On Monday morning, about 3,000 soldiers along with tanks from the 4th Division shot their way into the border town of Deraa. Eyewitnesses claim at least 20 citizens were killed, and a disturbing online video purports to show the bloody results of troops firing into an unarmed crowd. The toll was likely far higher.
A Syrian human rights group claims more than 400 civilians have been killed since protests began. In a particularly morbid cycle, many of those killed have been marching in funeral processions for other protesters previously shot by security forces. Just as has happened in Libya, a benighted dictator is using his iron-fisted security apparatus to stay in power no matter what.
The slaughter in Deraa highlights another dynamic as stories surface of Syrian officers and soldiers refusing to fire on their countrymen or actually defecting to the side of the protesters. A protester told Al Arabiya television that 15 soldiers, including five officers, refused orders to shoot. "They have quit their positions because they found us unarmed," said the protester. An online video shows uniformed troops actually leading a protest.
There are further reports that high-level military officers, including Major Gen. Kamal al Ayash, deputy commander of the First Division, have "defected," apparently because of the bloodshed in Daraa. Even before this, there have been other indications of deep schisms in the Syrian military. Evidently, some soldiers have been shot for refusing their orders, indicating that the regime's grip on the mechanisms of power may be slipping. Over the past two weeks, two colonels and a general have been killed by what state-run news claims are "armed criminal gangs." Oppositionists, however, claim they were executed by Syrian intelligence for their supposed sympathy with the protesters. Finally, there are fragmentary reports of troops firing at each other.
Human rights groups claim that more than 450 people have been killed in the violence, mostly demonstrators who are opposed to Assad's brutal regime. The UN can't come to an agreement on how to deal with the ongoing situation, despite the similarities to the situation in Libya:
The ongoing violence is causing a refugee crisis as hundreds of families are fleeing Syria to the relative safety of Lebanon.
If the reports that Syrian troops are refusing to fire on protesters, this could be the break that protesters need. It was after Tunisian and Egyptian soldiers refused to fire on protesters to disperse crowds gathered to oppose the leaders of those respective countries that those regimes began the slide into collapse and exile. Assad has a tenuous hold on the situation, and if support for his regime falters in the military, it isn't a leap from being an autocrat to being deposed in a coup to restore calm.
Lest Bashar forget, his own father rose to power as a result of two separate coups that propelled the Ba'athists to power, and then to secure power for himself. Hafez Assad had no problem using deadly force to eliminate threats, and Bashar is attempting to follow that playbook (Hama rules) and finding that it may not work nearly as well as it did 30 years ago.
There is quite a bit of confusion and a lack of hard information about what exactly is going on in places like Daraa or Damascus. Apparently the 4th Division (Armored), which is under command of Assad's brother is spearheading the crackdown on Daraa (reminiscent of the Hama assault by Assad's father nearly 30 years ago). The majority of the casualties are centered on that ongoing attack on a civilian population.
There may be other units involved, and it is possible that some of these other units may be refusing to fire on the citizens of the city or small units from the 4th are refusing to fire, but no way to tell. Voice of America reports that the 5th Division is also involved, but that it is those units that are refusing to go along with the crackdown and have come under fire from the 4th Division.
The bloody crackdown is even getting countries that are traditionally silent over such matters to raise their voices in concern.
Even Syria's former allies Turkey and Iran appear to be growing uncomfortable with the crackdown. Istanbul, Turkey, has hosted a series of high-profile meetings among the Syrian opposition, and a group of prominent poets and writers from around the region Thursday issued a statement from there condemning the "massacres committed by the Syrian regime against the unarmed civilians."
In another sign that it is less than pleased with its neighbor, Turkey also sent a delegation headed by National Intelligence Agency Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and State Planning Organization Undersecretary Kemal Madenoglu to Damascus, the Syrian capital, Thursday to discuss the "recent incidents," Turkey's semiofficial Anatolia news agency reported.
Turkey and Syria maintain healthy trade and diplomatic relations and sending security and trade officials could be seen as a veiled warning to Syria.