UK and France seek UN action on Syria as thousands flee
Troops and tanks mass outside 'ghost town' after massacre amid mounting fears of slip towards Libyan-style
Ian Black and Nidaa Hassan
Anticipation of a violent response by the regime galvanised international diplomatic action, led by France and Britain at the UN, and fuelled a sense that a turning point may be approaching as disorder spreads and Syria slips closer to a Libyan-style civil war.
The local co-ordinating committees, a network of activist groups, reported that 40 tanks and 50 troop carriers were 2½ miles (4km) from Jisr al-Shughour, and soldiers were in Idleb, the provincial capital. Amateur video also showed armoured units moving into the area.
An independent activist in Damascus said that he had seen tanks leaving the capital. The forces are thought to be under the command of the president's brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard and other units, and is widely believed to be the man leading Syria's violent crackdown.
"We believe they may send the 4th Division to attack, as they can be relied on to be loyal," said an activist who runs a Facebook page on the protests. "The conscripts, people like me, can't be relied upon when asked to be so brutal."
Although more than 1,110 Syrians have reportedly been killed in nearly three months of unprecedented unrest, it is clear the crackdown has failed to crush the opposition – even without the sort of high-level defections suffered by Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader.
Video clips showed Jisr al-Shughour deserted, nothing moving in the streets, and the market shuttered. Residents described it as a ghost town as people streamed towards the border with Turkey, which the government in Ankara said would remain open. "We are monitoring developments in Syria with concern," said Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Syria should change its attitude towards civilians and should take its attitude to a more tolerant level." The Turkish news agency said about 170 Syrians had crossed the border, and some wounded had been taken to local hospitals.
The government in Damascus claims 120 troops and security personnel were killed in an ambush in Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, but there is no independent confirmation of this, as no foreign journalists are allowed to operate in Syria.
Speculation is rife that the incident may have been a mutiny by some security forces who refused to fire on protesters, and were themselves killed by loyalists. Syrian state TV reported that "armed terrorist organisations" used government vehicles and uniforms to commit "a brutal massacre". They "filmed themselves … to manipulate the photos and videos and distort the reputation of the army," according to Syrian state TV. It showed pictures from the funerals of eight security personnel.
Syria Comment, an influential blog based in the US, said: "Syria is slipping towards civil war. The government has met with no success in quelling the revolt despite an escalating death rate and an ever more ruthless crackdown."
At the UN, European nations seeking to increase pressure on Assad's regime presented a revised resolution condemning Syria for its deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters. Britain, France, Germany and Portugal introduced the text at a closed Security Council meeting. UN diplomats said the new draft, which has strong US backing, is aimed at winning more support for the resolution in the council and avoiding a Russian veto.
"We will be on the right side of history if and when this comes to a vote," said Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN. "If others are unable to, or unwilling to, then that will be their responsibility to bear."
Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin reiterated that Moscow would not support the resolution, on the grounds that it would not promote dialogue. But he declined to say if Russia would veto it.
"If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience," David Cameron told MPs in London.
Diplomats admit privately that they are far less able to influence Syria than Libya, and that there is no prospect of military action against the Assad regime.
In Paris the Syrian ambassador was forced to deny she had resigned in protest at attacks on civilians. Lamia Shakkour claimed she was the victim of a hoax to embarrass her country. She called the announcement "misinformation" and "identity theft".
A woman identifying herself as the ambassador announced her resignation by phone on the TV news channel France 24 on Tuesday. "I can no longer continue to support the cycle of extreme violence against unarmed civilians," she said. "I recognise the legitimacy of the people's demands for more democracy and freedom."
France 24 said it had called a phone number on which it had spoken to Shakkour previously. After the broadcast Reuters said it had received an email that came via the Syrian embassy website in Paris, confirming the resignation. But this step was immediately denied by news agencies in Syria.
Shakkour appeared on another French television station, BFM TV, to deny she had resigned. France 24 said it did not rule out a "manipulation or a provocation" and promised to investigate the alleged hoax.