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Syrian border city playing pivotal role in conflict

By Moni Basu, CNN
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Clashes increase along Syrian border
  • The government claims "armed gangs" killed 120 soldiers and police
  • Syrian dissidents say officers may have killed mutinying soldiers
  • A violent crackdown is feared in Jisr Al-Shugur
  • The regime violently squashed an Islamic revolt there 31 years ago

(CNN) -- A small city near the Turkish border has become the latest thorn in the side of Syria's regime and events there this week could become pivotal in that nation's crisis.

Jisr Al-Shugur is no stranger to uprising. It paid a price for an Islamic revolt three decades ago and has in the past few days become a bloody focus of the current conflict.

Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ordered the bombing of Jisr Al-Shugur in 1980 to put down an uprising. The attack was later dwarfed by the notorious massacre in the much larger city of Hama two years later.

Up to 30,000 people were killed in Hama, an event so brutal that it prompted New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman to coin the phrase, "Hama Rules," meaning that in the Middle East, the only rule is there are no rules.

Syrian refugees stranded on Turkish border

Now Bashar al-Assad, who took the Baathist reins of Syria after his father's death in 2000, stands ready to exhibit the same sort of brutality, say dissidents and longtime observers of Syria.

Al-Assad has vowed retaliation for the deaths of security forces in Jisr Al-Shugur. Much could depend on the loyalty of his armed forces and security apparatus.

Details of what happened in Jisr Al-Shugur on a third consecutive day of violence are murky. But the videos of the dead, now on YouTube, are grisly.

Syrian forces stage bodies
Smiling Syrian troops walk among bodies

After the killings, residents braced for a government crackdown amid reports that the military was on the way. Human rights activist Wissam Tarif said witnesses reported tanks, helicopters and heavy weaponry.

Since Friday, Jisr Al-Shugur's people have survived without electricity, fuel and bread, Some people had already fled their homes in anticipation of the military, a resident told CNN.

Amnesty International said it has the names of 54 people reported to have been shot dead by the security forces in the town over the weekend.

CNN has not been granted permission to report from Syria and cannot independently verify reports of violence.

The official account of the bloodshed was that 120 security forces members were killed. The state-run SANA news agency blamed "armed groups" wielding machine guns and hand grenades for the attacks and said residents were appealing for the army to intervene.

But Tarif and other Syrian opposition members said the government's claim is a ruse to justify a crackdown. More likely, they said, what happened was an indication of a rift within the security forces.

Amr Al Azm, a Syrian dissident and associate professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said the dead in Jisr Al-Shugur may have been soldiers who refused to follow orders to shoot civilians. The real significance of Jisr Al-Shugur, Al Azm said, is that it shows a split within the military has the potential to widen.

"This shows stress fractures that are already there and are beginning to crack," he said. "It's very localized and it's not significant in terms of numbers yet, but if it spreads through the ranks, the regime could be in serious trouble."

In Egypt and Tunisia, the militaries refused to defend the autocratic regimes. Al-Assad's survival depends on the army's continued loyalty and the effectiveness of a large internal security apparatus, according to the U.S. State Department.

The army rank-and-file is composed of conscripts but the leadership is formed largely of members of al-Assad's own Alawi sect, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam in Sunni-dominated Syria.

The Alawaite officers may have been ordered to get rid of disobedient conscripts in order to maintain control, Al Azm said.

"Every time a protest breaks out, every time people chant on the streets, it is a direct blow to the government's credibility," Al Azm said. "A minority government cannot afford a war of attrition against a majority. They will lose."

Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights, agreed with Al Azm that the divisions within the armed forces are becoming apparent, with more soldiers -- including some officers -- refusing to open fire.

He said Jisr Al-Shugur and the rest of the Idlib region, like Hama, once was a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood before it was crushed and banned by the regime. It's a conservative, Sunni town, which has the potential to explode in a nation with ethnic and religious divisions.

Mohamad Bazzi of the Council on Foreign Relations said that if reports of mutiny are true, al-Assad's regime will have to employ an even greater level of violence.

"If you have units of military defecting, you are facing a different scale of rebellion," Bazzi said. "If this is the beginning, the turning point, this would bring ... Syria closer to a potential civil war."

More than 1,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising erupted in March, according to the United Nations.

On Friday, at least 69 people were killed in Hama when security forces fired on "Children's Friday" protests, which were called in honor of the dozens of children killed in the recent unrest. It was part of 200 such demonstrations nationwide that may have drawn the largest numbers of protesters to date.

"Scores of people were killed in Syria over the weekend after demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday.

"There have been reports overnight that a number of security force personnel have been killed in the town of Jisr Al-Shugur close to the Turkish border, and we call for restraint from all sides in response to this incident," he said.

Despite those calls, Al Azm said he fears more blood will spill on the streets of Jisr Al-Shugur and other Syrian cities.

One thing has become clear, he said: "The genie is not going to go back into the bottle."

CNN's Nada Husseini contributed to this report.