Syria Crackdowns Intensify

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AFP / Getty Images

An image grab taken from footage broadcast by the Syrian state television allegedly shows scenes of clashes in the town of Dara'a on April 8, 2011.

A man in a white shirt lies motionless, apparently dead, on an otherwise empty road, his arms and legs splayed at awkward angles. Intense gunfire crackles as four black-clad anti-riot policemen in helmets and shields run up to the body, several beat it with their batons before dragging it along the asphalt by its feet. The mobile phone footage zooms out to show hundreds of policemen deployed along the street, allegedly in the southern Syrian city of Dara'a, where anti-government protests first erupted less than a month ago. A voice off camera screams "Let the people see!" but the body has disappeared from view.

It's a gruesome episode to be sure, but one that may have far-reaching consequences, given that the motionless man in the white shirt is reportedly Mohammad Abdurazak al-Sharaa, the cousin of Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa. The claim was conveyed by Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based Syrian dissident and visiting scholar at The Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. Ziadeh says al-Sharaa's family personally confirmed the identity of the dead man to him. He was killed on Friday April 8. "He was very close [to the vice president], and I think it will have huge implications," Ziadeh says.

The snippets of information leaking out of Syria — through smuggled mobile phone footage, Twitter, Facebook, furtive calls to citizens inside and outside the country, as well as the official media — paint a fragmentary picture of a chaotic state desperately trying to contain swelling anti-regime anger with increasing brutality.

It's still extremely difficult for foreign media to gain accreditation in Syria, and even those who have permission to work are severely curtailed in what they can cover and where they can go. There are reports from Syrian human rights groups of soldiers allegedly killed by their colleagues for refusing to fire on protesters, of armed gangs known as the shabiha (believed to be members of the ruling Alawite clans and their lackeys) roaming the streets and shooting people indiscriminately, and of security forces preventing the injured from receiving treatment, either by shooting at medical personnel trying to help, or arresting people in hospitals, a finding corroborated by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Then there is the state's version of events, which holds that nine soldiers were killed on Sunday in an ambush "at the criminal hands of a group of terrorists and thugs," according to the official SANA news agency, and that rather than preventing the wounded from receiving medical treatment, it was injured security officers who were blocked from reaching hospitals by "gunmen," resulting in the deaths of several.

The National Progressive Front, a body dominated by the Ba'ath Party of President Bashar al-Assad, has ominously warned that "there is no room for complacency in dealing with these gangs," suggesting a possible uptick in violence. The regime "distinguishes between the reform aspirations of citizens and their legitimate demands" and conspirators trying to exploit "the changes taking place in the region to serve their hostile plots and undermine Syria's stances ... against hegemonic interests and Israeli expansion policies."

The death toll is also a matter of debate, even among human rights organizations. It stands at 200, according to a key Syrian rights group known as the Damascus Declaration, while HRW has a much lower figure of 130.

The confusion may be deliberate, according to a typed, three-page document stamped "top secret" and allegedly issued by the Syrian intelligence agency, dated March 23, 2011 and viewed by TIME. It is now posted on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page. The authenticity of the paper and its contents is impossible to verify. It summarizes a meeting of a 10-person security committee (initials, but not names of participants are provided) on March 23, a week after protests kicked off in earnest in Dara'a. It says the media must be prevented access to flashpoint towns, and that false witnesses (undercover security agents) should be paraded before the press to recount testimony that "should contain contradictions and lies that we can expose in the state media and discount to destroy the credibility of the protesters."

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