Syrian security forces continued to squeeze Dara'a on Sunday, the besieged southern city at the epicenter of the anti-government revolt, despite a state media announcement that military operations against "terrorists" in the border town had ended.
Security reinforcements continued to pour into the city in armored vehicles, rights activists said, adding that troops were conducting house-to-house raids that netted hundreds of people. "I don't know what they mean by the military operation has ended," says Wissam Tarif, executive director of the rights group Insan. "They are still in the old quarter of the city and have arbitrarily detained a number of people from inside their homes. Many, many homes were raided." The official SANA news agency also reported the mass arrests, saying 149 people were picked up by forces "hunting those groups which have been terrorizing citizens."
Dara'a has been blockaded for a week, without water, electricity, fuel or communications. Food shortages have also been reported. The military has encircled the city and employed tanks, snipers and gangs of armed thugs (known as shabiha) in a bid to pacify the city. Still, the crackdown seems to have served only to further enflame residents, as well as turn the town near the Jordanian border into a potent national symbol of resistance to Assad's ruthless regime. Rather than crush dissent, the president's actions in Dara'a have helped fuel it, with activists now calling for a week of rolling "break the siege" protests across the country.
The fact that the rallying cry of revolt in largely Sunni Syria is a Sunni city has fueled latent sectarian suspicion of a regime packed with loyalists from Assad's own minority Alawite sect (along with elites from other minorities including Christians and select Sunnis). While many of the slogans chanted at protests speak of Syrian unity — like "One, one, Syrians are one!" — there are other, darker phrases being chanted like "Alawites will head to coffins, Christians to Beirut," referring to the capital of neighboring Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East with a Christian head of state and where Christians have sizable political power.
Assad's secular Baath regime has long wielded the fear of sectarian conflict over its citizenry, presenting itself as the most effective bulwark against the type of sectarian chaos present in neighboring strife-torn Iraq to the east and tiny Lebanon to the west. It's one of the reasons that Assad and his advisers have repeatedly said that Syria is not Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, with their largely monolithic populations, or even Yemen or Bahrain, despite those countries' Sunni-Shiite splits. Its patchwork multi-ethnic and sectarian society gives it a very different demographic makeup, and it is also in a very different geopolitical neighborhood.
What happens in Damascus has far-reaching consequences for the Middle East as a whole, more so than other countries in the grip of revolts. Syria is allied to Iran, and is part of the so-called anti-Israeli, anti-American resistance axis extending from Tehran, through Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon and into Damascus.
Still, neither the U.S nor Israel seem too keen to see the back of Bashar. Despite its support to anti-Israeli militant groups, Syria's Baath regime has kept the Israeli-occupied Golan region peaceful for decades. Assad is in many ways the devil Israel knows and knows how to deal with. It's unclear what or who would replace him. For its part, Washington did not include the Syrian leader in new U.S. sanctions targeting several individuals, including Bashar's brother Maher al-Assad, who heads the 4th Armored Division deployed in Dara'a.
Meanwhile, low-ranking elements of the regime continue peeling away from it. There were reports — impossible to verify — of minor defections from the army, particularly the 5th Division, by soldiers who refused to fire on protesters, and claims that the renegades turned their weapons on Maher's 4th Division. In one amateur video posted online, a soldier says he and five of his colleagues deserted after being asked to shoot unarmed protesters near Damascus.
Several amateur videos posted on the Internet on Sunday but dated April 29, also show Baath members resigning. In one, reportedly filmed in Rasten, near Homs, about a dozen men take turns at a microphone, announcing their names, occupations and resignation from the party. Each resignation is met with a cry of "Allahu Akbar!" from the assembled crowd, seated in what appears to be a tent. In another, filmed in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, a man claiming to be the father of the "martyr Ali Abdul-Razek Wardeh" also quits the Baath, before saying that his son, 15, was shot in the head. The teenager initially survived, he adds, but died in hospital.
"Instead of letting me stay with my son, they arrested me," the man says. He was placed in a room containing weapons, along with four other people. "Then they started to film us. We figured they will air this on state TV and label us an armed group attacking Dara'a," he says. "I beg you, if you see me on television, I swear to God I am just a civilian."