DAMASCUS (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad, facing the gravest crisis in his 11-year rule, deployed the army in Syria’s main port of Latakia for the first time after nearly two weeks of protests spread across the country.
Assad, 45, who has made no direct public comment since protests started sweeping Syria, was expected to address the nation shortly, officials said, without giving further details.
Dozens have died in pro-democracy demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa and nearby Sanamein as well as Latakia in the northwest, Damascus and other towns over the last week.
Syrian state television showed deserted streets in Latakia littered with rubble and broken glass and a burnt-out bus. The government says that armed groups, possibly backed by foreign powers, are trying to stir sectarian conflict across Syria.
Witnesses said major cities appeared calm yesterday, but several hundred men were holding a sit-in at the Omari Mosque in the town of Deraa, the original focus of protests and scene of a crackdown by security forces last week.
The dispatch of troops to the streets of Latakia on Saturday signals growing government alarm about the ability of the security police to maintain order there. Latakia is a potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Alawites who constitute Assad’s core support.
Its residential areas house large secret police complexes.
“There is a feeling in Latakia that the presence of disciplined troops is necessary to keep order,” one resident told Reuters. “We do not want looting.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday the United States deplored the bloodshed in Syria, but that a Libya-style intervention should not be expected.
The unrest in Syria came to a head after police detained more than a dozen schoolchildren for scrawling graffiti inspired by pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in this most tightly controlled of Arab countries, where the Baath Party has been in power for nearly 50 years. Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946.
Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, pledged to look into granting greater freedom but this has failed to dampen a protest movement emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.