|Protesters demonstrate against Bashar al-Assad in Homs.|
The dramatic breakout from an army base in northern Syria could have been a pivotal moment in the growing rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, the country's president. Instead it ended in disaster and bloodshed.
Throwing down an unprecedented challenge to his regime, hundreds of soldiers at an encampment in Idlib province made a desperate scramble for freedom on Monday. Their intention, according to opposition forces, was to make a dash for the Turkish border to join the Syrian Free Army, a rebel force made up of fellow defectors.
But the plan was either ill-judged or loyalist forces were too prepared.
As they ran, volley after volley of machinegun fire was aimed at their retreating backs. At least 60 were killed. Those who managed to escape were mercilessly hunted down yesterday.
Loyalist soldiers surrounded the deserters in the countryside between two villages, picking them off one by one in an intense firefight that raged for much of the day.
"After clashes that broke out this morning with the regular army, 100 deserters were besieged then killed or wounded between the villages of Kafruwed and al-Fatira," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The army also surrounded dozens of civilians and activists suspected of giving succour to the deserters. The Observatory appealed to the Arab League to intervene immediately to prevent a massacre.
An advance team of Arab League monitors arrived in Damascus on Tuesday on a mission to observe the Assad regime's implementation of a peace plan which calls for the withdrawal of the Syrian army to barracks and the launching of negotiations with the opposition.
But with up to 50 civilians reportedly killed by the security forces in the past two days, Mr. Assad's government has shown little inclination of ending the violence. It insists that the country is facing a rebellion by "terrorist" groups taking their orders from unspecified foreign powers.
State media reported on Tuesday that a law came into effect imposing the death penalty on anyone arming "terrorists."
More than 5,000 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in March, the vast majority of them unarmed protesters, according to human rights groups.
But in recent months, the government has also faced growing armed resistance from defectors within the armed forces who have recoiled at the bloodshed they have been asked to inflict on Mr. Assad's opponents.
The defectors have coalesced under the command of Col. Riad al-Asaad, a former air force officer, who leads the Free Syrian Army from a base along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The rebels claim to have more than 10,000 fighters within their ranks, a member many observers say is probably exaggerated.
Even so, the group has shown itself to be increasingly potent, launching a series of ambushes on Syrian army convoys, although this month it agreed to limit itself to protecting civilians at the urging of the country's main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council.
The Assad regime has taken draconian but effective measures to staunch the flow of defections. According to opposition sources, battalions have been split up in an effort to ensure that soldiers from the same villages or towns do not serve alongside each other.
Only strangers are allowed to share barracks, while conversations in groups are strictly prohibited. Soldiers have also had their mobile telephones confiscated.
The policy is designed to ensure loyalty among the rank and file of the army, which, like the bulk of the protest movement, is mainly drawn from Syria's Sunni Arab majority. The officer class is overwhelmingly drawn from President Assad's Alawite Shia minority and is considered unshakeably loyal.
Until this week, the strategy has proved largely successful in preventing the 200,000-strong armed forces from disintegrating. The regime will hope that the ferocity with which the attempted desertions were suppressed will, the regime hopes, serve as a chilling warning to other units contemplating doing the same.
Source: The Telegraph