of its own soldiers and two unidentified men whose bodies were shown to reporters.

"The Syrian army is fighting itself," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a London-based Syrian writer and intellectual. "The army's response was strong because they did not want the mutiny to become larger."

Arab world silent on Syria

Neighboring Turkey, about 20km away, has given sanctuary to more than 5 000 fleeing Syrians, nearly all of them in the past few days from Idlib province. Turkey's prime minister has accused the Assad regime of "savagery".

Arab governments, which were unusually supportive of Nato intervention in Libya, have been silent in the face of Syria's crackdown, fearing that the alternative to Assad would be chaos. The country has an explosive sectarian mix and is seen as a regional powerhouse with influence on events in neighbouring Israel, Lebanon, Iraq.

Fridays in Syria have become a familiar cycle of protest and government crackdown, one that appeared likely to continue on June 3 in Jisr al-Shughour and elsewhere. Instead, residents say, police and soldiers turned on their commanders, and control of the town slipped out of government hands.

Troops on Sunday removed 10 uniformed bodies from a mass grave in front of the Military Police building. At least four of the bodies were beheaded or struck on the head with an axe, according to an Associated Press reporter who was invited to accompany the Syrian forces.

The building was burned and there were bloodstains in some rooms, which bolstered the reports of the mutiny.

Elite forces led by Assad's younger brother, Maher, were ordered to the northern province of Idlib, a possible sign that the military no longer fully trusted its conscripts. The government, which has expelled foreign journalists and keeps tight control over information, unexpectedly invited a few reporters to join the unit, including one from The Associated Press.

International force

"The situation is very bad," said Abdu, a Syrian who sneaked into the Turkish village of Guvecci, where he came to get bread for his family who had fled and were camped just inside Syria. "We want democracy, we want freedom. We are not afraid of anything anymore."

But he would not give his full name. Syrians who speak against the government face retribution and arrest, and few who express anti-government views allow themselves to be identified.

In Washington, US Senator Lindsey Graham raised the possibility of an international force like the one in Libya.

"But it's going to take regional and international co-operation to get there. But if you really care about the Syrian people, preventing them from being slaughtered, you need to put on the table all options, including a model like we have in Libya," Graham, a Republican representing South Carolina, told CBS' Face the Nation.

Speaking in Colombia, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he has talked with President Assad several times and urged him to take "decisive actions to listen to the people and to take necessary measures to reflect the will of the people".

"I'm deeply concerned and saddened that so many people have been killed in the course of peaceful demonstrations," he told reporters late on Saturday, adding that he urged Assad to let a humanitarian team into Syria to deliver assistance.

Heavy clashes

The government's assault of Jisr al-Shughour was the most serious since the uprising against Assad's regime began in mid-March. Assad has made some concessions, but thousands of people demonstrating against his rule - inspired by protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere - say they will not stop until he leaves power.

Syria's government has said 500 members of the security forces have died, including 120 last week in Jisr al-Shughour. More than 1 400 Syrians have died and about 10 000 have been detained in the government crackdown since mid-March, activists say.

Backed by helicopter gunships and tanks, army units moved in after dismantling explosives planted on roads and bridges leading to Jisr al-Shughour, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said, reporting "heavy" clashes". Residents who fled to Turkey said thousands of young men and the mutinous forces had armed themselves and planted dynamite at the town entrances.

By late afternoon, two hours of sporadic explosions and cracks of gunfire had ended. The streets were empty. The roads were marked by burned tires and cement barriers erected by residents to slow the advance.

A resident who fled on Sunday said the army shelled Jisr al-Shughour, then tanks and other heavy armour rolled in from two directions. As the troops advanced, he said, they fought about 60 army defectors, whose fate was unknown. He said about 200 unarmed men who were guarding the town are believed to have been either killed or detained.

Syrian state television said one soldier died, and journalists taken to the National Hospital saw two other bodies. Troops said they were gunmen, killed in the fighting.


Some Turks in the border village of Guvecci said Syrians on the other side of the frontier were calling them with reports that "smoke was rising from Jisr al-Shughour".

Residents who emerged from their homes on Sunday in Jisr al-Shughour said they were suffering before the troops came. They spoke in the presence of military officers and government officials accompanying the journalists, and it was not clear whether they expressed their views freely.

"Gunmen were intimidating us. They told us 'the army is coming to kill you and you have to flee the area'", said Zeina Salloum, aged 37, after coming out of her home to welcome the advancing troops.

Syria-based human rights activist Mustafa Osso said the advancing troops fought hundreds of army defectors from the area. "This is the biggest and most dangerous wave of defections" since an uprising against Assad's regime began in mid-March, Osso said.

Lathkani, the London-based Syrian, said more troops could defect in rural areas after seeing that it took nearly a week for the army to bring reinforcements to Idlib.

"The army's attack will backfire," said Lathkani.

The province has a history of hostility to the regime. Idlib's Muslim Brotherhood population rose up against Assad's father, the late president Hafez Assad, in the late 1970s. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under heavy government bombardment in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed. Residents say the numbers were much higher.

The events proved a prelude to a 1982 three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed a Sunni uprising there, killing 10 000 to 25 000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates.

  • ben swart - 2011-06-13 08:59

    Why is NATO in Libya again???

      Psychotron - 2011-06-13 09:28

      Because Libya is committing crimes against humanity.

      ben swart - 2011-06-13 09:31

      And Syria is not?

      Majik - 2011-06-13 11:32

      You asked about Libya.

