Syrian forces attack again in Hama
Government forces shelled civilian districts in the central city of Hama for a second day, on Monday as residents buried their dead in public parks and gardens to avoid risking more lives at funerals.
Tank fire killed at least four people on top of up to 85 who reportedly died in Hama on Sunday, the bloodiest day yet of the uprising. Soldiers and pro-regime militiamen fired at random as residents manned barricades to stop the military bringing in supplies.
Artillery fire started early in the morning and continued for 25 minutes. "We cannot get to the cemetery," an activist, Omar Habal, told the Guardian. "People are using the city gardens as graveyards to bury our dead."
Foreign journalists are largely banned from and communications are difficult, but it seems clear that President Bashar al-Assad is prepared to defy mounting international outrage and continue repression.
"Syria's honest people are confident we will emerge from the crisis more powerful … and more effective regionally and internationally," Assad said in a message to the Syrian armed forces, whom he praised for foiling the designs of the country's enemies.
Damascus seemed unlikely to be impressed by closed-door discussions of the crisis due to take place at the UN security council in New York, which is divided even over passing a resolution condemning the violence.
Tanks also stormed the eastern town of Albu Kamal after a two-week siege as the military stepped up operations aimed at subduing dissent in Deir al-Zor province bordering Iraq's Sunni heartland.
In the west, troops reportedly entered the town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon after residents demonstrated in support of Hama.
Sunday's crackdown, apparently intended to scare protesters off the streets during Ramadan, may backfire. Activists say they plan to exploit the increased attendance at mosques for the Muslim month of fasting, when prayers are believed to carry more weight than at other times of year.
Damascus was quiet on the first day of Ramadan, with cafes empty and people staying out of the heat. But some talked about Hama. "It is shameful," one woman said of the children who died there. There were reports of more checkpoints around the capital's suburbs and satellite towns.
Many on Facebook and Twitter changed their profile pictures to a solid black square to signify mourning of the dead. There were reports last night that police had shot dead six people in the Damascus suburb of Erbin after locals took part in a march following the nightly Ramadan prayers.
"Security cars and pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted on their beds entered Erbin around midnight and assembled at the main roundabout before branching out in the streets and firing at neighbourhoods," a resident told Reuters.
Democratic Syria for All, an opposition group that has explored dialogue with the regime, demanded a "credible" inquiry into the latest killings, but it failed to call for international pressure.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organisation, accused the Alawite elite (the Assad family's sect) of waging war on Sunnis by attacking Hama. "Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing," it said. "The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria." But the opposition is divided and fatigued, in the words of one supporter, by "constant initiatives and coalitions and gatherings that don't achieve much".
The regime's message was clear, he suggested: "We've the military power to crush dissent, even in a city where the entire population protested and which was visited by the US ambassador and was cited by the Turkish prime minister as being a red line.
"The international community is powerless to save you, if and when we decide to carry out the next massacre. We can escalate the conflict and turn it into a civil war if we want. If that happens, you [the opposition] will have no control over the situation, because radical Sunni elements will take charge and you will become totally irrelevant. Strike a deal with me now and you can share power with me, and moreover, you will have saved the country from a disastrous civil war."
Western governments admit their options are limited, given the impossibility of a Libya-style military intervention. William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, called it a "very frustrating situation". But he also said Arab countries needed to do more to bring pressure to bear on Assad. Only Qatar has spoken out against Syrian state violence – it closed its Damascus embassy after it was attacked by pro-government crowds protesting at coverage by al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned satellite TV channel.
Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, which represents all 22 Arab states, has urged its members to "respond to legitimate demands and abide by human rights" but conspicuously failed to condemn the Syrian government. Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, was "horrified" by the use of artillery and tanks in Hama on the eve of Ramadan. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it "unjustifiable".
Amnesty International also demanded UN action. "The Syrian authorities have unleashed their deadliest assault yet on mainly peaceful protesters calling for reform," said the Middle East deputy director, Philip Luther. "It's clear that President Bashar al-Assad is unwilling to halt his security forces, so the UN must take decisive action to stem this violent campaign of repression.