Syria defies pressure from neighbour as death toll rises

An increasingly isolated Syrian regime defied a message yesterday from one of its former allies to end its deadly crackdown on protesters calling for an end to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Baathist regime continued its military campaign as the Turkish Foreign Minister delivered a stern message during a two-hour meeting and international envoys queued up to demand the end of the five-month repression that has left more than 2,000 people dead, according to rights groups.

Despite the intervention of regional neighbours including the influential King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, analysts predicted that Syria would only show restraint when its oil revenues and business interests were targeted and other Arab nations sided against the Assad regime. Representatives from India, Brazil and South Africa headed to Damascus yesterday to plead with President Assad for an end to the latest bloody wave of killings which erupted on 1 August, the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The intervention yesterday of Ankara's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, came after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait to withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus.

Since unrest broke out in March, European leaders and the US have targeted key Syrian figures with a raft of sanctions. Yet Bashar al-Assad, whose family has controlled Syria since his father seized power in 1971, appears to have ignored calls for restraint which are now emanating from capitals across the Arab world. An editorial in the Baath party newspaper said the government was hopeful that Turkey and the Gulf nations would "quickly correct their stands" even as the military continued to attack rebellious cities.

A statement from the Local Co-ordination Committees, a network of activists which helps track incidents across the country, claimed snipers had shot dead five children in the city of Hama yesterday. Another three people were killed in Homs, it said, though because journalists are banned from Syria it was impossible to verify the claims.

In the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which was stormed by tanks and troops on Sunday, activists said buildings were in flames after being pounded by heavy shelling. A father-of-two who spoke to The Independent by phone from Deir el-Zour said he welcomed the recent action from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, but that more was needed. "I want to see an international army in Syria," he said. "Our own army is killing us, so we need international soldiers."

Joshua Landis, who runs the Syria Comment news website, said that by targeting oil exports – which account for around 50 per cent of government revenues – Europe's leaders could bring down the regime. One third of Syrian oil is heavy crude which can only be refined in Europe, he said. "They could take the decision not to accept Syrian crude in their refineries, as Russian and China don't have the capacity for it."

Mr Landis added that the Gulf countries could heap further pressure on Syria by targeting the regime's business portfolios in the region. "If Dubai said 'we're going to take away your criminal enterprises' then that would hammer the regime," he explained.

Rime Allaf, a Syria analyst from the Chatham House think tank, said Saudi Arabia's decision to pull the rug from beneath the Syrians could lead the rest of the Arab world to follow suit. "If the Gulf countries decide together that the Syrian regime has gone too far and is causing more instability, then I think the regime cannot survive any more simply with the support of Iran."

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