Chaos in Syria: Are Army Deserters Helping to Arm the Opposition?

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An image grab taken from a video posted on YouTube shows Syrian antiregime protesters tearing down a poster of President Bashar Assad outside the town hall in Hama, north of Damascus, on May 13, 2011

The oppressive heat has become insufferable in Syria — and as the temperature climbs, emotions get harder to contain. For three months, peaceful protests have been met with gunfire, mass arrests and torture. Now the patience of many antigovernment Syrians is being tested as horror stories of police brutality are whispered behind closed doors. President Bashar Assad's regime has blamed the unrest on "armed extremist groups," a claim activists tend to dismiss as regime propaganda. But reports of skirmishes in a northwestern border town seem to point to a likelihood that citizens are taking up arms. Assad has long denounced Syria's protest movement as militant, but now, it appears, he may finally have earned himself a bona fide armed uprising.

Syrian state television claims that 120 security forces were killed when hundreds of militants, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed government buildings and laid siege to the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shoghour on Monday, June 6. The violence appears to have erupted late on Saturday, when snipers fired on a funeral march for six protesters who were killed on Friday, according to residents. Mourners then set fire to the building, killing eight members of the security forces. State television said fighting continued into Sunday and Monday when gunmen ambushed security posts before mutilating the dead bodies and "throwing them in the river."

A video image alleges to show a policeman shot dead during clashes in the town of Jisr al-Shoghour, Syria, on June 6, 2011.

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The Syrian government is gearing up for a fight. Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar promised to "act firmly, with force and in line with the law" in a statement he read on state television. "[The state] will not stay arms folded in the face of armed attacks on the security of the homeland," he said.

Jisr al-Shoghour is a hotbed of antigovernment sentiment. The impoverished town, famous for its role in smuggling contraband into nearby Turkey, has been the scene of weekly demonstrations and violence since March. In 1980, dozens were killed in Jisr al-Shoghour when the government — headed by Bashar's father Hafez Assad — crushed an uprising reportedly led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Two years later, Hafez killed 10,000 to 20,000 people in neighboring Hama, using jets and artillery. If the brutal actions of Bashar Assad over the past three months are anything to go by, there is little doubt that the younger Assad will be just as vicious as his father. Activists say helicopter gunships and armored cars were used on Monday.

Already there are reports that residents are fleeing. One activist contacted by the Associated Press said 80% of the town's inhabitants have fled to villages along the border with Turkey, only 12 miles (19 km) away. On Tuesday, Turkish authorities said 35 Syrians who made it across the border were being treated at Turkish hospitals. Human-rights groups say at least 42 people have been killed.

With foreign journalists barred from the country and many major roads blocked, it is impossible to confirm reports from either side. Activists say state television broadcasts are media stunts used by the government to justify the killing of more than 1,200 protesters since mid-March and the arrest and torture of thousands. From a public-relations perspective, killing armed men is much more palatable to Syrians than slaughtering unarmed protesters.

"Assad wants to give the image that he is fighting a sectarian insurgency rather than a civilian movement who are demanding their rights," says an activist in Damascus. On Tuesday, to the sound of funereal music, Syrian state television showed clips of dead policemen and burning cars before airing footage of Syrian children eating ice cream in Damascus and farmers sowing seeds. The contrast sends a clear message that "insurgents" are ruining the delicate balance of peace that President Assad claims to have fostered.

Still, activists and some of the town's inhabitants concede that residents have taken up arms. Some say the gunmen were in fact army soldiers who defected and fled after refusing to fire on protesters, mirroring reports by opposition figures and activists over recent weeks. If these reports are confirmed, this would mark the largest incident of infighting within the Syrian security forces since the protests began.

Early on Tuesday, one such defector, Lieutenant Abdul Razzaq Mohammed Tlass, appeared on a satellite channel aired in Syria, calling on soldiers to stand against the President. "After what we've seen from crimes ... all over Syria, I am unable to continue with the Syrian Arab army," he said in footage aired on al-Jazeera. "Remember your duties," said Tlass, who urged other officers to protect protesters.

Syria's security forces are a complex mixture of police, military intelligence, army and secret services. President Assad has made sure all of the highest positions are filled with members of his minority Alawite sect, his family and members of the Baath party. Assad's brother Maher heads what Syrians call "the Fourth Division," a group of hard-line loyalists whom activists have accused of committing some of the worst atrocities during the crackdown.

The army, on the other hand, consists mainly of ordinary Syrians who have been conscripted for a mandatory two years. It is these soldiers who are reported to have mutinied. "At the barracks, there are no televisions, no news, nothing," says a doctor employed by the army who asked to be referred to as Mohammed. "The soldiers have no idea what is happening in the country, and suddenly they are asked to kill fellow Syrians."

Mohammed says he knows "tens" of soldiers who have defected during operations in the southern city of Dara'a, the scene of some of the worst violence against demonstrators. "When the soldiers defect, they have to make sure they can find a safe house, as the Fourth Division will shoot them," Mohammed says. Some activists say that in Jisr al-Shoghour, the defecting soldiers and armed civilians have joined forces against loyalist security forces.