BEIRUT — The Syrian military vowed Friday to "cut every evil hand" that targets the country's security, a defiant stance by the regime as it faces the possibility of sweeping economic sanctions from the Arab League.
The military statement could signal darker days to come in an eight-month revolt against President Bashar Assad that is turning more violent by the day.
Until recently in the uprising, most of the bloodshed came as security forces fired on mainly peaceful protests. But there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces – a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.
"The choice offered by the regime appears clear-cut: preservation of Assad's rule or collective destruction," the International Crisis Group said in a report this week.
Assad blames the unrest on a foreign plot to destabilize Syria, saying extremists and terrorists – not true reformers – are driving the calls to oust him. On Friday, the military blamed terrorists for an attack a day earlier in Homs, saying six elite pilots and four technical officers were killed in an ambush.
"The general command of the armed forces sees that enemies of the country are behind this terrorist act," the military said. "The armed forces will continue to carry out its mission ... and will cut every evil hand that targets Syrian blood."
Although many Syrians resent police and intelligence agencies that they blame for oppressing the uprising, they respect the armed forces, which is seen as a bulwark against Israel.
Unlike the armies of Tunisia and Egypt, Syria's military has stood fiercely by the country's leader as Assad faces down an extraordinary protest movement.
In the past 40 years, Assad and his father before him stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam – ensuring the loyalty of the armed forces by melding the fate of the army and the regime. Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
"Many regime supporters are terrified about their future and thus liable to resist till the bitter end," the Brussels-based ICG said in its report. "A majority of Alawite officials, security officers and ordinary citizens, along with segments of the Christian community and some secularists, have become convinced that their fate is either to kill or be killed."
It is not clear who was behind Thursday's attacks. It's impossible to verify events on the ground because Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.
Syria is the scene of the deadliest crackdown against the Arab Spring's eruption of protests, with the U.N. reporting more than 3,500 people killed in eight months. International pressure has been mounting on Assad to stop the killing.
Also Friday, a U.N. human rights panel expressed alarm at reports it received of security forces in Syria torturing children. The Geneva-based Committee against Torture says it has received "numerous, consistent and substantiated reports" of widespread abuse in the country.
The panel's chairman, Claudio Grossman, cited reports of "extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; arbitrary detention by police forces and the military; and enforced and involuntary disappearances."
The Arab League gave Syria a 24-hour deadline to agree to an observer mission or face sanctions, a humiliating blow to a nation that was a founding member of the Arab coalition.
But the Friday afternoon deadline passed with no agreement. Instead, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby received a letter from Syria seeking more details about the proposed observer mission and its legal status.
The league will meet Saturday to decide on sanctions, according to Arab League deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Heli. The punishments could include halting flights and imposing a freeze on financial dealings and assets.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency dismissed the ultimatum, declaring Friday that the Arab League had become a "tool for foreign interference."
SANA also said thousands of people were demonstrating in support of the regime.
But violence continued Friday, after activists urged protesters to flood the streets to support army defectors who have sided with the opposition.
Security forces fired on protesters, killing at least 11 people – and possibly as many as 26, activists said. The differing death tolls are common in Syria, and they point to the confusion tallying information in a country that remains largely sealed off.
Syrian security forces fired outside mosques in Daraa province – apparently to prevent demonstrations by people leaving Friday afternoon prayers, activists said. Demonstrations were reported in Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
The death tolls were compiled by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.
Despite the violence, Assad still has a firm grip on power, in part because the opposition remains fragmented and he retains the support of the business classes and minority groups who feel vulnerable in an overwhelmingly Sunni nation.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria, in part due to concerns that it could spread chaos around the region.
Sanctions, however, could chip away at the regime in the long-term, although Syria's staunch allies of Russia, China and Iran will help cushion the economic blow for a while.
But it is clear the unrest is eviscerating the economy, threatening the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.
The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent but hugely important sectors of society. But Assad's opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo – the two economic centers in Syria.
With the military's iron loyalty on his side, Assad likely sees the use of force as the only way he can survive because if the crackdown ends, the people would come out in force.
"They are asking (Assad) to get his tanks and soldiers out of the streets," said Timor Goksel, a professor at the American University of Beirut. "But he also knows as a dictator that if he takes his tanks out of the streets, then who takes the streets?"
___Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.