The Syrian military has intensified its offensive to crush a year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, with diplomatic efforts failing to end the bloodshed.
As the country marked the first anniversary of the revolt, government troops pressed ahead with their efforts to dislodge opposition fighters from key cities in the south and north.
In Idlib in the north, soldiers have driven out rebel forces and many civilians, and in Deraa, the site of the country’s first major anti-government protests in March 2011, soldiers supported by armoured vehicles have launched renewed attacks.
Assad supporters marked the occasion with rallies across the country, including in capital Damascus, saying the uprising was a “conspiracy” against the state.
Pro-Assad rallies were also held in Suweida to the south and Hasaka in the northeast.
“After a whole year of pressure on Syria, we want to make the world hear our voice: Leave Syria in peace,” a woman on the street told a government television station.
Meanwhile, opposition activists said up to 130 tanks and armoured vehicles converged on Deraa on Wednesday, raking buildings with machinegun fire and carrying out house-to-house raids.
“They are hitting the birthplace of our revolution,” said a resident from the city, who only identified himself as Mohammed for fear of reprisals.
The most prominent opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has said it wants to arm civilians and defected soldiers fighting the vastly better-provisioned army, but most nations who oppose Assad’s crackdown also fear intervening militarily.
France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said arming the opposition risks pushing the country into a catastrophic civil war.
“The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites,” Juppe said on France-Culture radio.
Tide of refugees
The government’s military offensive has forced thousands of Syrians to flee the country, most of them to neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey. The United Nations’ refugee agency says that about 230,000 Syrians have fled their homes, of whom almost 30,000 have left the country.
Turkey is hosting more than 14,000 Syrian refugees, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday, and the tide is increasing. Roughly 1,000 Syrians came over the border in the past 24 hours, he said.
Seven defected generals are among the Syrians now residing in Turkey, he added.
Syrians streaming into Turkey early on Wednesday said they had been warned that their villages in the province of Idlib would soon be targeted by the army.
“They are bombing Idlib. They are bombing the city. They have tanks and they have rockets,” said Abdul Samad, one of the refugees waiting for help at a fog-bound border post.
To counter the flow of refugees, Assad’s forces have reportedly planted landmines along both the Turkish and Lebanese borders.
“The Syrian administration has been planting mines, taking measures not to allow refugees to flee to the other side of the border,” Besir Atalay, the Turkish deputy prime minister, said.
Amid the mililtary offensive, Assad has shown little inclination to make concessions.
Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, is set to brief the Security Council on Friday about his recent efforts at negotiation with Assad. But it remains unclear if Annan made any gains when he proposed a peace plan during a short visit to Damascus over the weekend.
Protests following similar Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began in earnest in Syria on March 15, after youths who spray painted anti-government graffiti in Deraa were arrested and severely beaten.
Assad used his military to clamp down on Deraa, and peaceful protests were met with lethal violence, spurring more unrest throughout the country. Protests with crowds numbering in the hundreds gathered even on the streets of the comparatively calm capital, Damascus, but were put down with ease.
As mass protests continued, the government advanced on other restive cities, such as Hama and Zabadani. Civilians began to pick up arms and launch attacks on government troops, some of whom had started to defect.
|Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reports on Deraa, the southern city that sparked the uprising|
By winter, open armed conflict had broken out in parts of the country, and major suicide bombings had struck Damacus and Aleppo. The United Nations estimates that “well over” 7,500 people have died in the uprising, while the government says roughly 2,000 troops have been killed.
With diplomatic efforts to end the violence ineffective thus far, the Syrian army appears to be gaining the upper hand.
“Houses are being hit with random bombardment from gunfire, RPGs and anti-aircraft missiles,” said Mohammed, the witness in Deraa, where 13 civilian and seven opposition fighters were killed on Wednesday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Diplomats have said that Syria, riven by sectarian divisions, will descend into a Balkan-style civil war unless a political solution can be found. Its economy is already in tatters and its ties with old Arab allies are in shreds.
Official Syrian media accused “armed terrorists” on Wednesday of massacring 15 civilians, including young children,
in a pro-government district of the central city of Homs, which has been the focal point of much fighting in recent weeks.