Assad says military operation in southern flashpoint will end ‘very soon’

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President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said that a military operation in the southern flashpoint city of Deraa would end “very soon,” the al-Watan daily reported on Thursday, as hundreds of soldiers in combat gear broke into houses and made overnight arrests in the Damascus suburb of Saqba,

The city of Daraa has been under military siege since April 25 as protests that started out as demands for reforms seven weeks ago mushroomed into calls for the ouster of President Assad.

Meanwhile, government forces arrested several activists in overnight raids on houses in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, scene of a mass demonstration against the regime, a resident said on Thursday.

“The soldiers did not say who they were. People think they are from Maher’s Fourth division,” the female resident, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters, referring to the president’s brother Maher al-Assad.

“They cut off communications before they came in. There is no resistance. The demonstrations in Saqba have been peaceful. Scores of people have been arrested,” she said.

Thousands joined a demonstration in Saqba last Friday demanding the removal of President Assad.

Earlier today (Thursday), Syrian army units backed by tanks tightened the siege of two defiant urban centers, in a sign that President Assad is widening the use of the military to crush demonstrations against his autocratic rule.

Tanks and armored vehicles deployed around Rastan town on Wednesday and army units set up checkpoints in Sunni districts in Banias, days after a loyalist army division led by Mr. Maher crushed protests in the southern city of Deraa with shellfire and machineguns.

The demonstrations in Syria, a country of 23 million people, inspired by pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, began with demands for political freedom and an end to corruption. Mr. Assad’s response—repression and an offer of limited reform—led to wider demands for his removal.

Before the army stormed Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad had relied mainly on security forces and secret police to confront the mass demonstrations.

“Assad’s decision to use the army is pretty much the utmost escalation of force he can muster and a clear signal that he has no interest in any reconciliation,” an Arab government official monitoring the situation in Syria said.

International condemnation of the repression has intensified since the Deraa assault, which revived memories of the 1982 crushing of an armed Islamist uprising in Hama by President Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad.

President Bashar Assad, 46, belongs to the minority Alawite sect. His father ruled majority Sunni Syria for 30 years, succeeded at his death 11 years ago by Bashar.

The elder Assad extended Alawite control of the army, which is now led by mostly Alawite officers and effectively controlled by Mr. Bashar’s brother Mr. Maher, military experts say.

Human rights groups say the army, security forces and gunmen loyal to President Assad have killed at least 560 demonstrating civilians since the protests erupted in Deraa on March 18.

Last Friday military intelligence staff shot dead at least 17 demonstrators in Rastan, residents and rights campaigners said, after 50 members of the ruling Baath Party in the town resigned.

Tanks were deployed there after residents rejected a demand by Baath Party official Sobhi Harb that they hand over several hundred men in exchange for tanks staying outside the town.

In the mixed coastal city Banias, soldiers deployed on Wednesday in the main market area, which separates Alawite from Sunni districts.

In a show of force in the capital Damascus, a convoy of 30 Republican Guard tanks and up to 70 trucks filled with soldiers was seen on the main ring road.

“Each truck had 20 to 30 soldiers. The convoy was either heading north in the direction of Homs or south in the direction of Deraa,” a witness told Reuters.

The authorities say armed groups and infiltrators who have fired on civilians and security forces cause the unrest.

Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan Human Rights Group, said family members had confirmed the detention of 2,843 people across Syria and the actual number could be as high as 8,000. More than 800 of them had been taken from Deraa.

The United States, which had improved ties with President Assad in the last two years, described the attack on Deraa as “barbaric.”

Germany and Britain said they were seeking the imposition of European Union sanctions against Syrian leaders—after a US announcement of sanctions last week—and France said President Assad should be among the targets of sanctions.

(Mustapha Ajbaili of Al Arabiya can be reached via email at: [email protected]. Abeer Tayel, also of Al Arabiya, can be reached at: [email protected])