Syrian Protests Get Bloodier; Confusion Over Missing Blogger

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Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

The news out of Syria this week has not been good. Residents of Jisr al-Shughour are fleeing for Turkey and taking cover as they can upon word that the Syrian army has deployed troops and at least 40 tanks surrounding the border town in retaliation for an uprising there earlier this week. It was the news of such an impending massacre in Benghazi that spurred the U.S. to intervene in Libya.

This comes after a resurgence in anti-government protests late last week;38 people were reportedly killed over the weekend in the northern province of Idlib. On Monday, the violence in Jisr al-Shughour left 120 dead. The Syrian government says it was the work of "armed gangs" who targeted soldiers and security personnel; protesters say that the killings were set off by soldiers defecting. It's still unclear what actually happened — Internet and telephone service went down for a while, and there's no video — but the Times' reporting seems to support the inter-army struggle account.

Today, the paper reports on the role that President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher al-Assad plays in the regime. As head of the Syrian Army’s elite Fourth Division and Republican Guard, along with a less official vice grip on the country's intelligence unit, Maher essentially controls the government's use of force — which is to say, these days especially, the government. And apparently, his violent dictator brother is the family's 98-pound weakling, the "more hesitant" of the two. The paper quotes an exiled former Syrian diplomat who says " “Sometimes I think Bashar means it about reform. But his brother won’t take it.”

Much of what's emerging from the country is unverifiable rumor — we know things are bad, but it's hard to reconstruct events precisely. That's been underscored by the still-emerging story of blogger Amina Abdallah Arrah of A Gay Girl in Damascus. Media outlets have reported her alleged arrest by government forces, which has spurred a fresh outpouring of online rage against the regime — but as NPR's Andy Carvin pointed out, no one has actually met Arrah (interviews have been conducted only over e-mail), and some of her recent writings match up to a 2007 blog by the same author that was billed as "a mix of fact and fiction."

Syrians flee town as troops approach [Reuters]
Syria, Claiming Heavy Toll in Town, Hints at Retaliation [NYT]
Syrian Leader’s Brother Seen as Enforcer of Crackdown [NYT]
After Report of Disappearance, Questions About Syrian-American Blogger [NYT]