Cairo – Syria’s most trusted forces retook control of a rebellious northern Syrian town on Sunday, responding with tanks and helicopter gunships and crushing an alliance of mutinous soldiers and armed civilians, while prompting thousands of frightened residents to flee into Turkey or camp out in open fields on the border.
For days, the Syrian forces had been closing in on the town, Jisr al-Shoughour, bombarding the countryside and burning fields until Sunday morning, when they cleared explosive traps laid at the entrance to the town, according to witnesses and the government’s own official dispatches.
By the end of the day, Jisr al-Shoughour was largely abandoned, heavily damaged by the bombardment and gunfire, the witnesses said.
Tanks rolled through the streets unchallenged, and soldiers found evidence of just how serious the uprising had been: a grave with several corpses still in uniform and a police headquarters that was burned and in chaos, according to the account of an Associated Press reporter who was allowed to accompany Syrian forces.
“They surrounded us from different sides with their tanks, machine guns and warplanes that also participated in the assault,” said Mohamed, 25, a resident reached by telephone as he fled for the Turkish border.
“Shots were falling like the rain,” he said.
The battle in this small northern town, just 12 miles from the border with Turkey, may not prove decisive for either side in an uprising that has stretched across Syria since it began in mid-March. There was no way to know exactly how many people died on either side.
The fight represents a potentially dangerous turning point, experts said, one where the government appears to have abandoned all pretense of trying to offer democratic change to calm an angry public, and where at least part of the opposition has abandoned peaceful tactics to take up arms against the state.
The case of Jisr al-Shoughour has also ratcheted up international pressure on Syria — especially from its neighbors, who had been careful to avoid criticizing President Bashar al-Assad for fear of greater instability in the region if he were deposed.
Turkey’s decision to allow thousands of refugees to cross the border — by late Sunday, it was housing an estimated 5,000 Syrians in camps of white tents — created an international spectacle that Syria had until now been able to suppress through censorship, repression and political pressure. Foreign journalists have been largely barred from reporting inside Syria.
“The Turks have opened their borders; they’re receiving, and they’re allowing people to stand in front of cameras and tell what’s going on,” said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian historian at Shawnee State University in Ohio who recently attended an opposition conference in Turkey. “Jisr al-Shoughour is important because it’s a border region, and it’s especially important because the Turkish government cannot be relied on to cooperate with the Syrian regime.”
The events in Jisr al-Shoughour may also portend a trend of soldiers balking at orders to crush protests with lethal force, perhaps defecting to side against the government, a threat that seems to be spreading, according to interviews. For the first time, soldiers sent to stop protests formed an alliance with lightly armed townspeople, turning their guns on troops and intelligence agents who remained loyal to the government.
Khaled, 19, of Jisr al-Shoughour, said he defected after being deployed to his hometown and realizing he would be asked to kill “people from my own town.”
“I decided to defect after I witnessed all the oppression against my people,” he said in a telephone interview.
The fear of defections may have persuaded Mr. Assad to dispatch his most loyal, best-trained troops. Witnesses said the incursion was staged by the Fourth Brigade, led by the president’s younger brother, Maher, who serves as the Assad family enforcer.
While the regular army is primarily composed of Sunni conscripts from poor and working-class backgrounds, the Fourth Brigade has a history of close ties and allegiance to the Assad family and their Alawite sect.
There is already evidence that the use of force may be causing the unrest to spread. On Friday, Syrian activists said protesters across the country had rallied to support Jisr al-Shoughour, often facing down a hail of live ammunition to do so.
The final assault on the town began at 7:15 a.m. as tanks and artillery began shelling it, according to a statement by the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria, an activist coalition with representatives there. The group said helicopters armed with machine guns flew over the city while as many as 200 tanks took part in the assault.
“We could hear the sound of heavy gunfire a few miles away from the bridge,” said Saeb Jamil, a resident reached by phone who spent the night in the mountains above the town. He described the scene as “a real battle” and said he saw “dozens” of tanks lined up at the entrance to town waiting to enter.
Mr. Jamil said that townspeople were allied with some defectors who were still equipped with weapons, and together they controlled checkpoints at the major entrances to Jisr al-Shoughour. Other residents ran patrols and “monitored the area” with hunting rifles, sticks and binoculars, he said.
The town emerged as a flashpoint last week when the government said “armed gangs,” its oft-used euphemism for antigovernment activists, killed about 120 soldiers and police. Local residents reject that version of events and say the soldiers were killed by other soldiers when they tried to defect. Their accounts soon spread, and if their claims are further substantiated they would represent the first large-scale military mutiny and pose a grave threat to President Assad.
Since the tension in Jisr al-Shoughour began, the number of military defectors in the town has been difficult to ascertain. Residents have reported for days that a large number of the defectors fled the town soon after the initial battle with their comrades in the army, either heading toward the Turkish border or changing into civilian attire and returning to their hometowns. The number who remained in the town to help coordinate its defense was unclear, but reports from residents suggest it was in the dozens.
“Some of the defectors either died or fled up to the hills in villages like Sheikh Sendian and Darkish,” Mohamed said. “A lot have been killed, but I don’t know the number.”
Reporting was contributed by Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, and Katherine Zoepf from New York.