By ABEER TAYEL
Al Arabiya with Agencies
The West warned of more pressure on Syria if a crackdown against pro-democracy protests continues, hours after tanks stormed a city in the south and as Syrian protesters have called for a one-day nationwide general strike on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of the United States said that both the European Union and the United States–which have already slapped sanctions on a number of senior Syrian officials but not on President Bashar al-Assad–were planning more steps.
“We will be taking additional steps in the days ahead,” Mrs. Clinton said, according to Reuters, saying she agreed with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton of the European Union, who told reporters that the time for Syria to make changes was now.
Rights activists say a crackdown to crush a two-month wave of protests against President Assad has killed at least 700 civilians.
Syrian tanks moved into a southern city on the Hauran Plain on Tuesday after encircling it for three weeks, activists said.
Soldiers fired machineguns as tanks and armored personnel carriers entered Nawa, a city of 80,000 people 60 km (40 miles) north of the town of Deraa, according to activists from the region.
“The governor (of the province) had announced that the troops have the names of 180 wanted men in Nawa, but the arrests are arbitrary,” one rights campaigner said.
In Deraa, tanks remained in the streets after the old quarter was shelled into submission last month and residents gave accounts of mass graves, which the authorities denied.
The southern towns of Inkhil and Jassem also remained besieged, rights campaigners told Reuters, adding that mass arrests continued in the Hauran Plain and other regions of Syria.
To the north, pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in the Damascus suburb of Douma, Syria’s second city Aleppo, and the town of Zabadani on the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, Hama and the region of Deir al-Zor near the Iraqi border. Most were not large but significant given the severe security clampdown, rights campaigners said.
Mr. Assad, 46, had been partly rehabilitated in the West in the last three years, but the use of force to quell dissent in the last two months has reversed that trend.
The United States had condemned the crackdown as “barbaric.”
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France said on Tuesday that his country and Britain were close to getting nine votes for a resolution on Syria at the UN Security Council, but Russia and China were threatening to use their veto.
Half of Kuwait’s 50 lawmakers urged the Gulf Arab state on Tuesday to cut ties with Syria and expel its ambassador in protest at the violence to crush the protests.
The government blames most of the violence on armed groups backed by Islamists and outside powers, saying they have also killed more than 120 soldiers and police.
Soldiers moved on Saturday into the town of Tel Kelakh, close to Lebanon’s northern border to subdue pro-democracy protesters. Human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouna said the army and security forces killed at least 27 civilians in a three-day tank-backed attack.
State news agency SANA said security forces clashed with “wanted armed terrorist members” in Tel Kelakh on Monday, killing several and capturing others, and seizing weapons, ammunition and military uniform. Fifteen members of the security forces were wounded, it quoted a military source as saying.
President Assad has tried a mixture of reform and repression to stem the protests across the 23-million-people country, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.
Authorities say he intends to launch national dialogue talks, a gesture rejected by opposition leaders and the main activists’ protest group who say security forces must first stop shooting protesters and political prisoners must be freed.
Syrian protesters have called for a one-day nationwide general strike, urging students to skip school and workers to bring commerce to a halt in a new strategy of defiance against government crackdowns that appear to be turning more brutal and bloody, The Associated Press reported.
The strike, planned for Wednesday, marks a shift by opposition forces to strike at Mr. Assad’s regime from new angles: its economic underpinnings and ability to keep the country running during two months of widening battles.
A sweeping popular acceptance of the strike call would be an embarrassing blow to President Assad and show support for the uprising in places, such as central Damascus, where significant protests have yet to take hold and security forces have choked off the few that have taken place.
“It will be a day of punishment for the regime from the free revolutionaries … Massive protests, no schools, no universities, no stores or restaurants and even no taxis. Nothing,” said a statement posted on the main Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution 2011.
Anthony Skinner, an analyst at Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company, told AP he expected the current conflict to become even more protracted and bloody.
“Although the crackdown has failed to snuff out dissent, protests have also not gained sufficient momentum to overextend the armed forces,” he said.
(Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)