- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2011

BEIRUT — Syrians closed their businesses and kept children home from school in several parts of the country Monday in a show of civil disobedience against the regime as a new and fierce round of clashes between troops and army defectors spread, activists said.

Amid the violence, President Bashar Assad’s regime pushed ahead with municipal elections that the opposition has dismissed as a meaningless concession that falls far short of their demands for Mr. Assad to give up power.

The call by opposition activists for an open-ended general strike starting Sunday, if widely heeded, could place added economic pressure on Mr. Assad’s regime at a time when it already is struggling with growing international sanctions and isolation.

A resident of Homs, the epicenter of the uprising, said only shops selling essential goods were open Monday.

“Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open,” he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees. There were signs it was being widely observed in particular in areas that are centers of anti-government protest.

Most shops and schools were shut Monday in the restive city of Homs and parts of the southern province of Daraa and the northwestern region of Idlib near the border with Turkey, activists said.

On Sunday, the activist group called the Local Coordination Committees said security forces were breaking into shops in Daraa province closed for the strike in an attempt to force them to open.

Residents in the capital, Damascus, said business continued as usual Sunday and Monday with shops, schools and other businesses operating normally.

Mr. Assad has spent years trying to open up Syria’s economy, which helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class even as the regime’s political trappings remained unchanged.

If the economy continues to collapse, Mr. Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country.

Still, Mr. Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no sign of easing his crackdown. Economic sanctions, however, could chip away at the regime in the long-run and erode his vital support base in the business community.

Activists said a new round of fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas Monday, raising fears the conflict is spiraling toward civil war.

The nine-month-old uprising against Mr. Assad has grown increasingly violent in recent months as defecting soldiers fight back against the army and once-peaceful protesters take up arms to protect themselves against the military assault.

The U.N. says nearly 5,000 people have been killed since March.