BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces fanned out in flashpoint cities nationwide Saturday to crush protests against President Bashar Assad as the country's powerful ally Iran warned of an unprecedented regional crisis if there is a power vacuum in Damascus.
More than five months into the uprising against Assad, the conflict has descended into a bloody stalemate with both sides showing no sign of giving in. The U.S. and other nations have accused Iran of helping Assad crush the 5-month-old uprising, which Assad and his supporters blame on thugs and foreign extremists.
"If a vacuum is created in the Syrian ruling system, it will have unprecedented repercussions," Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Saturday, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. He said Syria has "sensitive neighbors" and that change in the country could lead to regional crisis.
Syria is an important geopolitical linchpin. It borders five other nations, has close ties to Iran and powerful militant groups, and controls water supplies to Iraq, Jordan and parts of Israel.
The country also has a potentially volatile mix of religious groups and sects.
Damascus has carefully nurtured fears of chaos in recent months, warning repeatedly that only Assad can keep the peace. And while most analysts say Assad is exploiting those fears, few deny that such violence is a serious possibility.
Human rights groups say Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in March, touched off by the wave of revolts sweeping the Arab world. The European Union imposed sanctions Wednesday against an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force is providing equipment and other support to help crush the revolt.
The sanctions broadened the international pressure against Syria by directly targeting its key ally Iran.
On Saturday, the security presence was largest in Damascus suburbs, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and the coastal city of Latakia, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize the protests.
Sporadic shooting also was reported.
The military operations come a day after Syrian security forces killed at least two people as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flooded the streets on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Friday has become the main day for protests, despite the near-certainty that tanks and snipers will respond with deadly force.
The government crackdown escalated dramatically at the start of Ramadan, a time of introspection and piety characterized by a dawn-to-dusk fast. Muslims typically gather in mosques during the month for special nightly prayers after breaking the fast, and the Assad government used deadly force to prevent such large gatherings from turning into more anti-government protests.
The regime has banned most foreign journalists and placed tight restrictions on local coverage.
Although the crackdown has led to broad condemnation and sanctions, Assad is in no immediate danger of falling. Economic sanctions will chip away at the regime, although a new U.S. ban on Syrian oil is not a significant blow on its own as the U.S. has few business dealing with Syria. A possible oil embargo by the European Union's 27 member states could significantly slash the Damascus government's revenues, however.
Assad has promises a series of reforms, but the opposition has rejected the overtures while his forces fire on peaceful protesters.
On Friday, Syria's ally Russia introduced a rival U.N. resolution on Syria that called for Assad's government to halt its violence against protesters and expedite reforms, but made no mention of the sanctions sought by the U.S. and European nations.
Envoys for Britain and Germany said they welcomed Russia's decision to seek any Security Council action on Syria. But they said Russia's proposed resolution was weaker than the statement the group had issued earlier this month on the Syrian government's violent crackdown on the opposition.
"This is a situation where continued activity by the Security Council might be helpful, if it is pushing the parties in the right direction," Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said.
Russia's draft resolution calls on the Syrian government to "expedite the implementation of the announced reforms in order to effectively address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syria's people."