Army defectors killed 27 government forces Thursday in apparently coordinated attacks that were among the deadliest by rebel troops since the uprising began nine months ago. The escalating unrest prompted Canada to advise thousands of its citizens in Syria to leave.
The fighting began around daybreak in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime began in March.
Syria has seen a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is headed toward civil war. The U.N. raised its death toll for the Syrian uprising substantially this week, saying more 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
"The attacks by army defectors are becoming more coordinated and more deadly. Unfortunately, this will likely lead to a new cycle of escalation by the regime," said Mohamad Bazzi, a Syria expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sanctions by Western powers, Turkey and the Arab League have added to the growing pressure on Assad from within Syria. U.S. State Department official Frederic Hof told Congress on Wednesday that Assad's repression may allow him to hang on to power, but only for a short time.
Still, the regime could exploit the escalation of armed attacks by military defectors to escalate the crackdown with full force on pockets of defectors concentrated in Daraa and the northwestern province of Idlib that borders Turkey.
Defectors from the Free Syrian Army, whose leaders are based in exile in neighboring Turkey, fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a bus carrying policemen into the town of Busra al-Harir on Thursday, killing 12 officers, an activist based nearby said.
That set off clashes with an accompanying force of soldiers. The defectors killed 13 of them, said the activist, who would only agree to be identified by his first name, Omar, for fear of retribution.
The fighters then killed two more soldiers in an attack on a checkpoint, he said.
Busra al-Harir is home to about 300 army defectors who have been clashing with regime forces daily for nearly a week, he said.
"The army was shelling the town with tanks shortly before the attack by insurgents," Omar said.
Syrian troops are usually accompanied by policemen in buses, who round up people after the army enters an area.
Citing witnesses on the ground, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported clashes in Daraa province. Syria has sealed off the country to foreign journalists, making it impossible to confirm the accounts.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said three defectors were killed in Daraa Thursday. It did not mention government troops deaths.
Bazzi of the Council on Foreign Relations said the regime's crackdown has been depending more on the powerful intelligence agencies, whose members mostly belong to Assad's minority Alawite sect. Syria is predominantly Sunni Muslim.
"As these attacks by the defectors intensify, the army could become torn and splintered," said Bazzi. "The regime has tried very hard to keep the security forces (such as secret police) instead of the army as the first line of repression against the protesters."
Because of the turmoil, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canadians living in Syria should leave as soon as possible while commercial flights are still available. Washington issued a similar warning for U.S. citizens in September.
The Canadian ministry said there are about 5,000 Canadians in Syria.
"Our best advice is to leave Syria immediately, by any available means and while options exist," Baird said.
At the U.N., Russia began circulating a draft Security Council resolution it said was designed to resolve the conflict in Syria. It calls for an end to all violence. Russia has criticized opponents of Assad's rule for employing violent tactics. Western nations said the Russian draft did not go far enough, because it contained no sanctions against the regime.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has denied issuing orders to kill protesters. But New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday that dozens of military commanders and officials authorized or gave direct orders for widespread killings and torture.
The 88-page report by the New York-based group is based on more than 60 interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies. It identifies 74 commanders and officials behind the alleged abuse.
"Defectors gave us names, ranks, and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill, and each and every official named in this report, up to the very highest levels of the Syrian government, should answer for their crimes against the Syrian people," said Anna Neistat, associate director for emergencies at Human Rights Watch.
All of the defectors interviewed said their commanders gave standing orders to stop the overwhelmingly peaceful protests throughout the country "by all means necessary." They understood the phrase as an authorization to use lethal force, especially because they had been given live ammunition instead of other means of crowd control.
About half the defectors interviewed by HRW said the commanders of their units or other officers also gave them direct orders to fire at protesters or bystanders and reassured them that they would not be held accountable.
The report quotes defectors as saying that in some cases, officers themselves participated in killings. It said the abuses constitute crimes against humanity and that the U.N. Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Assad's regime claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.
Syria's former ambassador to Sweden has also fled to Turkey to join the opposition, the Foreign Ministry said. The ministry said he was fired in Stockholm in 2008 and accused him of profiteering, forgery, exploiting his post and fraud.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue