AMMAN (Reuters) - More than 200 members of Syria’s ruling Baath Party quit on Wednesday over President Bashar al-Assad’s violent repression of pro-democracy protests, the first public sign of serious dissent within the governing ranks.
Resigning from the autocratic Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since taking power in a 1963 coup, was unthinkable before pro-democracy protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa on March 18.
A rights group said the violence had killed more than 450 people and international criticism sharpened after 100 people were killed on Friday and security forces began an attack on the southern city of Deraa on Monday.
Two hundred party members from Deraa province and surrounding regions said they had resigned in protest against the attack, in which security forces killed at least 35 people.
“In view of the negative stance taken by the leadership of the Arab Socialist Baath Party toward the events in Syria and in Deraa, and after the death of hundreds and the wounding of thousands at the hands of the various security forces, we submit our collective resignation,” they said in a declaration.
Another 28 Baathists in the restive coastal city of Banias also resigned on Wednesday in protest at the “practices of the security forces against honorable citizens... and torture and murder they committed.”
Analysts say the demonstrations that have spread across Syria have grown in intensity, with protestors who began calling for reform of the system now demanding its overthrow.
Bashir’s attempts to appease discontent by lifting emergency law, while keeping draconian powers of the secret police and the Baath Party’s monopoly on power, have not stopped protests.
Security forces earlier on Wednesday surrounded Banias, while tanks patrolled Deraa and troops moved into the Damascus suburb of Douma, another seat of anti-government protests.
Assad’s decision to storm Deraa echoed his father’s 1982 suppression of Islamists in Hama and drew threats of sanctions from western powers.
Germany said it strongly supported EU sanctions against the Syrian leadership, and the bloc’s executive body, the European Commission, said all options were on the table for punitive measures against Damascus.
France summoned Syria’s ambassador to protest at the violence and said Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy were doing the same. “Syrian authorities must meet the legitimate demands of their people with reforms, and not through the use of force,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
The United States, which imposed a limited economic embargo against Syria in 2004, says it is considering further targeted sanctions in response to the “abhorrent and deplorable” violence by security forces deployed in the crackdown on protesters.
Amnesty International has urged the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, impose an arms embargo and freeze assets belonging to Assad and others involved in serious human rights abuses.
A witness told Reuters that a convoy of at least 30 army tanks headed early on Wednesday from southwest of Damascus, near the Golan Heights front line with Israel, in a direction which could take them either to Douma or to Deraa.
Overnight, white buses had brought hundreds of soldiers in full combat gear into Douma, from where protesters have tried to march into the center of the capital in the last two weeks, only to be stopped by bullets.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had names of at least 453 civilians killed during the protests across the country against Assad’s 11-year authoritarian rule.
Syria has been dominated by the Assad family since Bashar’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, took power in a 1970 coup. The younger Assad kept intact the autocratic political system he inherited in 2000 while the family expanded its control over the country’s struggling economy.
The unrest could have serious regional repercussions because Syria straddles the fault lines of Middle East conflict.
Assad has strengthened Syria’s ties with Shi’ite Iran, and both countries back the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups, although Damascus still seeks peace with Israel. Syria and Israel are technically at war but the Golan frontier between them has been quiet since a 1974 ceasefire.
A resident in Deraa, where electricity, water and phone lines were cut when the army rolled in at dawn on Monday, said fresh food was running out and grocery stores were giving away their produce. “It’s mostly tinned food they are distributing to us,” he said by telephone.
A relative said his neighbor saw a tank driving over the body of a young man in the main Tishrin square on Tuesday.
“They are telling us: ‘You have to accept us and we will remain forever your rulers, whether you like it or not. And if you resist us, this is your fate’,” he said.
He said the army push into Deraa was also a warning to other cities of what they could expect if protests continued. “But God willing, we are steadfast and this only strengthens our resolve to get rid of them — not tomorrow, today,” he added.
Diplomats said the unit Assad sent into Deraa on Monday was the ultra-loyal Fourth Mechanised Division, commanded by his brother Maher. Reports from opposition figures and some Deraa residents, which could not be confirmed, said that some soldiers from another unit had refused to fire on civilians.
Syria has blamed armed groups for the violence. Protesters say their rallies have been peaceful and security forces have opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.
Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, nevertheless retains some support, especially among co-religionists who dominate the army and secret police and could lose preferential treatment if majority Sunni Syria was to transform into a democracy.
An alliance between the ruling minority and the Sunni merchant class, forged by the elder Assad through a blend of coercion and the granting of privileges, still holds, robbing protesters of financial backing and a foothold in the old bazaars of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Boyle