Gunmen in "military uniform and government cars" were responsible for the recent killings of as many as 120 Syrian security forces in the northwestern city of Jisr Shughur, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said Wednesday.
The news agency's statement could signal a dramatic division within Syria's security forces and lend credence to opposition claims of clashes between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and those refusing to take part in a violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.
However, reports of internal divisions and fighting between branches of the security forces have been trickling out for weeks. But, by and large, Syrian security forces -- unlike those that stood aside or helped revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt -- have remained loyal to the regime. Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, a small Shiite Muslim sect, has staffed the upper reaches of the armed forces' officer corps with co-religionists. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.
Thousands of security forces reportedly converged in the northern region Wednesday. Residents of villages near Jisr Shughur said that security forces had massed scores of tanks and armored personnel vehicles on the city's outskirts. Some residents fled and sought safety in mosques, churches and schools, according to reports. There was no way to independently verify individual accounts.
The reports Wednesday followed a particularly violent crackdown on protesters Friday in Jisr Shughur, long a focal point of antigovernment unrest. Residents reached by telephone have told foreign journalists that some security forces refused to fire on the thousands of demonstrators Friday and on other days.
"There is a battle between those who are obeying orders to shoot peaceful demonstrators and those who aren't," said Ahmad, a college student in Jisr Shughur reached by telephone. He asked that his last name not be used for fear of angering authorities.
Ahmad said dozens of civilians had been killed in the city since Friday, when massive protests erupted.
"They were met by army personnel who didn't assault them," Ahmad said. "But soon security forces arrived and snipers claimed rooftops and began an offensive on army personnel and civilians."
The text of the article steps on the headline. The Assad dynasty has always been very narrow in its qualifications for getting any degree of power in the Syrian government. Not just Muslims, not just Shi'ite Muslims, but Alawite Shi'ite Muslims. Preferably from the same town as the Assads. Preferably from the same clan.
This tight focus has produced a leadership in Syria, both civilian and military, that basically has an "us against them" philosophy. With the Alawites as "us" and everyone else as "them."
For that reason there is little chance the army will turn on Assad. The biggest wildcard is the presence of Iranian Pasdaran helping the Assads suppress the people. There could be enough resentment against non-Arabs trying to keep the Assads in power to spill into the armed forces, but even that chance is small.
Unfortunately, the protesters in Syria cannot count on any part of the government switching sides. Unfortunately, they obviously cannot count on the US to help them. They are on their own.