Early Monday Aug. 1, undeterred by international condemnation, President Bashar Assad broadened his bloody tank assault to all of northern Syria – a 20,000 square kilometer area almost the size of Israel. He is now waging war on the 3.5 million inhabitants of Hama, Deir al-Zour, Homs, Idlib and Ar-Raqqah, followed by Abu Kemal on the Iraqi border, after inflicting a one-day death toll Sunday of 150 – 120 in Hama, 30 in Deir el-Zur – and leaving more than 1,000 injured.
Syrian armored forces shooting at random are now running into heavy resistance: Awaiting them are anti-tank traps and fortified barriers manned by protesters armed with heavy machine guns.
In Hama Sunday, the 4th and 11th Syrian army divisions kept to the southern and western districts and were still fighting their way to the barricaded center early Monday. debkafile's military sources estimate it will take the Syrian army at least ten more days to conquer this key town of a million inhabitants – provided the army holds up.
However, signs of extensive disintegration emerged Sunday night and early Monday: A Syrian armored division ordered to set out for Damascus from its base in Qatana southwest of the capital broke up when most of its officers and men deserted, taking with them their armored vehicles and weapons.
This was the first time in the five-month conflict that an entire armored column has fallen back from an operational mission.
Our military sources report urgent White House requests Sunday night to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to send into northern Syria the Turkish units held ready on the border for two months to establish a protected zone for refugees and the growing number of Syrian army deserters seeking asylum. Operational plans for this incursion had been in place for some weeks, ready for execution as soon Assad launched a general offensive against the opposition.
The plan is now up in the air, placed in doubt by the grave crisis between the prime minister and the Turkish command, which peaked last Thursday (July 28) when the entire Turkish high command, including the chief of staff resigned in a body.
This development certainly helped Assad decide now on his crushing offensive in northern Syria.
Monday night, his crackdown is the subject of an urgent UN Security Council session called by Germany.
debkafile reported Sunday:
No Arab ruler before him has gone to the bloody lengths Syrian President Bashar Assad went Sunday, July 31, on the eve of Ramadan on Aug. 1, to snuff out the five month-long protest against his regime. Before dawn, troops and tanks, indiscriminately blasting city streets with cannon, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, stormed the two most active centers of resistance. By evening, the 4th division had killed 130 people and left 1,000 injured in Hama in the north, while the 7th division had left 20 dead and more than 100 injured in Deir al-Zour. Hundreds were arrested.
US President Barack Obama said he is appalled by the Syrian government's use of violence and brutality against its own people. While Obama still avoided calling on Assad to step down, an official at the US embassy in Damascus said the Syrian military's deadly attack on the flashpoint protest city of Hama on Sunday amounted to "full-on warfare" and was a "last act of utter desperation".
JJ Harder, the press attache at the embassy, told the BBC World Service that "there is one big armed gang in Syria, and it's named the Syrian government." He said: "I think we can safely say it's full-on warfare by the Syrian government on its own people."
Syrian troops encountered armed resistance in both towns, where in the last month both had formed local committees and erected makeshift anti-tank barriers. Since many army deserters, including officers, have joined the protesters in facing the troops, and there is no shortage of arms, the battles are not expected to die down before the end of the week.
debkafile's intelligence sources report that Assad chose to turn his army loose on the two cities with no holds barred to pre-empt what he regards as his Ramadan test: He had hoped to avert the nightly processions from the mosques after the Taraweeh prayer marking the end of each day's fasting and win a 30-day lull in the bloody clashes. The regime had pinned its hopes on calming the charged anti-regime climate in the country on a huge public event in Aleppo Thursday July 29, complete with Syria's top performing artists, as a show of self-assurance.
This did not work – any more than an appeal from the authorities to the 30 most senior clerics for help to keep the crowds off the streets. They were asked to issue a collective fatwa (religious edict) excusing the faithful from attending the mosques for Taraweeh and permitting them to recite the prayer at home – in consideration of the exceptionally hot summer weather.
Twenty-nine clerics declined to cooperate with this transparent tactic for suppressing the protest. The thirtieth, Sheikh Al Bouti, Syria's foremost scholar, world Muslim eminence and head of the Theology Department in the faculty of Islamic Law at Damascus University, agreed to issue the dispensation.
Its circulation was widely accompanied by the burning of his books on Islamic law in one town after another.
When Assad realized there was no way he could use Ramadan for a respite from the revolt against his regime, he turned to a horrendous outburst of violence.