BEIRUT - Thousands of elite troops led by Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother converged Wednesday on a restive northern area, and neighboring villages called to warn that the convoys of tanks were approaching, a resident and a Syrian activist said.
Mustafa Osso, a human rights worker, said many of the forces targeting the area were from the army's 4th Division, which is commanded by Assad's younger brother, Maher. The younger Assad also commands the Republican Guard, whose main job is to protect the regime, and is believed to have played a key role in suppressing the protests.
The New York Times reported in its print editions Wednesday that Bashar Assad might rely more on Maher with reports of military defections on the rise.
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The younger Assad has been reported to have played a large role in the regime's crackdown on the anti-government movement, which has left 1,300 people dead and more than 10,000 arrested, activists say.
A former Syrian diplomat who lives in Virginia told the Times that Maher Assad's power makes him "first in command, not second in command."
The former diplomat, Bassam Bitar, told the Times that Bashar Assad has been known as the weaker of the brothers since childhood.
"Sometimes I think Bashar means it about reform," Bitar told the Times. "But his brother won't take it."
Syrian forces have lost control of large areas of the northern province, a pro-government newspaper reported, in a rare acknowledgment of cracks in the regime's tight grip after weeks of protest calling for an end to its 40-year rule.
The separate reports raised the prospect of more bloodshed in Syria's nationwide crackdown on the 11-week revolt. The region borders Turkey, which said Wednesday it would open the frontier to Syrians fleeing violence.
In Jisr al-Shughour, where the government said "armed groups" had killed 120 security forces and taken over, a resident said nearby villages had opened their mosques, churches and schools to take in people who fled in terror. Many also crossed into Turkey from Idlib province, said the man, who would give only a nickname, Abu Nader, because he feared government reprisals.
Witnesses in nearby villages called to tell people in Jisr al-Shughour that tanks were approaching, Abu Nader said. He said he feared an attack was imminent.
The pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said gunmen had set up boobytraps and ambushes in small villages to thwart incoming troops, and were sheltering in forests and caves.
Osso, the human rights worker, said witnesses told him that thousands of troops were moving toward Idlib.
"The number of soldiers is in the thousands," Osso said. He speculated that the government planned a "decisive battle."
Al-Watan, the pro-government newspaper, said the Syrian army was launching a "very delicate" operation designed to avoid casualties in Jisr al-Shughour. Al-Watan said some people were being held captive by armed groups that control some areas in Jisr al-Shughour and a large area of Idlib.
There was no way to independently confirm the reports from Syria, which severely restricts local media and has expelled foreign journalists from the country. The government routinely blames armed gangs and religious extremists for the recent violence.
Activists had reported fighting in Jisr al-Shughour between loyalist troops and defectors who no longer wanted to continue the crackdown on protesters seeking Assad's ouster. Activists say more than 1,300 Syrians, most of them civilians, have died since the start of the nationwide uprising.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain and France would offer a resolution at the United Nations condemning the crackdown.
"If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience," Cameron said.
Jisr al-Shughour lies 12 miles from the Turkish border. On Wednesday, Turkey's state-run news agency said 122 Syrian refugees who fled the recent fighting had crossed into Turkey.
The Anatolia news agency said the group crossed close to the village of Karbeyazi near the border town of Altinozu on Wednesday.
With the new arrivals, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached around 350. Authorities said more than 30 other Syrians were being treated at Turkish hospitals for wounds they suffered in clashes in northern Syria. They said one has died.
Ankara has said it is prepared to deal with a mass influx of Syrian refugees, though the frontier is relatively quiet for now.
"It is out of the question for us to close the border crossings. We are watching the situation with great concern," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.