BEIRUT – Syrian forces targeting areas that are in open revolt against the government launched a major assault on an agricultural hub near the Iraqi border on Sunday, as neighbors in the Middle East unleashed withering criticism of the crackdown.
Saudi Arabia joined other Arab countries in condemning the violence. In a statement read on television, King Abdullah said the bloodshed was unacceptable and that his country was withdrawing its ambassador to Damascus.
Saudi Arabia followed the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which represents oil-rich monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula. Both groups condemned the violence in Syria for the first time over the weekend.
Witnesses reached by telephone in Dair Alzour, located in a largely tribal area with strong trade and familial ties to Iraq, described scenes of violence similar to past clashes in the five-month confrontation between President Bashar Assad’s security forces and a protest movement inspired by uprisings throughout the Arab world.
They told of tanks firing shells into residential neighborhoods, panicked residents scurrying for cover and a near-constant barrage of gunfire. It was unclear whether Assad’s gunmen were firing at residents or mostly into the air.
According to accounts compiled by the activist network Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, at least 11 people were killed in the city of 500,000, and 18 were killed elsewhere in the country – including at least 12 in the western town of Hawleh. But an activist reached in Dair Alzour said the number of dead in the city was 24 and rising.
“Hundreds of tanks and army personnel are moving into several neighborhoods,” said a 52-year-old civil servant reached in the city, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Entire areas are closed down. We can hear gunfire and heavy artillery. No one is on the streets. They have put checkpoints in place all over.”
Dair Alzour is a heavily Sunni Muslim tribal area. By launching an offensive there, Assad, a member of Syria’s minority Allawite Muslim community, risks angering tribes that often live by ancient codes of retribution and are far better armed than most Syrians.
“The tribes are armed, but they are reluctant to use weapons against the army,” said one activist in the city. “Coming into Dair Alzour in such a fashion only makes one realize that the army wants to incite the tribes against them and start a civil war.”
Authorities sealed off the city’s entrances, as they did during an assault in which as many as 200 were killed in the city of Hama a week ago.