Syrian government supporters rally for President Bashar Assad

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REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Tens of thousands of demonstrators thronged the Syrian capital Wednesday without facing any threats of a police crackdown.

Those jamming into Saba Bahrat Square in Damascus rallied in rambunctious support of embattled President Bashar Assad, whose huge portrait, flanked by a Syrian flag, looked down on the multitudes as they chanted pro-Assad slogans.


The show of strength was meant to demonstrate that Assad maintains considerable support in Syria, especially in Damascus, which has largely been spared the violence and large-scale antigovernment rallies seen in cities like Homs and Hama.

The government has sponsored many pro-Assad rallies, but this appeared to be the largest to date — a fact that may indicate how seriously the regime takes the current challenge to its longtime dominance.

Some marchers, state media reported, also voiced their gratitude to Russia and China, whose double-veto last week scuttled a United Nations resolution that sought to condemn the Assad regime’s crackdown on protesters.

Both China and Russia have since urged Assad to implement reforms,though many anti-Assad activists view the two nations’ admonitions more as a belated face-saving tactic than a sincere call for democratic reform.

The Syrian government blames terrorists and ‘foreign interference’ for the violence that, according to the United Nations, has left almost 3,000 dead since street protests began almost seven months ago.

The state news agency said more than 1 million people took to the streets Wednesday, denouncing ‘seditious calls for sabotage backed by foreign agendas.’ The rally was organized via the social networking site Facebook, the government said.

One subtext was a rebuff of the Syrian National Council, the newly formed opposition umbrella group that seeks Assad’s ouster and plans to seek foreign recognition. Damascus appears to take the diplomatic threat seriously: The foreign minister has warned that Syria would retaliate against any government that recognizes the council as the representative of the Syrian people.

Meantime, Al Jazeera English reported that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of the gulf state of Qatar, urged Assad to speak with the opposition group.

‘If the Syrian government and the council, which I think has been given legitimacy from the protesters, can start talks on a new constitution to maintain the Syrian values and build its future, that would be a good step,’ said the Qatari leader, who was an early supporter of the Libyan opposition council that ultimately supplanted Moammar Kadafi in Libya.

As ‘Arab Spring'-inspired protests gripped Libya, Kadafi’s regime also organized huge pro-government rallies in the streets of Tripoli, the capital. In Libya, the pro-Kadafi masses seamlessly dropped their green pro-Kadafi flags for the rebel tricolor.

But analysts generally argue that the Syrian government — with its professional army, its international allies and its considerable domestic backing — is better equipped than was Kadafi’s regime to survive the dissident threat.


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-- Patrick J. McDonnell