The first warning came through state-run television: armed gangs in the Northern Syrian town of Jisr al Shughour had killed as many as 120 Syrian soldiers. “Armed terrorist groups are murdering at random,” said the newscaster. “They must be stopped.” Tensions had been running high in the town, but by all independent reports, there had been no evidence of weapons or violent resistance. In fact, some are accusing the government of murdering the soldiers for defecting, and using the opportunity to make an example out of the town. One disturbing video (so click at your own discretion) shows Syrian forces fabricating evidence of armed insurrection, an act most Syrians have already assumed as commonplace.
Then just a few days after initial state television reports, the residents began noticing a number of strange men hanging about town. Whispers that they were gathering dossiers on revolutionaries coursed through the marketplace. A few days later, they all left. That’s when the news came that the military was pushing its way towards the small town.
By midnight the first tank was spotted, rolling in to the perimeter of the medina. Not long after, rows of soldiers backed by security forces sealed off the town. Then, as many were gathered in a park to mourn the passing of a fellow protester, the military presence opened fire. What the residents were treated to was an all-out assault. Whatever weapons the town supposedly had hidden away clearly went unused as the bustling town of 50,000 dwindled to 4,000 almost within hours. Residents ran for cover in the nearby countryside and did what they could to get to Turkey. Those still left inside the town have been unable to leave their homes because as they’ve put it, “anything that moves is fired upon.”
The massacre in Jisr al Shughour may be the single most violent event visited upon the Syrian population since the uprising began three months prior. The president of Syria, Bashar al Assad, had first greeted his country’s unrest with a number of measures meant to quell the unease. He lifted bans on protesting and gave legal status to some of Syria’s forgotten ethnic groups. Still, for many Syrians, the government had already gone to far. Now with the death toll at 1400 and rising, with over 10,000 detained arbitrarily, Syria has reached the point of no return. With murderous atrocities such as mass graves discovered in Daraa and snipers using mosques as vantage points, Bashar al Assad has boxed himself into a corner. He will either have to acquiesce to the demands of his people and step down, or put his family’s name behind further massacres. What has happened in Jisr al Shughour may have to occur throughout the country on a massive level for the regime to regain control.
Refugees in Turkey are now speaking of horrendous violence as they rest in makeshift tents, rationing out water amongst their families. They tell of helicopters firing into suburban neighborhoods and unarmed men being shot at point blank range. The military presence was so high in the small town, there wasn’t even room for all the military vehicles to assemble. Tales are also circulating the refugee camps of women being systematically raped by soldiers, not just in Jisr al Shughour, but across Syria. These reports have been backed up by soldiers who have defected and are now telling their version of events.
One former member of the Syrian Army claims that security forces were often lined up behind the soldiers, ready to shoot anyone who dared show mercy. Another speaks of women in Homs being subject to humiliating sexual assaults as their families were forced to watch. Others tell of horrendous human rights abuses and army officers savagely murdering unarmed civilians at the behest of the government. It was said that on the way into cities, fields and crops were burned and property was indiscriminately destroyed. This level of intimidation has not only shocked the international community, but for Syrians it holds even more meaning.
For many who lived through the rule of Bashar’s father Hafez,, this is a dark reminder of what the government is capable of. In the early 1980s, the government of Syria carried out an infamous attack on the city of Hama. In the assault, which focused on the Muslim Brotherhood inside of Syria, more than 30,000 townspeople were killed. While fatalities are not nearly that high in Jisr al Shughour, it is not for a lack of effort. Even with most residents now hiding out in the surrounding countryside, it is said that the shelling in the city’s residential neighborhoods has been nonstop.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, one of the biggest allies of Syria in the past, has condemned the attacks and called on Bashar al Assad to listen to his people and step down. Meanwhile other allies of Syria are beginning to turn away from the tiny dictatorship. China has recently distanced itself and Russia has also turned away from the current state of affairs. Iran, Syria’s primary source of support in the region, has reported little on the current state of Syria in their own media, and some rumors, albeit unsubstantiated, have put certain members of the Iranian military in these towns where massacres are taking place.
As calls for Bashar to leave office echo across the nation, protesters trying to form committees for change are struggling to coordinate. They hope to represent the new face of Syria’s future. Yet any meetings inside the country are undoubtedly met with a grim level of oppression, and most activists inside of Syria have been detained in large makeshift prisons that have sprouted up across the country.
As the government of Syria wrestles on the brink of its continued existence, the humanitarian crisis within the state worsens and threatens to destabilize areas of the region tasked with taking in these refugees. If Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, or even Israel has to put their hand into the fray, there will no doubt be lasting regional and tribal shock waves that may have decades-long consequences. Meanwhile, the protesters continue to march, demanding only the threadbare rights that they have sacrificed everything for.