Syrian army deploys 1,500 tanks around protest cities, storms Homs
Since Thursday, July 21, Syria's entire operational fleet of 1,500 tanks has been deployed to surround the country's most active anti-Assad protest cities such as Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour, Abu Kamal and the big Damascus suburb of Harasta. That evening, the tanks roared into the town of Homs, shelling densely populated districts at random, causing many casualties and burning buildings.
Five months into the uprising, the army no longer dares enter flashpoint cities except in large contingents backed by heavy armor and live fire.
debkafile's military sources report that Syrian army bases have been emptied of all servicable tanks in support of another desperate attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to crush the long uprising against his rule. This makes him the first Middle East leader ever to hurl an entire tank force against a rebellious population.
Left in the hangars are about 2,000 iron vehicles in poor condition.
According to our military sources, Assad resorted to this extreme measure because the big cities are out of control. Army commanders know that even a tank force entering a town will run the gauntlet of live fire and roadblocks which force the soldiers to fight their way through.
In the western town of Homs, Syria's third largest city and its biggest industrial center, with a population of 1.7 million, four Sunni neighborhoods have set up armed militias ready to shoot to keep the army out. As Sunnis, they are not just fighting the Assad regime but also his Alawite Shabiba militia.
The uprising is therefore beginning to assume features of a sectarian conflict. Sunni soldiers are deserting in increasing numbers, especially those who hail from the most embattled cities.
Other Homs neighborhoods struck a deal with the army: Volunteers would be posted to keep the streets quiet if the army promised to stay out.
But late Thursday, July 21 Assad and his commanders changed the rules. The demonstrative shutdown of city shops was the signal for tens of tanks to roll into Homs, shelling the streets and buildings at random. Many people were killed and injured and whole blocks set on fire.
Hama struck a similar deal with the army. There, the rebels have seized control of the entire city, barricaded sections against tanks and set up local governing committees. Monday, July 18, Bashar Assad was compelled to appoint a new governor, a resident of the city with no military background.
The new governor, Ahmed Khaled Abdul-Aziz, is the general secretary of the ruling Ba'ath Party's Hama branch. By profession, he is an internist who specializes in sleep disorders. His first act as governor, according to our sources, was to establish contact with the imam of Hama's central mosque and recruit him for de-escalating the clashes between rebels and army.
Terms were agreed Wednesday night, July 20: The Syrian army pledged not to enter Hama while the imam promised that there would be no more attacks on administrative institutions.
Assad went along with the deal, showing for the first time signs of fatigue and a willingness to cede control of territory held by the rebels.
In the Euphrates Valley of eastern Syria, the Syrian army has lost control of an entire region.
The two main towns of Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal have driven Assad's troops and agents out, fortified themselves against invasion and set up local popular committees to rule them.
Army forces who tried to enter these towns this week were repulsed with live fire. They were in such a hurry to pull back that they left their heavy weapons, tanks and armored personnel carriers behind.
Early Thursday, the popular committees agreed to hand the hardware back to the army against a guarantee that the military would henceforth refrain from setting foot in the two towns.
More trouble awaits the Syrian government when the American and French ambassadors in Damascus, Robert Ford and Eric Chevallier try to reach Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal to meet protest leaders – possibly in a day or two.
To prevent this, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned the diplomats they are prohibited from leaving the capital without permission. The US State Department responded sharply, saying that this was not the act of a government which has nothing to hide.