BEIRUT, Lebanon – A border region with a history of hostility toward the Syrian regime is posing the biggest challenge yet for President Bashar Assad’s struggle to crush the revolt against his family’s 40-year rule.
Analysts say Assad will do anything to restore control in the restive northern area bordering Turkey, where mutinous forces are giving a largely peaceful revolt new strength – and firepower.
On Saturday, thousands of elite troops and tanks believed to be led by his brother sealed off the entrances to the mostly deserted town of Jisr al-Shughour, with soldiers loyal to the regime coming under sniper fire as they approached.
Mutinous Syrian soldiers and police officers remained behind to fight against an expected all-out government assault, a resident said, and unarmed demonstrators were ready to fight “with their hands” in the town just 12 miles from the Turkish border.
While the Syrian uprising is still far from an all-out Libya-style insurgency, the mutiny in Jisr al-Shughour raises concerns the 12-week revolt is taking on a new dimension. Jisr al-Shughour’s history of Sunni militancy and its proximity to Turkey make it a crucial proving ground for the regime.
Syrian troops backed by tanks, helicopters and heavy armor have been in the area for several days; it was not clear why the army was delaying an assault. In the meantime, a captain and 15 soldiers defected and joined the protesters on Saturday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which documents Syrian anti-government protests.
Ausama Monajed, a London-based Syrian activist, said the Assads could be worried not just about army defections, but any hesitation to obey shoot-on-sight orders. Human rights groups say more than 1,400 people nationwide have died in the government crackdown since the uprising erupted in mid-March.
Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby in Idlib province. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Jamil Saeb, an activist from the town who was reached by phone, suggested the army was afraid to take on the people who stayed behind because Jisr al-Shughour residents were “known to be exceptionally fierce.” He said several army deserters and officers were still there and have vowed to protect unarmed residents.
“Syria cannot afford to lose territory where an insurgency or rebel army might emerge,” said Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.
“Damascus will do everything it can to preclude the formation of a Benghazi, which would allow foreign intelligence agencies and governments to begin arming and training a rebel army, as happened in Libya,” he wrote in his influential blog, Syria Comment.
Arab governments, which were unusually supportive of NATO intervention in Libya, have met the Syrian crackdown with silence, largely because Syria is seen as a regional powerhouse with influence on events in Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.
“Syria … is engaging in horrific, revolting attacks on its own people. The region, however, is trying to, behind the scenes, get the government to stop,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Negotiations continued Saturday on the draft text of a Security Council resolution proposed by Britain and France calling on all sides in Syria to cease the violence. Russia and China have so far opposed a resolution on Syria and have veto power.
Turkey’s military, meanwhile, was making preparations to step in if necessary, to “control and manage” the flow of refugees from Syria.