The New York Times | Nada Bakri & Anthony Shadid | July 31, 2011
Syrian military and security forces stormed Hama and other restive cities before dawn on Sunday, killing at least 75 people in what appeared to mark the fiercest crackdown yet by the government of President Bashar al-Assad on the four-month old uprising against his rule, activists and residents there said.
The simultaneous raids on several cities came a day before the holy month of Ramadan, during which activists had vowed to escalate their uprising with nightly protests. The scale of the assault and the mounting death toll underlined the government’s intention to crush the uprising by force, despite international condemnations and its own tentative and mostly illusory reforms ostensibly aimed at placating protesters’ demands.
“Today we are witnessing a major assault,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee, an opposition group that helps organize and document protests. “It is a last-minute attempt by the regime to reclaim cities that it lost control of.”
The fiercest operation was against the central city of Hama, where at least 49 people were killed, the committee said. Activists offered different accounts of the toll, some far higher. The numbers were impossible to immediately confirm, on a dramatic, confusing day punctuated by rumors of military desertions, calls for revenge, and government claims of armed opponents firing at civilians that seemed to test logic.
Since June, Hama, a city of 800,000 people, has been largely free of security forces, allowing it to assert a measure of independence. In recent weeks, residents have built makeshift barricades of everything from street lights to cinderblocks and sandbags to prevent security forces from re-entering. The defenses, however, stood little chance against tanks and armored vehicles, which began their assault from four directions before dawn.
“It appears on the ground that the Syrian government has chosen to engage in full-scale warfare against its own people,” said J.J. Harder, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. “This is a regime that continues to surprise us by how horrific it can be.”
In an interview, he added that Syrian officials were “delusional.”
Many in Syria had believed that the government would not dare to try to retake Hama, given its bloody history with the government. In 1982, under the orders of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, a military assault lopped off an Islamist uprising in the city, one of Syria’s most conservative, killing at least 10,000 people and perhaps many more. The episode marks one of the most brutal in the history of the modern Middle East.
On Sunday, Hama residents reached by telephone offered wrenching accounts, telling of youths trying to block the way of tanks with little more than sticks, stones and iron bars. Some of the young men in the town, who have manned barricades nightly for weeks, set fire to tires. Hospitals appealed for donations of blood as the toll mounted through the day, and videos smuggled out of the city by Internet showed gray columns of smoke billowing over the city’s streets. It was unclear whether tanks had entered the heart of the city or remained on its outskirts.
“Massacres, massacres are taking place here,” shouted Obada Arwany, an activist in the city. “History is repeating itself. It is repeating itself.”
Sobbing, Mr. Arwany said residents shouted “God is great” as they stood in the tanks’ paths. He said that he had seen dead and wounded scattered among the barricades in the streets, the firing too ferocious for residents to try to retrieve or rescue them.
The Syrian government offered a wholly different account of the events, countered by everyone reached by phone in the city. It said dozens of gunmen had ascended rooftops and were “shooting intensively to terrorize citizens,” the Syrian state news agency SANA reported. It said insurgent groups had set fire to police stations, vandalized public and private property and set up roadblocks and barricades.
The version of events echoed the government’s long-standing contention: that it faces an armed uprising led by militant Islamists and backed by foreign countries. This time, it said armed men carried guns and rocket-propelled grenades, though not a single weapon was seen in the streets when a New York Times reporter visited this month.
“Army units are removing the barricades and roadblocks set up by the armed groups at the entrance of the city,” the state news agency reported.
Mr. Harder, the embassy spokesman, called the account “nonsense.” “They keep talking about armed gangs, but there is one armed gang in this country and it is the Syrian government itself,” he said.
Activists said 49 people were killed in Hama, though others put the toll at 62; the government said two members of its security forces were killed there.
Sham, a Web site sympathetic to protesters, reported that some soldiers had deserted from the force assaulting the city. It broadcast video of what it said were soldiers shaking and kissing protesters in Hama, though it was impossible to verify. Other footage showed smoke billowing as explosions and heavy gunfire rang across the city.
As the government pressed its assault on Hama, other units attacked Deir al-Zour, Syria’s fifth-largest city in an eastern region that produces most of the country’s gas and oil. The committee said at least 13 people were killed there on Sunday. For days the government had signaled a campaign against the city, one of the country’s most restive and most dangerous given the ties of the expanded clans that knit it together.
Another assault was reported in the southwestern province of Dara’a, where the uprising began in mid-March, when security forces arrested and tortured a dozen youths for scrawling anti-graffiti writings on walls in the provincial capital. The committee said six people had been killed in the town of Soran and seven in Herak, both in the province.
“They are acting as though they not only lost control but also their conscience,” said Anwar Fares, an activist reached by phone in the city of Dara’a.
Despite activists’ contention that the military and security forces were overstretched and exhausted, Sunday’s bloody raids underlined the capacity of Mr. Assad’s government to deploy forces from one end of Syria to the other — Hama in the north, Dara’a in the south and Deir al-Zour in the east. But many residents have vowed to test the logistics of the security forces by bringing even more protesters into the streets after nightly prayers during Ramadan, one of the holiest times in the Muslim calendar.
“The regime is trying to launch a pre-emptive attack before Ramadan, but can it occupy all of Syria?” asked a resident in Hama, who gave his name as Abu Abdo.