GUVECCI, Turkey – Syrian policemen turned their guns on each other, soldiers shed their uniforms rather than obey orders to fire on protesters, and three young men who tried to escape were beheaded by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
As more than 2,400 Syrians streamed across the open Turkish borders on Thursday ahead of tanks and troops who surrounded their hometown, they brought with them the first accounts of a week of revolt, mutiny and mayhem in Jisr al-Shughour. The streets were deserted, leaving no resistance against a regime equipped for all-out battle.
Even safe in Turkish camps 12 miles away, the Syrians said they feared the authoritarian government’s reach and refused to allow their full names to be used.
A young man who identified himself as Rami said the Syrian reinforcements were mobilized in response to a mutiny among police and soldiers, sharply divided over how to disperse the protesters.
“It all started with the killing of two protesters a week ago, then policemen who refused orders from the Alawite police chief to fire on civilians clashed at the Emin Asqari police station,” Rami said through an interpreter. Other Syrians nodded or interrupted with more details. Syria’s ruling elite, including the Assads, belong to the minority Alawite sect.
“Then, some soldiers deserted also after refusing to fire on the protesters, some took off their uniforms, left their weapons and ran away with their families,” added Rami, a skinny 22-year-old who was studying at a university in Jisr al-Shughour to become a math teacher. “Two helicopters also fired randomly on civilians as well as houses that triggered the exodus.”
Rami said he can’t reach many of his friends.
“I fear for their lives,” said Rami. “Assad’s forces beheaded three young men from Latakia when they said they were going to Turkey. We buried them yesterday in a village across the border.”
The struggle over Jisr al-Shughour and the surrounding Idlib province is a critical test for the 40-year Assad regime, which has said “armed groups” killed 120 security forces in the area this week.
Syrian activists say more than 1,300 people have died in the crackdown on the 11-week uprising, most of them unarmed civilians; a government spokeswoman countered that 500 security forces had died in the uprising, including 120 who died in the Jisr al-Shughour area this week.
“The only instance where security forces have fired is when they have been fired at,” Reem Haddad told Britain’s Sky News. “How have these people been killed for goodness sake if no one is firing at them?”
Jisr al-Shughour emptied as its residents crossed olive groves and traveled gravel roads, trying to get away from the tanks and elite forces believed to be led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, residents and an activist said.