“They have snipers firing on everybody who is moving,” a witness told The Associated Press by telephone. “They aren’t discriminating. There are snipers on the mosque. They are firing at everybody.”
“They are entering houses. They are searching the houses. They are carrying knives and guns.”
“The men are firing in all directions and advancing behind the armour which is protecting them,” one activist told AFP. “Electricity is cut off and telephone communications are virtually impossible.”
“It’s terrifying and shows the authorities will not spare anyone to subdue people and end our resistance and yearning for freedom,” said another witness.
President Bashar al-Assad had launched “a savage war designed to annihilate Syria’s democrats” said Suhair al-Atassi, a prominent dissident.
The Obama administration is mulling its options, but the UK, France, Germany and Portugal are calling on the UN Security Council to condemn the violent crackdown.
“We would like council members to condemn the violence in Syria and to urge restraint,” a European diplomat told Reuters.
“The government has decided to choose the path of violence and repression, without willing to compromise,” said a Beirut-based Syrian analyst. “How far can they go in this repression? That is the question.”
“This is the worst Syria has faced since 1982,” said Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a dissident writer, in a reference to the violent suppression of an Islamist revolt in Hama by Bashar’s father, Hafez, in which up to 30,000 civilians were killed.
“It’s clear there’s now a strategy to crush any form of dissent using overwhelming force,” said Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Syria and Lebanon. “There’s been a decision that they will tolerate no more dissent and that this has to end.”
Unconfirmed reports suggest divisions emerging among army officers, with some accounts claiming that soldiers have defected and are now fighting alongside the citizens of Dara’a.
Junior officers are defecting, said Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at George Washington University and formerly a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“They’re not following orders,” he told TIME. “The regime knows who it can rely on: the 4th and the Presidential Guards. We hope that the military will play a role, but if senior politicians don’t resign, it won’t encourage military commanders to do the same.”
The government was always more likely to opt for repression instead of reform, writes Fouad Ajami.
“That chasm between state and society, between ruler and ruled, that we can see in practically all Arab lands under rebellion was most stark in Syria,” he notes.
The ruling Alawi sect, “a mountainous community of Shiite schismatics, for centuries cut off from wealth and power, comprising somewhere between 10% and 12% of the population, had hoarded for themselves supreme political power.”
The violence will increase pressure on Western democracies to move beyond rhetorical condemnation and take action to penalize if not undermine the Ba’athist regime.
“We continue to look for ways and are pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown in Syria and to make clear that this behavior is unacceptable,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said today.
The White House rejected calls to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Damascus on the grounds that a diplomatic presence is useful “precisely because we can speak very clearly in this case regarding our opposition and concern,” Carney said.
The West should at least freeze funds and assets belonging to Assad, his family and the rest of the regime’s elite, and Washington “could toughen up the sanctions it relaxed in recent years,” one observer suggests. “And if Europe took similar action, the measures could have real bite. The continent accounted for 36 percent of Syria’s total exports and 29 percent of its imports in 2008.”
The European Union had tried to court Damascus through the prospect of a lucrative association agreement to boost trade, but its overtures failed to generate a reform agenda.
Brussels should end its Faustian pact with the regime, human rights advocate Nadim Houry says.
“Given the level of violence, the EU should impose targeted sanctions against key figures in the regime. Visa bans, asset freezes – no more business as usual,” Houry said.
Bashar “must be given a stark choice – either you keep going down the path of repression and you become an international pariah, and it will be very costly for you economically, or you make real reforms and the European Union will give you all the support you need to do that.”
The crackdown confirms that the regime will no longer try to defuse discontent through cosmetic reforms, but intends to use the most loyal and brutal elements of the elite security forces to repress the protests.
“The system is too strong to collapse easily,” said one analyst. “The 4th battalion is effectively a private army which strikes fear into Syrians. The rest of the army is conscripts, some of whom may defect. But how many of them will dare to say no when the commander is a member of the regime?”
Assad appears intent on making an example of Dara’a to intimidate and deter the wider protest movement.
But it is equally unclear whether the regime will be able to repress a revolt that has acquired such momentum and scale without coherent political leadership.
“Part of the reason the month-long uprising has endured is that there are no high-profile leaders who can be targeted by the authorities, cutting the head off the movement at the stroke,” analysts say.