U.S. ambassador in Syria says crackdown risks sectarian strife prior to Friday of ‘unity’


President Bashar al-Assad is losing support among key constituents and risks plunging Syria into sectarian strife by intensifying a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus said on Thursday, as Syrian opposition was preparing for a Friday of “unity.”

Time is against Assad, Robert Ford told Reuters in a telephone interview from Damascus, citing the resilience of more than six months of what he described as overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations demanding more political freedoms.

Ford said there was economic malaise in Syria, signs of dissent within Assad’s Alawite minority sect and more defections from the army since mid-September, but the military is “still very powerful and very cohesive.”

“The government violence is actually creating retaliation and creating even more violence in our analysis, and it is also increasing the risk of sectarian conflict,” Ford said.

“I don’t think that the Syrian government today, Sept. 22, is close to collapse. I think time is against the regime because the economy is going into a more difficult situation, the protest movement is continuing and little by little groups that used to support the government are beginning to change.”

“Syrian army is still very powerful”

Ford cited a statement issued in the restive city of Homs last month by three notable members of the Alawite minority community, to which Assad’s family belongs, that said the Alawites’ future is not tied to the Assads remaining in power.

“We did not see developments like that in April or May. I think the longer this continues the more difficult it becomes for the different communities, the different elements of Syrian society that used to support Assad, to continue to support him.”

He said Assad could still rely on the military to try and crush the protest movement but the killing of peaceful protesters was losing him support within the ranks.

“The Syrian army is still very powerful and it is still very strong,” Ford said. “Its cohesion is not at risk today but there are more reports since mid-September of desertions than we heard in April and May or June. And this is why I am saying time is not on the side of the government.”

In another extensive interview with The Daily Caller Wednesday, Ford called Syrian President Assad “evil.”

“Yes, actually I do because what’s happening under his authority in terms of people being tortured to death, people being shot who are unarmed and no one being held accountable for it,” Ford responded following a pause after being asked by TheDC if he thought Assad was “evil.”

Ford also told The Huffington Post in a phone interview on Wednesday that the embattled opposition movement in Syria was finding it increasingly difficult to hold off those who would resort to violence in the face of the government’s brutality.

Ford said that as the regime of Assad continues to aggressively crack down on the protesters, the incidence of “retaliatory violence” has gone up, as have the calls for the movement to take up arms in self-defense.

I don’t think that the Syrian government today, Sept. 22, is close to collapse. I think time is against the regime because the economy is going into a more difficult situation, the protest movement is continuing and little by little groups that used to support the government are beginning to change

U.S. Ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford

“Unity of the Opposition”

Syria said on Thursday that “terrorists” had killed five members of the security forces in the restive Deraa province while pro-democracy activists said three civilians were killed in Homs, another hub of protest against Assad.

Activists also said the authorities had blocked mobile phone signals and the Internet in parts of Damascus province, at Saqba, Jisrin, Kafar Batna, Hamurieh and Ain Tarma, and arrested 45 people nationwide during the day, according to AFP.

Organizers of the protests against the Assad regime have used their Facebook page, “The Syrian revolution 2011,” to rally support for their cause.

The activists said the move against communications coincided with a call for a Friday demonstration under the banner “Unity of the Opposition” to overthrow the regime, which they termed “a national duty.”

They also voiced support for the opposition Syrian National Council set up in August in Turkey at the initiative of Syrian Islamists. Last week the names of only half of its 140 members were revealed for security reasons.

Friday, the main Muslim day of prayer, has seen weekly protests against the regime, with thousands of demonstrators surging onto streets to be met with a harsh crackdown by security forces.

On Thursday, the official news agency SANA said: “Five members of the security forces have been killed and 17 wounded in an ambush mounted by some armed terrorist groups on the road from Tiba.”

The area is in the southern Deraa province which was one of the main springboards of opposition to the authorities when protests began on Mar. 15.

A customs official was also killed by “armed men” and two members of the security forces were wounded in Qseir south of Homs, SANA said.

Damascus does not accept there is popular opposition to the authorities, saying instead that “armed gangs” and “terrorists” are trying to sow chaos in the country.

More bloodshed

Activists, meanwhile, reported more bloodshed among civilians.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) said three civilians had been killed in Homs, while in Daeel, in Deraa province, security forces shot at students, wounding some and arresting others.

It said the students were aged under 15 and that tanks had been stationed outside the Daeel public high school.

The LCC, which has activists on the ground across Syria, is one of the active members of the Syrian National Council -- one of several opposition coalitions that has emerged since March to rally against the regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that hidden gunmen had opened fire and killed a civilian in Homs. It was not clear whether this was a separate killing.

It also reported the arrest on Thursday across the country of 57 people, including five pupils. According to the Observatory 70,000 people have been detained since mid-March, with 15,000 still behind bars.

In Deraa province, security reinforcements arrived in the towns of Jezah and Tayebeh, the LCC said, and security forces had deployed in Nabu area in suburban Damascus.

According to another LCC report, security agents, troops and pro-regime militia in Homs had spread “a climate of terror” since late on Monday “searching houses street by street, kidnapping many young people and taking them to a stadium that they had transformed into a prison.”

Western governments have sought to increase pressure on Assad, and on Wednesday US President Barack Obama called on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria.

In Geneva, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the death toll from the regime’s bloody crackdown on protesters since March had risen to more than 2,700 people.