BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian Army stormed the restive city of Dara’a with tanks and soldiers and helped detain dozens in towns across the country Monday in an escalation of the crackdown on Syria’s five-week-old uprising, according to residents and human rights activists. They said at least 25 people had been killed in Dara’a, with reports of bodies strewn in the streets.
The military’s move into the town seemed to signal a new, harrowing chapter in a crackdown that has already killed nearly 400 people. Until now the government has been hewing to a mix of concessions and brute force, but its actions Monday indicated that it had chosen the latter, seeking to crush a wave of dissent in virtually every province that has shaken the once uncontested rule of President Bashar al-Assad, 45.
“The government has decided to choose the path of violence and repression,” said a Syrian analyst in Beirut, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. “How far can they go in this repression? That is the question.”
As in 1982, when it crushed an Islamist revolt and killed at least 10,000 people in Hama, the military again showed its willingness to use force to repress its own people. Although there were rumors of discord among soldiers, the leadership is still dominated by Assad’s minority sect and its deployment to Dara’a illustrated that a crucial bastion of government support remains loyal — in stark contrast with Egypt, where the military’s refusal to fire on protesters proved decisive in President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power.
The official Syrian news agency said Monday night that the military had entered the town at the request of citizens to hunt what it called “extremist terrorist groups.”
Dara’a, a town of low-slung buildings with 75,000 inhabitants, has become almost synonymous with the popular revolt that has posed the greatest challenge to four decades of rule by the Assad family. Protests erupted there in March after security forces arrested high school students accused of scrawling anti-government graffiti on a wall, galvanizing demonstrations that have spread from the Mediterranean coast and eastern regions dominated by Kurds to the steppe of southern Syria, where Dara’a is located.
Residents said at least eight tanks drove into the town before dawn, with anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 troops, although some estimates put the numbers in the hundreds. Water, electricity, and phone lines were cut, making firsthand accounts difficult and the numbers impossible to verify, and nearby border crossings with Jordan were reported sealed. Snipers took positions on the roofs of mosques, residents said, and a mix of soldiers and armed irregular forces went house to house to search for protesters.
“There are bodies in the streets we can’t reach; anyone who walks outside is getting shot at,” said a resident of Dara’a who gave his name as Abdullah, reached by satellite phone. “They want to teach Syria a lesson by teaching Dara’a a lesson.”