Syrian tank in Hama 311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Syrian navy shelled the main Mediterranean port city of Latakia on Sunday,
as President Bashar Assad broadened a military offensive to crush street
protests against his rule.
More than 20 civilians were killed on Sunday,
the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after security forces shot dead 20
people during nationwide marches on Friday.
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Since the beginning of the
fasting month of Ramadan on August 1, Assad’s forces have stormed major urban
centers and outlying regions where protests demanding political freedom and an
end to Assad family rule have been attracting crowds in larger
“I can see the silhouettes of two grey vessels. They are firing
their guns and the impact is landing on al-Raml, al-Filistini and al-Shaab
neighborhoods,” one witness told Reuters by phone from Latakia, where tanks and armored vehicles deployed three months ago to crush dissent against Assad in
mainly Sunni neighborhoods of the mixed city.
Latakia is a mostly Sunni
city in the heart of a rural coastal area populated by Assad’s minority Alawite
sect. The Assad family’s roots lie in the nearby village of
“This is the most intense attack on Latakia since the uprising.
Anyone who sticks his head out of the window risks being shot. They want to
finish off the demonstrations for good,” the witness said, adding that an
average of 20,000 people have been rallying daily to demand Assad’s removal in
different areas across the city after Ramadan night prayers.
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57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation called on Saturday for an
immediate halt to the military campaign against protesters. US President Barack
Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah
repeated their calls for the military assaults to stop.
A United Nations
official has said Assad’s forces have killed up to 2,000 civilians since the
uprising began in March.
Assad has repeatedly said Syria is facing a
foreign conspiracy to divide the country of 20 million. The authorities blame
“armed terrorist groups” for the bloodshed, and say 500 police and troops have
But Assad’s statements appear to have found little resonance
among the majority Sunni population of Latakia, where, similar to urban centers
in the rest of the country, the ruling minority has encouraged Alawites to move
from their traditional mountain regions, luring them with cheap land and jobs in
the public sector and the security apparatus.
The Latakia port figures
highly in the ruling family’s domination of the economy, with Assad’s late uncle
Jamil having been in control of the facility, and a new generation of family
members and their friends subsequently taking over.
Telegraph newspaper reported on Friday that Iran will fund a
multi-million-dollar military base in Latakia to help funnel military equipment
to the Assad regime. Syria is the Islamic Republic’s only close Arab ally – and
a conduit for arming Hezbollah and Hamas – and Tehran has appeared deeply
worried that a post- Assad Syria would mean a weakening of its role on the
Demonstrations against Assad during the five-month
uprising have been largest in the Sunni neighborhoods of Latakia, including
Salibiya in the center of the city and Raml al-Filistini (Sands of Palestine)
and al-Shaab on the southern shore.
Troops and tanks have been besieging
the neighborhoods for months, residents say, with garbage going uncollected and
electricity regularly being cut.
In March, leading Syrian opposition and
civic figures, including Aref Dalila, a prominent economist from Latakia, issued
a declaration denouncing sectarianism and committing to nonviolent democratic
change in the wake of disturbances involving an Alawite militia loyal to Assad
known as the “shabbiha.”
Dalila, an Alawite, has repeatedly warned
against Latakia being used by the authorities to whip up sectarian fears among
Alawites of a backlash against them if they lose power, instead of concentrating
on transforming Syria into a democracy where all sects would enjoy equal
treatment under a new constitution.
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