International pressure is mounting on Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. says, as Syria expands its military crackdown on pro-democracy protests, killing at least 22 people Friday.
President Barack Obama's administration is making it "abundantly clear that international pressure is building on him [Assad] and that he needs to stop what he's doing or, as the president and others have said, get out of the way," State Department Mark Toner said, Agence France-Presse reports.
His comments came hours after Syria’s army began operations to “restore security” in the flashpoint town of Jisr al-Shughur near the Turkish border, where the government says that 120 policemen were killed this week, state television reports.
Tanks and troops had gathered around the northwestern town on Thursday, causing an exodus of residents to nearby Turkey, Agence France-Presse reports.
Syrian authorities have blamed “armed gangs” for the deaths of 120 security personnel earlier this week in the northwestern town. However, there are reports of deserting soldiers and massacres of civilians by loyalist troops, the BBC reports.
Refugees have flooded into nearby Turkey, seeking saftey in anticipation of a crackdown on Jisr al-Shughur and area. The Turkish government says that more than 2,000 Syrians have crossed the border. More than 1,000 people crossed into Turkey just in the last 24 hours, the UNHCR said on Thursday.
The Syrian government says local residents requested the army's intervention to restore peace to the area, the BBC reports.
Human rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed and 10,000 arrested in Syria since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March.
Fears that Syria may slide into civil war are growing, Reuters reports:
The scale of the killing in an area prone to tension between Syria's Sunni majority and Assad's Alawite sect points to a bloodier turn of events after three months of unrest against 41 years of Alawite-dominated Assad family rule.
That in turn would rock the entire Middle East, where Syria, Iran's main Arab ally, sits at the heart of numerous conflicts.
"The country is sliding toward civil war. It is a step toward civil war," said Syria expert Joshua Landis, associate professor of Middle East studies at Oklahoma University.
The Syrian army has attacked other cities that have seen anti-government protests, including Deraa in the south, Baniyas, Rastan, Latakia, Homs, Hama and some Damascus suburbs.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once said he would be a "brother" to Assad, condemned the Assad regime's use of violence to put down protests as "savagery," The Telegraph reports.
Erdogan said he was planning to create a buffer zone to prevent its instability spilling into Turkish territory, and in a key move said he could support intervention by the United Nations.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad, but veto-wielding Russia has said it would oppose such a move.