The world's attention has focused on the Syrian city of Hama, the scene of a bloody crackdown by President Bashir Assad's army against peaceful protesters that left at least 200 dead. But on Sunday, Aug. 7, the Syrian army launched a major assault on Deir al-Zor, in a heavily Sunni Muslim tribal area near the Iraqi border, killing dozens after a siege of several days. With most journalists barred from entering the country, it is almost impossible to verify witness statements, but the reports that are filtering out of the city are disturbing. At 2 a.m. Sunday morning, residents and activists say, at least 200 tanks entered the city, crushing makeshift civilian barricades that had been erected to keep the army out. Buildings were shelled, and snipers positioned themselves on rooftops. The offensive reportedly continued on Monday.
Reached by phone, Mazen, a doctor and human-rights activist, says he toured the city and found the streets "full of bodies." "There were wounded people who were screaming, and missiles were zooming overhead," he says. "The government has shut down the hospitals, so we are using mosques and private homes as medical centers. But we can't help everyone."
Until the siege, the city had bubbled with a kind of exuberance. It was early May when I sat in front of a Syrian dissident as she chatted energetically about how mass protests demanding the toppling of Assad had finally materialized in her home city of Deir al-Zor, an agricultural hub of half a million people. Mariam, as she asked to be called when I wrote about her, had been organizing small protests in Damascus, the capital, but was jumping around the room with excitement at the thought of her home city joining the peaceful uprising.
"My brother told me there are really big numbers, maybe 50,000 demonstrating," she said, heaping ample sugar into my small glass before running into the kitchen to fetch tea. "My mom said there are thousands marching right outside her window," she called out from the kitchen.
My visits to see Mariam were normally quiet and serious affairs, in which she would coolly tell me what the plans of the protesters in Damascus were for the upcoming days or recount stories of the arrests and torture of her friends at the hands of the Syrian secret police. We would close the shutters and turn up the volume on the television to drown out our discussions from the snooping ears of neighbors, who might be government informers.
But that day, excitement caused Mariam to act as if the revolution had already been won windows were open, and the television was off. "I'm going to head back to Deir al-Zor and join the protests there," she said a little louder than I felt comfortable with. As she pranced around the room elatedly, loose tea leaves whirled in her glass, at times threatening to escape over the side.
By assaulting the city, Assad, who is a member of Syria's minority Alawite community, risks retaliation from its angry and heavily armed tribes. Assad, it seems, is laying the foundations for a civil war. The embattled leader's first provocative act was the July arrest of a prominent Deir al-Zor sheik, Nawaf al-Bashir, who is head of the main Baqqara tribe and a leading figure in the campaign against Assad. Al-Bashir, who commands more than a million Baqqara, told Reuters only hours before his arrest that he was actually trying to stop a tribal armed resistance to a military assault on Deir al-Zor as troops massed around the city.
With their chief imprisoned, Mariam told me via e-mail, tribesmen are discussing the possibility of putting up armed resistance. "The tribesmen are saying that the arrest of their leader is the same as raping a virgin," Mariam wrote in a worried e-mail on Monday. Tensions, she says, are at a tipping point in Deir al-Zor.
Seven government informants, Mariam told me, were recently forced to go to a central square in Deir al-Zor and publicly apologize for giving the names of some protesters to security forces. "Local civil leaders made them apologize to stop groups of tribesmen who were threatening the informants and attacking their houses," she wrote, adding that the situation could get "very messy" if residents were to vent their anger against those who they see as agents of the government.
Despite being the center of Syria's oil production, Deir al-Zor is one of the poorest regions in the country, as little oil revenue has been reinvested in the desert area. Tribes there have long resented the Assad family, who they see as responsible for decimated agriculture production due to water shortages, which analysts say have largely been caused by corruption and mismanagement of resources. Meanwhile, the siege and assault have pushed many to the limit. Most shops are closed, and there are frequent electricity and water stoppages and significant shortages in bread and flour. Most government employees have yet to receive their salaries.
Ammar, an activist, says armed gunmen from around the province are filling the streets of Deir al-Zor and that some have started to fight with the army in reprisal for the bloodshed. "Those who want peaceful demonstrations are trying to calm down the young tribesmen to prevent their violent retaliation for the arrest of Sheik Bashir," he says over the phone.
Some in the anti-Assad camp have told me that the city could become another Benghazi a rebel city stronghold in eastern Libya that is now completely controlled by the opposition. They point out that Deir al-Zor is far from Assad's powerhouse of Damascus, isolated in the desert. To claim the city, however, the tribes would need to push the army out of it by force, risking the lives of thousands.
Since protests began in March, Assad has done little to placate the opposition. In fact, his brutal crackdown has only served to fan the flames; demonstrations have steadily grown around the country. Entering Deir al-Zor with his guns blazing could prove Assad's most foolish move yet. "The tribes in Deir al-Zor have not officially been able to agree on whether to fight the army yet," Mariam wrote in her latest e-mail to me. "For many it's a last resort, but others are looking at how many people have died elsewhere in Syria and saying 'we might as well fight, we are dead either way.' "