Syria’s escalating crackdown on protesters left at least 100 people dead yesterday, according to activists, as it draws growing condemnation from the Arab world.
King Abdullah recalled Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Syria early today, saying the violence is unacceptable, further isolating President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The Kuwaiti and Bahraini foreign ministers then announced the recall of their envoys from Damascus. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Sabah told reporters today that the Gulf Cooperation Council will meet soon to discuss Syria.
After days of tank attacks in towns and cities that continued today in Maarat al-Numan, there are few signs that Assad is preparing an exit. Equally, there has been no loss of momentum by protesters. Activists saying the past three Fridays have drawn at least 1 million to the streets, now invigorated by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They estimate the death toll at more than 2,200 since protests began in mid-March, inspired by the revolts that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
“The regime in Syria has played all of its cards and now we are seeing a quantum leap in terms of the levels of repression,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution advisory organization. “You had four months of mismanagement of this crisis by the regime with no progress.”
In Syria, as in other mostly Islamic countries, family and community groups gather to break the daily Ramadan fast after sunset, and people attend mosque more often than at other times.
Saudi Arabia “demands an end to the killing machine and bloodshed, and asks for reason to prevail before it is too late,” King Abdullah said in a statement to announce the recalling of his ambassador. “Syria’s future lies between only two options: Either it chooses wisdom willingly, or drifts into the depths of turmoil and loss, may God forbid.”
The Arab League and the GCC condemned Assad’s policies this month, calling for “an immediate cessation to all acts of violence,” and urged him to meet demands for political change.
As well as killing at least 100 protesters yesterday, security forces arrested hundreds more, Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said in a telephone interview. The violence took place in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, in the central province of Homs and in the northern province of Idlib, Qurabi said.
Tanks, machine guns and armored vehicles were used in the assault on Deir al-Zour, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by phone from Damascus. Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib province, was under attack by about 50 tanks today, he said.
The Gulf kingdom would “prefer the revolt would go away,” he said. “Things have gotten so bad in Syria that being quiet about it is no longer tolerable for Arab public opinion.”
Khalid Rashid, a witness from Deir al-Zour, told Al Jazeera television that tanks shelled mosques and houses and fired randomly in the city, and that snipers shot at any moving object in the streets.
Shooting at Demonstrators
Police also fired at demonstrations that began after sunset yesterday in Damascus, the town of Sanamin in south Syria and the port of Latakia, according to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya television.
King Abdullah’s intervention shows that “the noose is tightening around Bashar,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former editor-in-chief of Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan newspaper. Saudi officials have been urging Assad to stop the violence and “were dismayed by the response of the Syrians, that they are confronting armed gangs,” he said.
Assad, who came to power in 2000, has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots. More than 500 members of the security forces have been killed, Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad told India’s News X channel.
The United Nations Security Council issued a statement Aug. 3, expressing “grave concern” at the deaths and human-rights abuses in Syria. Stronger action, such as a resolution condemning the crackdown, has been backed by the U.S. and its European allies, and blocked by countries including Russia.
Italy recalled its ambassador to Syria on Aug. 2 to protest the “horrible repression” and urged other European countries to do the same.
Many countries, including those in the west, “will interpret King Abdullah’s remarks as permission for stronger action against Syria,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi analyst and editor-in-chief of Alarabiya.net.
Economic sanctions, possibly against Syria’s oil production, remain the way “to make clear to Assad that he has to stop the violence and fundamentally must resign,” Ruprecht Polenz, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party who heads the German parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Deutschlandradio in an interview today.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told senators at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill Aug. 1 that unilateral U.S. sanctions “don’t have much bite” because there is so little trade between the two countries.
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