The Arabic Al-Jazeera news channel reported that some soldiers were objecting to firing on civilians and that clashes had broken out between separate Army units in Deraa. The minority Alawite sect – a Shiite offshoot – forms the backbone of the regime and controls the Army and intelligence apparatus in Syria, but the Army’s ranks are mainly composed of Sunnis.

It has been widely speculated that if troops are ordered to use increasing force against civilian protesters, cracks may emerge – possibly along sectarian lines – within the military which could have far-reaching consequences for the durability of the regime.

In the early stages of the uprising in Deraa, a soldier from the Sunni city of Homs was allegedly shot dead for refusing to open fire on protesters. Since then, there have been numerous unverified reports of soldiers and even senior officers being shot for refusing to obey orders.

Last week, Gen. Abdo Khodr Tellawi from Homs was killed with his two sons and a nephew.