At least a dozen Syrian secret police have defected from an intelligence compound, activists said, in what appeared to be the first major desertion from a service that has acted as a pillar of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule as Damascus failed to respond to another Arab League deadline.
A gunfight broke out overnight on Saturday after the defectors fled the Airforce Intelligence complex in the centre of Idlib city, 280 km (175 miles) northwest of Damascus.
Ten people on both sides were killed or wounded, the activists said on Sunday, according to Reuters.
The defections came as the Arab League once again chided Syria for failing to sign up to a league-backed plan to end the violence in Syrian cities.
“We are very clear after the meeting yesterday... We give the Syrians one day, and I hope we will receive the answer from them. But until now I think there has been no answer from Syria,” the diplomat said.
The Arab League had told Syrian authorities to sign an initiative to end the military crackdown on popular protests by Sunday, threatening to impose financial and economic sanctions if it does not sign soon.
Arab League deadline
Sunday's deadline was announced in Doha by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who also warned against the internationalization of the Syrian crisis if Damascus did not heed the Arab call.
“As Arabs we fear that if the situation continues things will get out of Arab control,” Sheikh Hamad said.
A senior Arab diplomat at the League said late on Sunday that there was no sign Syria had responded to the deadline.
Such deadlines have slipped repeatedly in the past. Damascus complains that its sovereignty would be compromised by the plan, which would require it to admit Arab monitors to ensure that Syria pulled troops out of cities.
“There are letters still being exchanged between the Arab League and Damascus to reach a vision for the protocol... These communications and correspondence are being studied by Damascus,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdesi said in the Syrian capital.
Assad has so far shown no sign of halting the crackdown on protests against his rule.
In Homs’s Sunni district of Bab Amro on Sunday, several thousand people encircled the coffin of Khaled al-Sheikh, a 19-year-old protester who residents said was killed in random shooting by the army on the neighborhood this week.
Abdul Bassel Sarout, a 21-year-old soccer player, kissed Sheikh’s bloody head as the mostly young crowd of men and women chanted to the beat of drums: “Sleep easy we will continue the struggle... mothers weep for Syria's youth.”
“When we film the protests to send on YouTube, most demonstrators would try to hide their face so they would not be identified by the security police,” Wael, a young activist, said. “Khaled was always barefaced, chanting the loudest.”
Death toll mounts
Government forces and militiamen loyal to Assad killed at least 30 civilians and five defectors on Sunday, mostly in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, according to tallies by several activists’ organizations.
“Not a single opposition neighborhood was spared today. Troops either entered districts and raided houses, fired from roadblocks or tanks and pickup trucks hit houses and shops with machineguns,” said Abu Zeinab, an activist in the city.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed “terrorist groups” trying to spark civil war who have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police since March.
The official state news agency said a father and three children, who local activists said were shot dead by militiamen loyal to Assad in a drive-by shooting, were killed by a “an armed terrorist gang” that broke into their house.
“We see from this heinous crime that the terrorists are continuing to commit their crimes with cold blood,” the agency said.
Opposition sources said another 16 soldiers defected from Idlib on Sunday and fighting separately broke out between a new group of defectors, of similar size, and loyalist forces to the south, in the Josieh area on the border with Lebanon
They estimate the number of defectors from the military so far at several thousand, mainly army recruits from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have a tight grip on the country’s military and security apparatus.
The sectarian dimension to the unrest has come to the fore after tit-for-tat sectarian killings were reported near Homs, a nascent insurgency broke out in the provinces of Homs, Deraa and Idlib, and the United Nations warned of the risk of a civil war.
Peaceful way to stop violence
Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, said monitors were needed to keep a check on the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who have been accused by the U.N. of rights abuses.
“We believe that in full light of monitors and media, the security services reporting to Assad and his clique would not be able to operate the way they are operating now,” Feltman said in Jordan, according to AFP.
Allowing in monitors would be a “peaceful way of trying to stop this sustained cycle of violence that Assad seems committed to turning Syria into.”
Feltman also charged that Syria’s ally Iran was “actively engaged” in supporting the Syrian regime’s lethal crackdown and “facilitating” the killings of Syrian people.
The top U.N. human rights forum has condemned Syria for “gross and systematic” violations by its forces, including executions and the imprisonment of some 14,000 people.
Protests, modeled on “Arab Spring” revolts that have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have continued in Homs and scores of cities and towns. Armed resistance has grown alongside the sustained peaceful demonstrations.
“The street still wants the protests to continue to maintain the moral edge of the uprising. But it does not mind if the revolt acquires armed teeth to protect the demonstrators and deter attacks by the army and security police,” activist Talal al-Ashqar told Reuters by phone from Damascus.
Syrian officials sanctioned
The Arab League ministerial meeting in Doha listed 19 Syrian officials it said would be banned from travel to Arab countries and whose assets would be frozen by those states.
The panel also called for an embargo on the sale of Arab arms to Syria and cut by half the number of Arab flights into and out of Syria -- including its national carrier Syrian Air -- with effect from December 15.
Top military and intelligence brass as well as the defense and interior ministers are among the 19 officials banned from travel to Arab countries.
President Assad’s brother, General Maher al-Assad, who heads the feared Fourth Armored Division, and his cousin Rami Makhluf, a telecommunications tycoon, are also among those blacklisted.
The Arab panel also tasked a committee with drawing up a list of Syrian businessmen involved in financing the repression, ahead of slapping them with sanctions.
“This is a message to businessmen who have kept silent, so that they will choose what side to be on,” Najib Ghadban, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council which represents most of Assad’s opponents, told AFP.
Assad repeatedly has said he is battling to preserve Syria’s sovereignty against a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife. His isolation has deepened, with the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and Turkey piling on tougher and tougher economic sanctions.
But the 46-year-old president does not face any immediate threat of foreign military strikes. The West has shown no appetite for the type of intervention that helped oust Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.