Syrian troops circle Hama, disperse 1st big Aleppo rally

Shin Bet chief: It will be very difficult to return genie to the bottle; 16 US senators call for tougher sanctions against Syria.

Syrian soldiers leaving Deraa 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian soldiers leaving Deraa 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian forces on Thursday surrounded Hama, the scene of a bloody 1982 crackdown by the father of President Bashar Assad, and dispersed a rally in the second city of Aleppo, in the latest signs that the nearly two-month-long unrest could turn into a drawn-out, bloody revolt.
The Associated Press quoted a human rights activist saying troops backed by tanks had deployed around Hama, a central city in which then-president Hafez Assad killed some 20,000 people in putting down a Muslim Brotherhood insurrection.
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In Aleppo, 2,000 students rallied at the city’s prestigious university in the first indication that the rebellion had reached the northern city.
Tanks advanced in the southern towns of Dael, Tafas, Jassem and al-Harra – just a few kilometers east of the Golan Heights – ahead of post-prayer Friday demonstrations that have become hallmarks of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
In rare public remarks, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) said Syria would be “soaked in blood” as a result of the demonstrations.
Yuval Diskin cited on Wednesday the fact that Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, ruled a majority Sunni country.
“The minority is fighting for its life. Therefore it will resort to almost any possible means to survive. I am convinced, however, that it will be very difficult to return this genie to the bottle,” he said.
SANA, Syria’s state news agency, reported on Thursday that hundreds of youths had gathered outside the US Embassy and office of Al- Jazeera to condemn the “conspiracy” targeting the country.
“Hundreds gathered outside the US Embassy in Damascus, denouncing the double-standard policy of the US and expressing rejection of foreign interference – mainly the US – in Syria’s internal affairs,” the news agency reported.
Outside the Al-Jazeera office, SANA reported, students denounced “the misleading practiced by the channel, and asserted that the conspiracy is over and that the Syrians have emerged victorious.”
Activists showed the foreign press a copy of what they said was a list of people wanted by Syrian authorities, Al-Jazeera reported. The Qatar-based station also reported that missing journalist Dorothy Parvaz has been deported to Iran, and demanded her immediate release.
In London, Damascus’s ambassador to the UK dismissed rumors that first lady Asma Assad had taken refuge in Britain, vowing she would “never leave Syria under any circumstances.”
The statement was carried by Iran’s IRNA news agency.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington and its allies were seeking ways to increase pressure on Syria to make reforms.
Clinton, in Greenland for talks with foreign ministers of states with Arctic territories, said Assad was increasingly isolated.
“We are going to hold the Syrian government accountable,” she said after meeting the Danish foreign minister. “The United States along with Denmark and other colleagues are going to look for ways to increase the pressure.”
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Assad was not on the European bloc’s list of officials targeted for sanctions, but that could change.
“President Assad is not on the list, but that does not mean the foreign ministers won’t return to this subject,” she said on an Austrian radio show.
In Washington, 16 US senators co-sponsored a resolution on Wednesday calling for the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Assad.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) spearheaded the resolution with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and John McCain (R-Arizona), according to ForeignPolicy.
The four senators held a press conference to demand that the Obama administration expand its activities to sanction, denounce and pressure the Syrian government.
“First and foremost, [the resolution] sends a clear message that Bashar Assad – through his campaign of violence – has lost legitimacy, and puts the Senate squarely on record as standing with the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Lieberman said.
The resolution mentions Iran’s assistance to Syria, as well as Syrian meddling in Lebanon, which has included transferring weapons to Hezbollah. It calls on the administration to expand the targeted sanctions it imposed last month on Syrian officials to Assad directly, and seeks condemnation of Syria at the UN Security Council.
The senators also want President Barack Obama to speak publicly about the crisis.
“It’s time to indict the guy who is giving the orders,” McCain said. “And it’s time for the president of the United States to speak up.”
On the ground in Syria, security forces arrested scores of residents on Thursday in the besieged coastal city of Banias and nearby Baida, two human rights organizations said.
“The sound of heavy gunfire was heard as security forces made the arrests,” a spokesman for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Homs, security forces arrested veteran human rights campaigner Naji Tayara, the Observatory said. Tayara has been an outspoken critic of a military incursion into residential neighborhoods of the city, which had seen growing pro-democracy demonstrations against Assad.
“In Syria freedom has been made illegal,” a political activist in Aleppo told CNN. “This is a word and concept that is not allowed in our country.”
Tanks are deployed in areas on the Syrian coast, the central region of Homs, outside the city of Hama to the north and now across the southern Hauran Plain – regions which cover large swathes of the country of 20 million people.
Reuters contributed to this report.