Syria Army Pounds Northern Towns

By: Nour Malas

Dissident Troops Pull Back, as Blackout Delays Reports of Deadliest Attacks Yet

Syrian military forces have killed hundreds of people in two days of tank and mortar shelling in the country’s north, antigovernment activists reported, reversing dissident soldiers’ recent bid to carve out a safe zone in towns near the border with Turkey.

Tanks sprayed antiaircraft rounds through neighborhoods while machine gun-wielding troops stormed homes looking for activists, sending residents of at least three towns fleeing to orchards in Jabal Zawiya, a vast northwestern region in Syria’s Idlib province, according to one resident who fled the area.

Antigovernment protesters attended the funeral of dozens killed in earlier clashes in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani.

The commander of the Free Syrian Army, the largest grouping of defected Syrian soldiers, said he ordered his dissident troops to withdraw under what he called the worst crackdown in Syria’s nine-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Word of the attacks—described by residents of the area, activist groups and dissident soldiers—emerged in trickles, amid a communications blackout in the area that appeared to be Syria’s worst since the government cut the Internet as protests peaked in the summer.

Activist reports of the death toll ranged from nearly 100 to 250 people killed over 48 hours through Wednesday, the harshest fighting in what residents called four days of attacks. France’s government on Wednesday denounced an “unprecedented massacre” of 120 people on Tuesday alone.

The White House renewed calls for President Assad to leave power, saying his regime has “flagrantly violated” its commitment to end violence.”

In a statement, White House press secretary Jay Carney urged Syria’s “few remaining supporters” abroad to warn Damascus to implement the Arab League’s plan to end the violence, or else “the international community will take additional steps to pressure the Assad regime to stop its crackdown.”

An Arab League advance group is due in Syria by Thursday, to prepare for a monitoring mission that Syria’s government has agreed to allow to inspect the country’s violent zones and supervise steps to end the crackdown, including a withdrawal of military from cities and the release of political prisoners.

Jabal Zawiya, a stretch of land along the border with Turkey, has turned in recent weeks into a hotbed of fighting. Last week, dissident soldiers had seized control of a handful of towns in the area, according to Col. Riad As’ad, the commander of the largest dissident-soldier group, the Free Syrian Army.

The loosely organized group of defectors has mounted increasingly effective attacks in the past week, killing dozens of government soldiers, dissident soldiers say.

But Col. As’ad said the soldiers had since been driven out of the towns. On Wednesday, he said he had ordered the troops he commands to pull out that day from Jabal Zawiya under “the worst, harshest, most inhumane attack” yet on his soldiers.

“We have never seen this scale of atrocity. It has been three days of massacres.” ” Col. As’ad said by telephone from the Turkish border, where he is based.

“We are unable to fight. We cannot face these tanks,” Col As’ad said, sounding a much less confident tone than in previous weeks.

Dissident troops—which claim to defend civilians and protesters under attack, rather than launch offensive operations—have previously described their light weapons, including rocket propelled-grenades, as fairly effective in destroying tanks and allowing them to fight the army.

Information on the clashes inside Syria can’t be independently verified. Most foreign media are still barred from the country. What accounts emerge are provided by witnesses and video footage.

These were scarce Wednesday, with only two videos from Jabal Zawiya posted online, compared to a daily average of dozens of videos from trouble spots. The first shows a crying baby and a young girl with bloodied faces appearing to be treated in a room. Another video tours a bare house piled with debris and soil, as the person shooting the footage says activists’ homes are being “burned down.”

“We are getting little information from these areas mainly because most communications are cut,” an administrator for one of the Syrian uprising Facebook pages said. “It seems they are trying to track anyone who uses a cell phone.”

Nourlddin al-Abdo, an activist who said he fled Jabal Zawiya on Monday, said electricity has been cut in most areas in Idlib province. “The military, security forces, and [thugs] raided most of the villages and towns of Jabal Zawiya using dozens of heavy weapons like tanks and military trucks,” the 22-year-old said over a satellite Internet connection.

He said forces shot dead dozens of people in the village of Kafar Ouayd, including a local mosque leader, who was beheaded after his death. Mr. Abdo said his activist network in the area counted more than 110 bodies gathered in the Kafr Ouayd mosque.

The surge in violence in Syria’s north, two days after the government agreed to admit Arab monitors, has further frustrated anti-government activists who are widely skeptical that Arab diplomacy will help end the bloodshed. The government’s acceptance of the plan, after weeks of delay and under significant pressure from both Arab opponents of the regime and ally Russia, appeared to be another government move that came too late to thwart the spiral of violence on the ground, activists say.

The Syrian National Council, a leading opposition coalition, called Jabal Zawiya a “disaster area” and requested the United Nations Security Council hold an emergency meeting to condemn the crackdown in the region, and “declare the cities and towns being brutally attacked ‘safe zones’ that enjoy international protection.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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