Syrian protests, expected to wane, grow stronger
In a striking show of strength, the popular movement opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad took to the streets in large numbers nationwide, defying a campaign of violence and mass detentions by security forces.
Protesters’ exuberance in demonstrations from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to its eastern border, and from the north to the south, appeared to catch authorities and even some activists off guard. Assad’s aides had claimed in recent days to have gained the upper hand. Some activists had tried to lower expectations for the protests, which were held after Friday prayers.
Instead, the size and scale of the civil disobedience appeared to show a new level of determination by a movement now loudly demanding an end to the 48-year-old regime controlled by Assad and a small group of relatives and cohorts.
Robust demonstrations were held in the capital, Damascus, including in the Muhajireen district close to Assad’s residence, a sign the unrest was spreading to the very center of power.
“We knew that there would be a high price to pay for our freedom, but we’ve taken the first steps now, finally, and we will not turn back,” said a 50-year-old Damascus woman who took part in the protests, speaking on condition she not be named.
Protests also erupted in and around the besieged cities of Homs and Dara, where tanks have fired at residential neighborhoods and security officials have conducted house-to-house raids.
“Zenga, zenga, dar, dar, we want your head, Bashar!” protesters chanted in Homs, a highly satirized phrase borrowed from Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi to emphasize his determination to fight the ongoing rebellion against his rule alley by alley and house by house.
It remained unclear whether the protests and the country’s leaderless opposition could bring about the downfall of Assad’s Baath Party regime, which appears to maintain a tight grip on security forces.
A group calling itself the National Council for the Support of the Syrian Democratic Uprising has been gathering signatures for a statement, obtained by The Times, demanding that security forces stop killing, arresting and besieging Syrians; avoid dragging the army into a battle with the people; end a propaganda campaign by the official media; release detainees; and investigate human rights abuses. It also called for a new constitution that ends the Baath Party’s monopoly on power.
By many accounts, it was a banner day for Assad’s opponents. According to a trove of video uploaded to the Internet, protests broke out from the coastal city of Baniyas to the far eastern cities of Dair Alzour; in the ethnic Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Amouda; and in restive suburbs and satellite cities that ring Damascus. In one video recorded in the village of Kafr Nabil, onlookers are seen tossing rose petals at protesters marching by.
“With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for the martyrs,” demonstrators chanted in the northern city of Raqqa.
The government crackdown has alarmed an international community seeking to support pro-democracy movements inspired by revolutions this year in Egypt and Tunisia. Uprisings in Syria, Bahrain and Libya have stalled as authorities have responded with violent force and repression.
As the strife has intensified in Syria, Obama administration officials have stepped up their condemnations and said privately that they may expand U.S. sanctions to include more Syrian leaders, possibly including Assad.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Friday that “absent significant changes in the Syrian government’s current approach, the U.S. and its international partners will take additional steps to make clear our strong opposition to the Syrian government’s treatment of its people.”
Still, U.S. officials stopped short of saying that Assad had lost legitimacy, as they did of Kadafi and now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The extent of the latest protests in Syria, whose regime is a linchpin of the volatile region’s security architecture, surprised analysts and Western diplomats who had assumed the crackdown was slowing the momentum of the 2-month-old uprising.
Activists said at least six protesters were killed Friday. In one bit of video said to have been recorded in Damascus, shots are heard as protesters run for cover. “They are killing someone over there!” a man shouts.
Still, security forces appeared to limit their use of lethal force Friday, in what analysts and activists have speculated is a move toward tactics used by Iranian authorities to quell that nation’s 2009 uprising.
Citing human rights groups, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Friday that 700 to 850 people had been killed in Syria’s unrest, which was sparked by the detention and torture of teenagers accused of writing political graffiti in the southern city of Dara.
Authorities initially responded to the uprising by firing on unarmed demonstrators, but that failed to stop the demonstrators, and officials have switched to a campaign of mass arrests, imprisonments and physical abuse. Human rights activists say at least 9,500 people have been detained, with some in Dara and Baniyas rounded up and herded into soccer stadiums. One video shows a woman being stuffed into a van near Damascus’ Arnous Square.
A man in his 30s, who works as a cleaner at a Damascus office, said he was recently picked up by plainclothes security officers in a random sweep of his neighborhood that netted about 170 people. He said he was taken for questioning to a makeshift detention center and forced to watch as security officials reviewed video of the protests in his district. He was released when they were satisfied that his face did not appear in any of the images.
“Those spotted in the clips were taken away to an unknown location,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The regime has also begun increasing the use of irregular forces, called shabiha, to squelch the rebellion.
“We are about to root out the rats from Homs and from every other place in Syria,” said Fadi, a self-described shabiha member in that city who declined to give his last name.
But the Friday protests strongly suggest that authorities have little control without the presence of specialized military units, often led by Assad’s relatives or members of his Alawite sect.
One amateur video posted to the Internet shows a group of men climbing atop an office building in the western city of Hama and tearing down a huge portrait of Assad amid loud cheers and whistles.
In Homs, protests broke out even in the Bab Amr district, which has been under military siege and subject to mass arrests, with the protesters’ demands becoming harsher and more insulting.
“There’s no more diplomacy in the slogans they are adopting,” said an activist reached there by telephone. He described young men cursing in the face of security officials. “They’re looking death in the face,” he said.
For the first time since the weekly protests broke out, large numbers of women were seen in video from the town of Harra, near Dara, and in Hama.
In one clip, a group of veiled women clap their hands and march down a road in Harra chanting, “Yallah, go away Bashar.”
Special correspondents Alexandra Sandels and Roula Hajjar in Beirut, a special correspondent in Syria and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.
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