BEIRUT — Syrians closed their businesses and kept children home from school in several parts of the country Monday in a show of civil disobedience against the regime as a new and fierce round of clashes between troops and army defectors spread, activists said.
Amid the violence, President Bashar Assad’s regime pushed ahead with municipal elections that the opposition has dismissed as a meaningless concession that falls far short of their demands for Assad to give up power.
A man flashes the victory sign during a protest demanding the release of Syrian refugee Ahmed al-Shureiqi in front of the Syrian Embassy in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. The Syrian Embassy says a dozen of its nationals living in Jordan have beat up consulate employees, wounding at least two diplomats and several others, including a Syrian security guard. An Embassy statement says its guards have arrested one of the attackers, identified as Syrian refugee Ahmed al-Shureiqi.
A call by opposition activists for an open-ended general strike starting from Sunday, if widely heeded, could place added economic pressure on Assad’s regime at a time when it is already struggling with growing international sanctions and isolation.
A resident of Homs, the epicenter of the uprising, said only shops selling essential goods were open Monday.
“Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open,” he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees. And there were signs it was being widely observed in particular in areas that are centers of anti-government protest.
Most shops and schools were shut Monday in the restive city of Homs and parts of the southern province of Daraa and the northwestern region of Idlib near the border with Turkey, activists said.
On Sunday, the activist group called the Local Coordination Committees said security forces were breaking into shops in Daraa province closed for the strike in an attempt to force them to open. Residents in the capital, Damascus, said business continued as usual on Sunday and Monday with shops, schools and other businesses operating normally.
Assad has spent years trying to open up Syria’s economy, which helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class even as the regime’s political trappings remained unchanged. If the economy continues to collapse, Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country.
Still Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no sign of easing his crackdown. Economic sanctions, however, could chip away at the regime in the long-run and erode his vital support base in the business community.
Activists said a new round of fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas on Monday, raising fears the conflict is spiraling toward civil war.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says new clashes between soldiers and defectors were reported Monday in Idlib in the north, and that fighting continued for a second day in southern Daraa province.
On Sunday, army defectors set several military vehicles ablaze in a prolonged battle in Daraa province.
The 9-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad has grown increasingly violent in recent months as defecting soldiers fight back against the army and once-peaceful protesters take up arms to protect themselves against the military assault.
The U.N. says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March. The revolt has raised concerns of a regional conflagration, given Syria’s strategic role in the Middle East with alliances in Iran and with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon
State media reported that voting started in scheduled municipal elections, but witnesses say turnout was low. The opposition does not consider the vote a legitimate concession by the regime because it coincides with the deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The regime had touted the vote as a reform measure because some new rules were introduced recently allowing more people to run in the election.
“The number of voters is very small,” said Mohamed Saleh, an activist in Homs. He said security in the city was very tight and people were too scared to go out. “Even in normal days, people did not give much attention to municipal elections,” he said.
Since the uprising began, Assad has made several gestures of reform. But after nine months, the opposition is demanding nothing less than the downfall of the regime.
It is almost impossible to verify events in Syria, because the regime has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. Accounts from activists and witnesses, along with amateur videos posted online, provide key channels of information.