Saudi King breaks Arab silence on Syria

PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad extended a tank onslaught in Syria’s Sunni Muslim tribal heartland, residents said, in an escalating crackdown on protesters that prompted an extraordinary rebuke from the Saudi king warning the Syrian leader to adopt reforms or risk defeat.

King Abdullah, an absolute ruler, broke Arab silence after the bloodiest week of the almost five- month uprising for more political freedoms in Syria, demanding an end to the bloodshed and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus.

It was the sharpest criticism the oil giant has directed against any fellow Arab state since a tide of pro-democracy unrest began to sweep across the Middle East in January, toppling autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, kindling civil war in Libya and rattling entrenched elites throughout the region.

“What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia,” Abdullah said on Al Arabiya satellite television.

“Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms,” he said.

“Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.”

His statement followed similar messages since Saturday from the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

It came as Syrian tanks and troops poured into the eastern Sunni city of Deir al-Zor in the latest stage of a campaign to crush centres of protest against 41 years of rule by the Assad family and domination by his Alawite minority community.

“Armoured vehicles are shelling the al-Hawiqa district heavily with their ... guns.

“Private hospitals are closed and people are afraid to send the wounded to state facilities because they are infested with secret police,” Mohammad, a resident, said by telephone.

The al-Joura neighbourhood of Deir al-Zor, which straddles the Euphrates river, was also hit hard by Assad’s forces and thousands of residents of both districts had fled, he said.

He said at least 65 people had been killed since tanks and armoured vehicles barreled into the provincial capital, 400km north east of Damascus, on Sunday, cru- shing makeshift barricades and opening fire.

The assault on the city, in an oil-producing province bordering Iraq, took place a week after tanks stormed Hama, where residents say scores have been killed.

With Arab leaders strikingly silent and an international response limited to verbal condemnation and sanctions on Syria’s ruling hierarchy, Assad had faced few obstacles in stretching the military campaign against disaffected cities and towns into the fasting month of Ramadan, until the Saudi king intervened.

Relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Syria’s Alawite elite have been tense since the assassination in 2005 of Rafik al-Hariri, a Western-backed Lebanese Sunni statesman who also had Saudi nationality.

Riyadh backs Hariri’s son Saad while Assad, along with Iran’s clerical rulers, support the armed Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim.

A United Nations investigation initially implicated Syrian security officials in the killing of Hariri and an international tribunal indicted members of Hezbollah. Damascus and the Shi’ite group denied involvement.

During months of demonstrations in Deir al-Zor, protesters tore up pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and of Iran’s president, witnesses and activists said, venting Sunni disquiet at Assad’s policy aligning with Shi’ite players.

Syrian authorities denied that any Deir al-Zor assault had taken place. The official state news agency said “not a single tank has entered Deir al-Zor”.

Syria has barred most journalists, making it hard to confirm events reported by either side in the conflict.

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