BEIRUT — Syrian security forces riding in vehicles mounted with machine-guns raided neighborhoods outside the capital, Damascus, before dawn Tuesday as Turkey's prime minister said he was concerned Syria could descend into a sectarian civil war.
Tuesday's raids were the latest assault on dissent in Syria as the regime tries to crush an uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule using deadly force that the U.N. estimates has killed 2,600 since March. But the protesters have refused to give in, setting the stage for a drawn-out stalemate.
"I fear that matters will end in civil war between the Alawites and the Sunnis," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk in Tuesday's edition.
Civil war is perhaps the most dire scenario facing Syria, a fragile jigsaw puzzle of Middle Eastern backgrounds. Syria's ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, although the country of 22 million is mostly Sunni Muslim.
Erdogan addressed the Arab League in Cairo later Tuesday, telling Arab Foreign Ministers that the legitimate demands of the people in the region should not be repressed by force.
"In the future, we will see that this was the wrong path," he said.
Turkey is Syria's neighbor and important trade partner, but its leaders have grown increasingly frustrated with Damascus.
Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo urged Assad to end violence, launch a comprehensive national dialogue and work toward an immediate cease-fire.
"The current situation in Syria remains very critical and some immediate change must take place to stop the bloodshed and to avoid the Syrians more violence and killings," said Qatar's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, who met Assad last week, the Syrian leadership was responsive to sending an Arab League fact-finding mission to Syria.
Activists said security forces carried out sweeping arrests and raids early Tuesday. The reports were carried by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as well as the Local Coordination Committees, both of which have a wide network of sources on the ground.
Syria has banned foreign media and restricted local press, making it difficult to independently confirm the reports.
Also Tuesday, Amnesty International said 95 Syrians have died in custody since April.
The human rights group also raised concerns about four activists arrested last week near Damascus.
The four were picked up soon after the body of their friend and fellow activist, Ghaith Mattar, was handed over to his family over the weekend. Mattar apparently died in custody.
"The spiraling total of detainee deaths together with the Syrian authorities' failure to conduct any independent investigations points to a pattern of systematic, government-sanctioned abuse in which every detainee must be considered at serious risk," said Philip Luther, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.