Arab observers head to Syria

A team of Arab observers headed to Syria as neighbouring Turkey condemned President Bashar Assad for turning his country into a "bloodbath" after the regime killed more than 200 people this week alone.

Turkey condemns President Bashar Assad after 200 people killed this week

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets a delegation of clan leaders from three cities located in northeastern Syria — Deir Ezzour, Raqqa and Hasaka — in Damascus on Thursday. (SANA/Reuters)

Bashar Assad's regime would appear to be setting itself on a collision course: It let in outside observers for the first time Thursday to monitor his commitment to halting the crackdown on dissent, even as his security forces unleashed a fiercer onslaught this week, killing more than 200 in two days.

But the Syrian president and his inner circle are veterans at playing for time, manoeuvring and denying realities on the ground, and they seem confident they can deflect pressure from Arab neighbours without easing their campaign to crush the uprising.

As an advance team for the Arab League observers flew into Damascus on Thursday, activists said the regime was already acting to prevent the mission from seeing protesters arrested in the crackdown, which is supposed to be part of its mandate. Thousands of prisoners have been moved into military facilities, which are off limits to the monitors, two dissidents said, citing reports from sources on the ground.

By allowing the observers in, Syria has avoided a worse scenario for the time being, defusing Arab League threats to ask the U.N. Security Council for action against Damascus.

The strategy, opponents and outside observers say, is to keep international pressure at bay for as long as possible while the regime tries to snuff out the uprising. Activists said given the high death toll of the past few days, the Syrian government appears to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before the full monitoring team arrives.

Villagers massacred

Sudan's Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League monitoring mission to Syria, is pictured during a meeting in Khartoum on Dec. 21. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

Tuesday saw the deadliest single attack by government forces so far in the nine-month crackdown.

A witness and activist groups said about 110 unarmed civilians fled the mountain village of Kfar Owaid near the Turkish border and were trapped in a valley by military forces, who then proceeded to systematically kill all of them in an hours-long barrage with tanks, bombs and gunfire. No one survived the onslaught, the activists said.

Government forces appeared by Wednesday evening to have gained full control of the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya region, where Kfar Owaid is located. The region has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests. An activist who was on the run from the village said thousands of troops and special forces were deployed.

"There are tanks and checkpoints every few meters, snipers everywhere," the activist told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his safety.

Fresh raids and gunfire by government forces on Thursday killed at least 19 people, most of them in the central city of Homs and northern Idlib province, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

International outrage

After Tuesday's bloodshed, Syria's former ally Turkey said the regime was "turning the country into a bloodbath," and the Obama administration accused it of continuing to "mow down" its people.

But Damascus has shown itself willing to shrug off world outrage over its onslaught against protesters, in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March.

As the first observers arrived, the Syrian government sought to emphasize its own losses in the turmoil. It said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Rights Council that more than 2,000 soldiers and members of the security forces have died in attacks in the past nine months. The U.N. has said that its count includes around 1,000 soldiers.

The regime also accused the U.N. of bias, saying U.N. reports claiming a brutal crackdown were false and that the world body was ignoring the presence of terrorists operating in Syria. From the start of the uprising, Damascus has depicted the protests not as a popular movement but as the work of foreign-backed armed gangs.

In part, that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far from being crushed, the uprising has morphed from peaceful protests into an armed insurrection by dissident troops who have launched bloody attacks on regime forces.