BEIRUT – A deadly mutiny of Syrian soldiers and loss of control over a tense northern town appeared to show extraordinary cracks in an autocratic regime that has long prided itself on its iron control.
Details about the events in Jisr al-Shughour remained murky Tuesday. The government said 120 forces were dead, without explaining the enormous loss of life, and acknowledged losing “intermittent” control of the area.
But the reports Tuesday from residents and activists – and the television appearance of a soldier who says he switched sides after his hometown was bombarded – were the clearest sign yet that the weekly protests of thousands of Syrians are eroding President Bashar Assad’s grip.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France, Syria’s former colonial ruler with whom Assad maintained good relations, said the president had lost his legitimacy to rule. British foreign secretary William Hague said Assad must “reform or step aside.”
Juppe told reporters after a council meeting Tuesday on HIV/AIDS that it’s “inconceivable” that the Security Council is remaining silent when repression in Syria is getting worse and massacres are increasing.
Juppe said the resolution’s supporters are waiting for as large a majority as possible in the 15-member council before bringing the resolution to a vote, “and I think it’s a question of days, maybe hours.”
Unlike the early days of the rebellion in Libya, Assad has managed to keep his government together. On Tuesday, the network France 24 aired audio it said was of the Syrian ambassador to France issuing a stinging resignation; less than an hour later Syrian state television broadcast different audio of a woman’s voice denying she had quit.
It was not possible to reconcile the two accounts or contact Ambassador Lamia Shakkour.
Activists and residents of Jisr al-Shughour told the Associated Press that a number of soldiers joined forces with protesters after days of crackdowns in the region, leading to fighting with officers and security guards in which dozens were killed.
The Jisr al-Shughour resident said people were fleeing the area for the Turkish border about 12 miles away, fearing retaliation from a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent.
An alleged army deserter identifying himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass appeared on Al-Jazeera television Tuesday, saying he was deserting because of the regime’s “crimes” all over the country. He called on other officers to protect protesters.
Jisr al-Shughour drew the most recent assault by Syria’s military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt against Assad has left more than 1,300 Syrians dead, activists say. A resident said tensions began last week with forces firing on peaceful protests and funerals, killing around 30 people.