      Bloodbane - 2011-06-13 11:57

      @ben swart becuase the abrab states let them in... they cant go into syria without backing from the arab states, once they get the green light they can enter. the other issue is, one war at a time... it's never good to have fighting on two fronts. what really is irritating is people assuming the NATO and the rest have to go in to sort everyone's issue's out, then when they do go in they are blamed and accused of have other motives. if they dont go in they get accused of not careing... not only that but use a little bit of thought and research what is going on where and why, then you wont have to ask stupid questions.

      NickArmstron - 2011-06-13 12:21

      GOOD Question Ben!! I tell you why - OIL. The hypocrites couldn't give a damm about human rights violations and suppression of freedoms - all they care about is Libya's oil! Why aren't they defending innocent civilians from oppressive governments in Zimbabwe??? In Syria??? Etc... What Gaddafhi may or may not be doing - is no different to the atrocities that have been committed by government forces in those countries... Oh no - wait - there's no oil there - that's why. NATO is persuing a strategy of regime change and of toppling Gaddafhi - under the false UN pretence of "defending civilians"... They're a bunch of greedy, corporate-capitalist, liars - looking after their own economies!! Pity Russia doesn't say enough is enough - and start offering Gaddafhi military support... Mmmmmmm...what would NATO do then...??

      Bloodbane - 2011-06-13 12:39

      @NickArmstron - wow tell me did you think of that all by yourself or did you have help from the nut house? this is why they should have a IQ test before being allowed to comment here.... russian is not the power it was, even NATO as inept as it is could seriouly bloody russia's nose and the US would definaly interfere if russia did, then russian would either have to back down or risk starting WW3

      Ingwe - 2011-06-13 12:44

      Nick I am sure if the AU asked NATO to help out in Zim and the UN backed this request NATO would offer assistance. Again I am sure if the Arab League asked NATO to help out in Syria and the UN backed this request NATO would offer assistance. Now we all know the AU will never ask NATO to help in getting rid of Mugabe and as for Syria I understand the process has started at the UNSC. Please try and make useful comments instead of the normal drivel people like you dish up.

      NickArmstron - 2011-06-13 13:02

      @ Ingwe and Bloodbane - no you guys are the ones lapping up the propagandist drivel as eschewed by the hypocritical western governments and media! If you cannot see the hyprocrisy here - then you are the IQ-challenged delinquents! UN and other Arab states are now RELUCTANT to offer support for any UN resolution on Syria - because they can see how NATO will manipulate any resolution to suit its own agenda! Remember - the initial ambit in Libya was to establish a no-fly zone - THAT is what the other Arab states and the UNSC signed-up for - NOT regime-change! Ever heard of the saying: "Your enemy's enemy - is your ally"...?? Gaddafhi had become an 'ally' in the war on terror - he was very much against Al-Qaeda and it's agenda - and this war in Libya and seeking to topple a leader who had long ago 'come in from the cold' - could yet come back to bite the West in the backside... Remember Afghanistan and the Taliban... Unfortunately - should there be any retribution - it will be innocent civilians who will be targeted - instead of the government ministers themselves - those responsible for bringing about the state of affairs... As for Russia being a 'spent force' - hahahaha - are you on cheap drugs?? She is still very much a global player on the military front! And - no - NATO won't have the 'balls' to go toe-to-toe with Russia if it came down to that...... All Western governments are motivated by greed and economics - servicing the needs of their multi-national companies!

      Bloodbane - 2011-06-13 13:17

      @NickArmstron - it's terrible when IQ challanged people think they can comemnt on grwon up issue's... keep living in your dream world, I can educate you on the real world but with your IQ level it wont help.

      Ingwe - 2011-06-13 17:22

      Nick your argument regarding NATO getting involved in Zim is just pathetic; rather ask yourself why the AU does not get involved in Zim. May I suggest you go back and read UNSCR 1973 and see what it actually says. It seems to me it is you that is intellectually challenged as you cannot read and understand a simple UN resolution. To quote you ‘Remember - the initial ambit in Libya was to establish a no-fly zone - THAT is what the other Arab states and the UNSC signed-up for’ No it wasn’t, again go back and read the resolution and try and understand it, that is if you can. The Russian’s and Chinese could quite easily have vetoed it if they had wanted to but they did not, that should tell you something.

      slg - 2011-06-16 08:55

      Nick, would you care to share your Matric results?

  • czovczov - 2011-06-13 09:45

    @ben swart, if it was up to people like you Hitler would be alive and in charge today and we would all be speaking German. NATO needs to be in both Libya and Syria protecting civilians against undemocratic governments that they never voted into power in the first place.

      Lekker Jan - 2011-06-13 10:10

      You clearly misunderstood ben swart.

  • one-way - 2011-06-13 09:50

    Syria is fighting todays terrorists, who will become tomorrows` Freedom Fighters. Dependant on which country champions their cause.Old scores been settled here as well. Wonder if the Turks got a hand in it? Natos way of saving political face, seeing as they are too busy trying to stabilise the west`s oil supply and price.

  • Lekker Jan - 2011-06-13 10:13

    "Sunday's developments, and actions by opponents of the Syrian government, marked a major departure from what had been a largely peaceful protest movement" Excellent journalism! Has News24 not read any news for the last couple of months?! Where was this peaceful demonstrations in Syria????

  • zaatheist - 2011-06-13 11:05

    ...... and all the time the murderous Assad and his henchmen are cheered on by Russia and China. Makes one want to throw up.

      slg - 2011-06-16 08:57

      Couldn't agree more. They're immature rogue nations who made thee wrong choice to follow Communism and should not be in the Security Council yet. They're not ready.

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