In a sharp escalation of Syria's crackdown on dissent, thousands of soldiers backed by tanks poured Monday into the city where the five-week-old uprising began, opening fire indiscriminately on civilians before dawn and killing at least 11 people, witnesses said. Bodies were scattered in the streets and activists said the death toll could rise.
The offensive into the southern city of Daraa was planned in comprehensive detail: electricity, water and mobile-phone services were cut. Knife-wielding security agents conducted house-to-house sweeps, neighborhoods were sectioned off and checkpoints set up - suggesting Syria planned to impose military-style control on the city and other areas in the country.
The massive assault into Daraa appeared to be part of new strategy for crippling pre-emptive strikes against any opposition to President Bashar Assad, rather than reacting to marches and protests. Other crackdowns and sweeping arrests were reported on the outskirts of Damascus and the coastal town of Jableh - bringing more international condemnation and threats of targeted sanctions by Washington.
But the assault on Daraa, an impoverished city on the Jordanian border, was by far the biggest in scope and firepower. Activists shot video they said showed tanks rolling through streets and over fields. Young protesters pelted the passing tanks with stones, the video showed.
"Let Obama come and take Syria. Let Israel come and take Syria. Let the Jews come," shouted one Daraa resident over the phone. "Anything is better than Bashar Assad."
Razan Zeitounia, a human-rights activist in Damascus, said the widespread arrests - often of men along with their families - appear to be an attempt to intimidate protesters and set an example for the rest of the country.
More than 350 people have been killed across the country since the uprising began in mid-March, touched off by the arrest of teenagers in Daraa who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall.
At least 120 were killed over the weekend alone.
But the relentless crackdowns have only emboldened protesters, who started with calls for modest reforms but are now increasingly demanding Assad's downfall.
An eyewitness counted 11 corpses, with another 14 lying in the streets, apparently dead or gravely injured.
There were conflicting reports about whether Syria sealed the border with Jordan, although the head of Syria's Customs Department said crossings across the frontier were open as normal.
Syria has a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the Middle East - from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence - because of its alliances with militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Instability in Syria also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington's plan to peel the country away from Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.
US CONSIDERING SANCTIONS
The White House said Monday it is considering sanctions against the Syrian government in response to the brutal crackdowns on protesters. The statement from National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor was the first time officials had said publicly that sanctions were possible in Syria.
Syria already is subject to numerous penalties as it is deemed a "state sponsor of terrorism" by the State Department, but it maintains diplomatic relations with Washington.
The State Department on Monday told American citizens to leave Syria as soon as they can and ordered some personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to depart the country.
The department urged Americans to defer all travel to Syria, advised those already in the country to depart while commercial transportation is available and to limit nonessential travel within the country.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!