msnbc.com news services
updated 6/16/2011 8:26:42 PM ET 2011-06-17T00:26:42

Syrian security forces fanned out through villages and towns in the northern province of Idlib on Thursday, randomly hauling in males over age 16 as the government worked to silence a center of anti-regime protest.

In this border region, where thousands of Syrian civilians have fled to havens in Turkey, Turkish officials were preparing to send food, clean water, medicine and other aid to thousands more stranded on the Syrian side.

The unusual plan for a cross-border operation on Syrian soil appeared to have Syrian clearance, being announced by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after he met with an envoy from President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.

"We have taken precautions and humanitarian aid will be supplied for around 10,000 people who are waiting on the Syrian side of the border," Davutoglu said. He also reiterated Turkey's support for major democratic reform in Syria.

The random detentions were concentrated around the major towns of Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Numan and in nearby villages, an area where the army has massed troops for days in apparent preparation for a fresh military operation, Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Osso reported. He said at least 300 people were being detained daily.

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He also said troops opened fire early Thursday on the outskirts of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 on the highway linking Damascus with Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo. No casualties were reported.

Another source, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and buses carrying security forces were deploying around the town of Khan Sheikhon, south of Maaret al-Numan, and residents were fleeing.

Since anti-government protests erupted in mid-March, inspired by democratic revolutions in autocrat-ruled Tunisia and Egypt, President Assad has unleashed the military in area after area to crush street demonstrations. Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed, and 10,000 have been detained.

The most recent resistance, in Idlib province, appeared also to pose the most serious threat of an armed opposition base being established within Syria.

Turkey already is hosting 9,00 Syrians who have fled the Idlib crackdown, a refugee stream that has been an embarrassing public spectacle for Damascus, which has banned foreign journalists in order to control coverage of the uprising.

Syria has appealed to the refugees to return to the flashpoint town of Jisr al-Shughour, saying it's now safe. But many sound unconvinced.

‘They would kill us'
Asked by The Associated Press about the appeal, a refugee who identified himself as Ali replied: "Do you believe that? They would kill us." He said troops were "firing at anything" in Jisr al-Shughour.

The Syrian government blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists — not true reform-seekers — are behind it. The government also has denied there are any cracks in the military, amid rumors Sunni Muslim army conscripts are refusing to fire on civilians.

The rumors point up Syria's potentially explosive sectarian divide. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But the president now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed Assad relatives, to crush the resistance.

Late Wednesday, a lieutenant colonel and four privates deserted the Syrian army and fled to Turkey, Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency reported. They would be joining a number of civil servants and other soldiers and police officers already sheltering in the refugee camps, it said.

Syria's state-run news agency on Thursday said Assad expressed confidence that "Syrians will get out of this crisis stronger and more coherent."

But Davutoglu said after meeting the Syrian envoy, former army chief of staff Hassan Turkmani, that Turkey believes Syria should put into motion a "comprehensive reform process for democratization."

'Revolting' actions
"Yesterday, I clearly saw fear in the eyes of those people and I shared it with him," he said of a visit to the camps. "We believe that the determination for reform should be more clearly communicated to both the people of Syria and the international community."

NBC News reported that actress Angelina Jolie, a supporter of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, plans to visit a refugee camp in Turkey on Friday.

In Washington, the State Department reiterated U.S. condemnation of what it called the Assad government's "revolting" actions. "We've been struck in the last couple of weeks that Assad's repression has only served to pour gasoline on the fire for change," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

She also said the U.S. is stepping up contacts with Syrian dissidents inside and outside the country, but she wouldn't elaborate.

Also Thursday, the Assad regime appeared to be making a concerted effort to dampen growing rage aimed at the ruling elite — specifically Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf , who controls the mobile phone network and other lucrative enterprises in Syria and who has been the target of many protesters' rage.

Makhlouf held a news conference in Damascus in which he said the profit from his 40 percent shares in the mobile phone network, SyriaTel, will go to charity, and he will no longer enter into any "personal projects."

His comments were a stark turnaround from May, when he told The New York Times in a defiant interview that the ruling elite in Syria will "fight until the end."

The announcement came on the eve of weekly Muslim prayers, which have usually witnessed the biggest protests and the heaviest bloodshed of the three-month unrest, and as army units circled two restive towns in the north of the country.

Makhlouf controls several businesses including Syria's largest mobile phone operator, duty-free shops, an oil concession, airline company and hotel and construction concerns, and shares in at least one bank.

He has been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2007 for what Washington calls public corruption, as well as EU sanctions imposed in May, but repeatedly maintained he was a legitimate businessman whose firms employ thousands of Syrians.

A childhood friend of Assad's who expanded his business since the president assumed power 11 years ago, Makhlouf will channel his wealth into charity and development projects, according to state media.

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Inside Syria: Ghost town overrun by troops

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