Pressure grows on Syria’s Assad as deaths mount
DAMASCUS—Pressure grew on Syria on Tuesday as Turkey’s foreign minister arrived in Damascus with the stern message that Ankara has “run out of patience” with its deadly crackdown on protests.
Iraq also joined Arab outrage of Syria’s crackdown, with speaker Osama al-Nujaifi condemning the bloodshed and “oppression of freedom,” after Gulf states Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait withdrew their envoys from Damascus.
Embattled President Bashar al-Assad met Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in the presence of the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, the pro-government Dunia television channel reported.
They met as the death toll mounted, with rights activists reporting 21 deaths, including 17 people killed by security forces in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, scene of a deadly army assault Sunday that killed 42 people.
“At least 15 people were killed in different parts of Deir Ezzor which has been raided by tanks and vehicles mounted with machine guns,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, quoting activists at the scene.
“A woman and a young man shot (earlier in the day) died of their wounds,” the Britain-based Observatory said in a statement.
A human rights lawyer also spoke of two deaths in the central flashpoint city of Hama, adding that some 50 tanks were deployed in the Hilfaya and Tibet al-Imam districts.
The Observatory reported two people killed and several wounded in the northwestern Idlib province bordering Turkey, while “a dozen tanks and other armored vehicles attacked the Binnish and Sarmin areas.”
State-run SANA news agency reported that funeral ceremonies were held Tuesday in the Homs military hospital for three members of the security forces killed by “terrorist” groups in the central city and in protest hub Hama.
On Monday SANA, quoting a military source, said troops had left Hama “after completing a mission of protecting civilians and tracking down the armed terrorist groups which had been wreaking havoc” in the city.
President Bashar al-Assad named a new defense minister on Monday as he faced growing regional isolation, naming army chief General Daood Rajha, 64, to the job.
Davutoglu’s visit to Damascus was to pass on Ankara’s message that it “has run out of patience” with the ongoing violence, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked Davutoglu to press Syria to “return its military to the barracks,” while Damascus has warned that the minister would himself “receive a firm message” during the visit.
On their Facebook page, Syrian Revolution 2011, an engine of the uprising, invited Davutoglu to “come and pray” in a Damascus mosque “to find out from close up of the demands of the Syrian people.”
The regime’s repression of Syria’s pro-democracy uprising has left more than 2,050 people dead, including almost 400 members of the security forces, the Syrian Observatory says.
Iraq’s speaker of parliament on Tuesday called for an end to Syria’s deadly crackdown.
“We call for an end to all non-peaceful activities, and what is happening in Syria, the shedding of blood and the oppression of freedom, is condemned and unacceptable,” Nujaifi said in a statement.
Late on Saturday Saudi King Abdullah said he was recalling his ambassador from Syria and urged Damascus to “stop the killing machine and the bloodshed… before it is too late.”
“Either Syria chooses willingly to resort to reason, or faces being swept into deep chaos, God forbid,” he warned, calling for reform.
Kuwait and Bahrain, which with Saudi Arabia are part of the energy-rich six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, also recalled their envoys, prompting Washington to say it was “heartened” by the moves.
A chorus of Arab and Muslim condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria built up throughout the weekend and into Monday when Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based top Sunni authority, said the crackdown “has gone too far.”
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said Syria must launch a “serious dialogue” with protesters who have rallied almost daily since mid-March, urging reforms in a country ruled by the Baath party for nearly 50 years.
Assad’s replacement of his defense minister was his latest in a series of measures since protests began nearly five months ago, including a decree earlier this month allowing opposition political parties.
In April the president ordered he formation of a new government, an end to five decades of draconian emergency rule and abolished the feared security court. He has since sacked the governors of the flashpoint provinces of Hama, Homs and Deir Ezzor.
But Assad has also repeatedly defended the security forces, saying on Monday they were confronting “outlaws.”
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said “free and transparent” elections to a new parliament would be held by the end of 2011 and that the regime was committed to reform announced by Assad.