Reporting from Beirut — Syrian security forces besieging the city of Dara have been ordered to use "any means necessary" to crush the rebellion that sparked the weeks-long uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad, a Syrian military source said Saturday.
The claim by the military official, who previously has provided accurate information, could explain the violent response of Syrian security forces in Dara over the last two days, which resembles the take-no-prisoners strategy used by Assad's father, Hafez Assad, to put down a 1982 rebellion in the central city of Hama.
"There have been commands to attend to the situation in Dara as soon as possible and with any means necessary," the military source told The Times in a brief conversation conducted over the Internet. "Even if this means that the city is to be burned down."
Tanks opened fire on the city about dawn Saturday, witnesses and residents said, destroying a mosque and wounding civilians. At least four people were killed.
Witnesses also reported artillery and tank rounds and the rattle of gunfire in the nearby town of Karak.
One witness in Dara described a state of war, with security personnel entering homes, drawing weapons in front of terrified children and detaining any males older than 15. Residents told of bodies accumulating on streets and in gardens.
Snipers have been positioned near the Omari mosque, which was destroyed by security forces. The mosque has been a gathering point for an uprising that began in March after security forces arrested and allegedly tortured young teenagers writing antigovernment graffiti on the walls after the arrest of prominent activists.
"The situation today is very, very tragic from a human rights perspective and from a security perspective," said Mohsen, a Dara resident reached by satellite phone. He declined to give his last name.
"There is no medicine, nor food, nor milk for children," he said. "We have no contact with the outside world. We don't have phones. We don't have electricity. We don't have water."
The tightening crackdown on Dara came as the country's newly appointed prime minister, Adel Safar, declared Saturday that his government would draw up fresh political, economic and legal reforms, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. Previous steps toward reform in recent weeks did not appear to restrain the security forces' use of violence against protesters.
One factor that may be worrying the Syrian regime is the number of defections from the ruling Baath Party and reported possible mutinies by members of the security forces over the crackdown in Dara. An additional 138 members of the party resigned Saturday in Houran, near Dara, to protest the violence.
Taking a page from his father, Assad could be trying to teach residents of Dara a lesson that would resound throughout a country in rebellion against him. But he may be miscalculating both the changed media environment and the tolerance of the international community.
Nearly 30 years ago, Assad's father managed to crush the Hama rebellion while escaping much international attention. Today, hundreds of Syrian youths armed with cellphone cameras are filming the brutal crackdown and uploading video to the Internet, where it is picked up by pan-Arab satellite channels and beamed worldwide.
The international community's mood may have also shifted since the 1980s.
In the mid-1990s, massacres of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia triggered NATO airstrikes. And Moammar Kadafi's attempt to crush a rebellion in Libya's east this year has prompted ongoing NATO-led airstrikes.
Western officials have already begun increasing pressure on Syria, drawing up fresh sanctions that target key regime figures. Even neighboring Turkey, an ally of Damascus, has begun to distance itself from the Assad regime.
Dara residents are calling out for the world to come to their aid.
"We want humanitarian intervention, not military intervention," Mohsen said. "We appeal to humanitarian organizations, to the Arab League. We need our situation to be dealt with with the utmost urgency."
Special correspondent Roula Hajjar contributed to this report.