Syrian President Bashar Assad pressed on with a tank onslaught against the eastern Sunni city of Deir al-Zor on Monday, but was plunged deeper into international isolation by Arab neighbors who denounced his violent crackdown and recalled their envoys from Damascus.
Assad fired defense minister Ali Habib on Monday and replaced him with chief of staff Gen. Dawoud Rajha. Habib was added to an EU sanctions list last week for his role in crushing protests, but state news attributed the dismissal to supposed ill health.RELATED:
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Violence has worsened sharply in the past week after Assad ordered tank assaults on two cities.
Other Arab leaders had been cautious about criticizing one of their peers, but Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah broke the silence with a rare intervention overnight, demanding an end to the bloodshed and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus. Hours later, Kuwait and Bahrain recalled their envoys too.
Syrian tanks and troops poured into Deir al-Zor in the latest stage of a
campaign to crush protests, and forces shot dead at least three
mourners on Monday when they opened fire at a funeral for a pro-democracy
protester in the southern border city of Deraa, witnesses and activists
A resident said at least 65 people had been killed since tanks and
armored vehicles barreled into the provincial capital, 400 km. northeast
of Damascus, on Sunday, crumpling makeshift barricades and opening
The sudden withdrawal of ambassadors of Gulf Arab states leaves Assad
with few diplomatic friends. Western states have imposed sanctions on
top Syrian officials and countries with close ties to Damascus such as
Russia and Turkey had warned Assad he was running out of time.
The Saudi criticism was the sharpest the oil giant has directed against
any fellow Arab state since pro-democracy uprisings began to sweep
across the region in January.
“What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia,”
Abdullah said in a statement read out on Al-Arabiya satellite
“Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and issue and enact
reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms,” said the Saudi
king, an absolute ruler whose country has no elected parliament.
“Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the
depths of turmoil and loss.”
The assault on Deir al-Zor, in an oil-producing province bordering Iraq,
took place a week after tanks stormed the city of Hama, where scores
have been killed.
The official SANA news agency said on Monday the military was winding down there.
“Army units assigned to restore security and stability... have started
to leave the city after they fulfilled their duty,” it said. “Life is
gradually returning to normal.”
But an activist in Hama said there were still tanks in parts of the city and security forces were making arrests.
The Arab League also called for an end to the bloodshed. But its chief
said on Monday it would use persuasion rather than “drastic measures” to
resolve the conflict. Kuwait ruled out military action against Assad.
The US State Department said it was “heartened” by the Arab
condemnation, calling the moves a further sign that the international
community is repulsed by Assad’s actions.
France repeated a call for Assad to scrap the military campaign that rights groups say has killed 1,600 civilians.
“The time of impunity is over for the Syrian authorities. This
large-scale and bloody repression must stop,” French Foreign Ministry
spokeswoman Christine Fages said.
Germany said Assad would lose his legitimacy if he did not stop bloodshed.
Hama and Deir al-Zor are both predominately Sunni cities, and the
crackdowns there resonate with Sunnis, who form the majority in the
region and rule most Arab countries. Hama is known throughout the region
as the site of a crackdown by Assad’s father nearly 30 years ago
against Sunni Islamists in which many thousands died.
In Cairo, the head of the most influential school of Sunni Islam,
Al-Azhar University, described the violence as a human tragedy that had
“Blood only fuels the fires of revolutions,” Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb said.
Syrian authorities denied that any Deir al- Zor assault had taken place.
SANA said “not a single tank has entered Deir al-Zor” and reports of
tanks in the city were “the work of provocateur satellite channels.”
State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies
floating in the Orontes River in Hama, saying 17 policemen had been
ambushed and killed in the central Syrian city. Activists have said
protesters’ families – fearing for their safety if they attend funerals –
have had no choice but to dump the bodies of slain loved ones into the
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday, the State Department said, asking him to
“reinforce” Washington’s position that Syria must immediately return its
military to barracks and release prisoners.