BEIRUT — Army defectors ambushed dozens of Syrian troops and regime forces gunned down civilians during one of the bloodiest days of the 8-month-old uprising, which appeared Tuesday to be spiraling out of President Bashar Assad’s control.
Up to 90 people were killed in a gruesome wave of violence Monday, activists said. The extent of the bloodshed only came to light Tuesday, in part because corpses lying in the streets did not reach the morgue until daylight.
As the bloodshed spiked, Assad’s former allies were turning on him in rapid succession — a sign of profound impatience with a leader who has failed to stem months of unrest that could explode into a regional conflagration.
Turkey, Jordan and the 22-member Arab League all signaled they were fed up with Assad’s response to the uprising and were ready to pressure him to go.
A day earlier, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said Assad should step down, the first Arab leader to publicly make such a call. And over the weekend, the 22-member Arab League took a near-unanimous vote to suspend Damascus from the regional body.
In a sign that Saudi Arabia’s rulers now foresee an end to Assad’s rule, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, told reporters in Washington that it was “inevitable” that Assad would step down.
Despite the widespread condemnation, Assad was unlikely to put an end to the crackdown, said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. The reason is simple: Assad’s regime would almost certainly fall if the crackdown ends, she said.
Although activists say the anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful, an armed insurgency has developed in recent months targeting Assad’s military and security forces.
Thirty-four soldiers were killed Monday in an ambush in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The brazen attack by army defectors suggests a new confidence among troops who have sided with the protesters and highlights the potential for an armed confrontation to escalate.
Amateur video provided by activists showed what appeared to be an army tank and other military vehicles engulfed in flames in Daraa. Other footage showed a fire at the end of an alley sending up a plume of smoke, followed by an explosion. “That’s the free army!” a man shouted as gunshots rang out. “That’s a sniper,” another voice said. “There’s a sniper at the school.”
Other videos showed tanks on urban streets firing their cannons and crowds of people running from automatic gunfire.
As many as 90 people were killed nationwide Monday, including 19 civilians whose bodies were collected from the streets of Homs and delivered to the morgue. The U.N. estimates the regime’s military crackdown has killed 3,500 people in the past eight months.
In many ways, the violence against security forces plays directly into the regime’s hands by giving it a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force, analysts say.
Assad has responded with once-unthinkable promises of reform in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. But he simultaneously unleashed the military to crush the protests with tanks, gunfire and snipers.
On Tuesday, the regime announced an amnesty for 1,180 prisoners who were arrested over the past eight months but whose “hands have not been stained by blood.” Earlier this month, Assad freed 533 prisoners to mark Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice.
Still, the gestures ring hollow alongside the mounting death toll and amateur videos posted online every day that appear to show random gunfire and shelling.
The bloodshed also has laid bare Syria’s long-simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of Iraq-style sectarian killings.
Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fates of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling the army to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.
To a large degree, the military has remained loyal. Most of the defectors appear to be lower-level Sunni conscripts, not officers. But observers say the tide could change if the military continues to be called upon to shoot unarmed protesters.
Damascus fears the United States and its allies might use the rare Arab consensus to press for tougher sanctions at the United Nations.
Veto-wielding Russia and China have so far opposed efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria — a stance that could become harder to maintain.