JERUSALEM, Israel -- Backed by helicopter gunships and some 200 tanks, Syrian troops bombarded the northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour on Sunday in the heaviest assault since the uprising began three months ago. Many of the town's residents fled to the border with Turkey, about 12 miles away.
Led by Gen. Maher Assad, brother of President Bashar al-Assad, security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters who had been reinforced by defecting soldiers and police. By early afternoon, the fierce pounding ended with the military in control of the partially deserted town.
"They surrounded us from different sides with their tanks, machine guns and warplanes, which also participated in the assault," one 25-year-old said as he fled for the border, according to The Boston Globe.
"Shots were falling like the rain," he said. "I fled after our numbers decreased because of the heavy gunfire. How can we face them? They have machine guns and we have sticks," he said. "A lot have been killed," he said, but he didn't know how many.
Distinctly Opposing Reports
Two distinctly opposing reports continue to come out of Syria. The state-controlled SANA news agency said the military "restored security and tranquility" to Jisr al-Shoughour "after clearing it from the armed terrorist groups that terrorized the locals, attacked public and private properties, and wrought havoc in the city."
SANA reported that the 12 bodies deposited in a mass grave were government security forces "killed by armed terrorist groups...who mutilated the bodies and cut off their heads and limbs with cleavers."
According to the report, "more than 20 Arab and foreign mass media" documented "this horrid crime and the atrocities committed by terrorist groups." SANA claimed that a member of the "terrorist group" confessed to mutilating the bodies and raping and murdering "a number of women."
But many people are not buying what Syrian state media is selling.
Yasin al-Haj Saleh, author and political dissident who lives in Damascus, said the Assad government considers protesters an "enemy that must be crushed without mercy."
"The situation in Syria today is extremely harsh," Saleh said in an interview published Monday by the London-based daily, Asharq Alawsat. "The bodies of Syrian martyrs reveal the brutality of the Syrian security and military forces," he said.
'Levels of Brutality'
Jonathan Spyer, director of the Global Research Center in International Affairs for the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, said he is not surprised by the reports of brutality.
"It is one of the most brutal regimes on the planet and its fighting for its survival," Spyer told CBN News. "You can make your imagination run rampant as to the levels of brutality," he said.
Still, Spyer said he would not say the regime is in its "death throes" though it is "in serious trouble."
Bringing Assad down "depends in large part on the international response," he said. China and Russia remain opposed to efforts by the U.N. Security Council to issue a resolution condemning Assad's military crackdown on his people.
It also depends on the military's loyalty.
"Though there are some signs of fraying, it [the military] appears in large part to remain loyal to Assad," Spyer said.