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Syria Expands Crackdown on Dissent

A banner is seen during a demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian eastern town of Deir al-Zour, near the border with Iraq, June 17, 2011

A banner is seen during a demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian eastern town of Deir al-Zour, near the border with Iraq, June 17, 2011

Syrian tanks stormed the town of Bdama near the border with Turkey Saturday, wreaking destruction, according to witnesses. Residents of the border region also continue to flee to neighboring Turkey, which is housing them in several refugee camps.

Witnesses say that Syrian government forces, backed by tanks, pushed into the town of Bdama near the Turkish border Saturday, after shelling the mostly deserted town for several hours. Government forces captured larger towns in the area in the last week.

Other witnesses told Arab satellite channels that pro goverment militia have burned crops, wrecked vehicles and ransacked homes.

A man from the nearby village of Khirbet al-Jowz told al Jazeera TV that several thousand people are hunkering down in the area, hoping to cross into Turkey. More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey in recent days.

Syrian government TV, meanwhile, blasted Arab satellite channels for what it called “distorting the truth” and demanded an apology. The TV showed residents of Jisr al-Shughour embracing soldiers that occupy their town and claiming that “all is well.”

Anti-government websites showed videos of hundreds of protesters in Syria’s third largest city of Homs demonstrating against the government Saturday. At least 19 people were killed Friday after government forces fired on protesters in Homs, Banias and several other towns.

Syrian TV, however, claimed that “armed men” fired on police in Homs and elsewhere Friday, killing nine. It also claimed that protesters “fired on ambulances and medics,” and “burned hospitals.” Opposition activists denied the charges. It was impossible to verify any of the claims, since foreign correspondents are not being allowed into Syria.

Opposition groups on Facebook are also calling for an open-ended general strike in the capital Damascus to protest the government crackdown. Hundreds of protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma turned out to chant slogans against the government Saturday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Arab daily Asharqalawsat, insisting that “continued brutality may allow (Assad) to delay the change that is underway in Syria, (but) it will not reverse it.” Analysts in Damascus say that Mr. Assad will address the Syrian people in the coming week to “announce new reforms.”

Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in the western U.S. state of California, insists that Mr. Assad is losing support from key regional players like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Erdogan has begun to distance himself from Bashar [al-Assad. He has called on [him] to alter his ways. He has already called Maher al Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, [and] spoken of his ‘horrific slaughter’ of Syrians, and accused him of ‘savagery.’ They see across the border. They see refugees with their horror stories, so I think they are under no illusions about the regime," he said.

Ajami also thinks that Arab states have remained largely silent about Syria, in contrast to the positions they took on Libya, due to Damascus’ strategic importance in the region. “The silence on Syria, when you contrast that with the unusual decision by the Arab League to speak out on Libya and to urge the protection of its citizens speaks volumes. The Syrian regime is more strategically situated in the Arab world, and despite the massacre, despite the slaughter that is taking place, I think the Syrian regime unfortunately has cards to play," he said.

Ajami also believes that Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are involved in the Syrian governments' repression of its people.