By LIAM STACK and KATHERINE ZOEPF
Published: April 15, 2011
The security forces’ apparent inability to keep protesters in different suburbs from converging in a large demonstration was ominous for the government, activists said.
Tens of thousands of protesters chanted, “Freedom! Freedom!” and “The people want to overthrow the regime!” as they marched into Damascus from its restive suburbs on Friday afternoon, according to Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights activist. Previously, the government had managed to hold a tense calm for weeks in the capital.
Ms. Zeitouneh estimated that the march began with 20,000 people in Douma, the site of large protests each of the past two weekends, and passed through a string of suburbs including Harasta and Arbeen, gathering new protesters as it went.
Security forces responded with live ammunition and tear gas, she said, but no deaths were reported and a witness said that the forces were firing into the air. At midday, the march was continuing to push toward Abbasayeen Square in the heart of Damascus, where traitors have traditionally been hanged. By the time the column of marchers had reached the city limits, it had snowballed into a potentially serious challenge for the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose 11-year tenure has been badly shaken by the recent weeks of unrest.
Analysts said that the less aggressive response to the demonstrations on Friday represented a sudden change in tack by the Assad government. “They were huge, they were massive, but what is most interesting is that they seem not to have been repressed,” Amr al-Azm, a Syrian historian, said of the day’s protests. “For the most part, the authorities let them demonstrate. Violence didn’t work, so they changed their strategy.”
He continued, “So far there’s been nothing of the serious dispersal methods that were used in recent weeks.”
But the Assad government’s campaign of arrests has remained vigorous, Mr. Azm added. “I think it’s ‘Let’s go out and photograph them and go to their homes later on and round them up,’ rather than busting up the protest in full view of the cameras that they seem unable to stop.”
Witnesses in Damascus said that the security services blocked roads and prevented most of the demonstrators from reaching Abbasayeen Square itself, but that at 9 p.m. in Damascus, marchers continued to surge toward it. A witness who was near the square as night fell said that despite dozens of cars filled with security personnel armed with assault rifles, tear gas was the only weapon being used against demonstrators shouting: “No more corruption and thieves! No more state of emergency!”
A government employee named Mahmoud, 31, said that he had gone to Friday’s protest because “Egyptians and Tunisians are not better than us.”
He continued: “Syria used to be the most democratic country in the region. In the past, no one could come to your house or shop and arrest you. We want to live in a free country with no emergency law and no Baath Party.”
Beyond the capital, there were reports of sizable protests in Homs and other cities and in the besieged southern town of Dara’a, which has been isolated behind a tight security cordon since the early days of unrest in mid-March. But there were far fewer reports of violence by the security services than there have been in recent weeks, and none of the deadly force that has killed more than 200 protesters in Syria to date, according to rights advocates.
The protests came despite measures announced on Thursday that were meant to mollify demonstrators.
“Why should we live in fear forever?” asked Omar, 25, a carpenter from Douma interviewed near Abbasayeen Square. “I want to say to the security forces, ‘When you kill or shoot some of us, we will come back next Friday in bigger numbers.’ ”
Friday began with a wave of early morning detentions in the Druse village of Sweida and in a string of villages around Dara’a. At least 43 people were detained in Sweida, said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group; by its count, at least 172 people had been arrested from 11 villages around Dara’a in the previous 24 hours.
Demonstrations were reported in towns that had not been affected by the unrest before, activists said. One of the largest was in Deir al Zour, a large town on the Euphrates River that is a center of Syria’s oil industry, where security forces used tear gas in the afternoon to try to disperse the crowd.
There were reports of violence in Latakia, a coastal town where security forces were said to have fired live ammunition into the air.
Ms. Zeitouneh said that her organization, the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, had been informed of two deaths in Latakia, but that they had not been confirmed. Protests were also reported in the towns of Qamishli, Amouda and El Darbeseya in northern Hasaka Province and in coastal Jebla.
Security forces also massed in the main square of Homs to preclude demonstrations there, Mr. Tarif said. In response, protesters gathered in scattered neighborhood rallies, he said. Television images showed security forces there opening fire on protesters. Shots can be heard booming across a palm-lined square in the images, broadcast on Al Jazeera, as groups of men run shouting toward the source of the sound.
A rights activist in Homs said, “What is happening today is bigger than the last few days.”
In Dara’a, thousands of protesters flooded the streets on Friday. Images on Al Jazeera showed people leaning over balcony railings to cheer and wave.
Protests continued in the predominantly Kurdish area of north Syria as well, but witnesses said the security forces there were out in smaller numbers and responding less harshly. Fouad Aleiku, a leading member of the Kurdish Yekiti Party, estimated that 3,000 people, both Kurds and Arabs, demonstrated in Mounir Habib Square in Qamishli, a town on Syria’s border with Turkey that has a large Kurdish population.
The protesters chanted for reform of the government rather than its overthrow, which may signal that officials are making progress in taming some protests through dialogue with local leaders. Mr. Aleiku, who took part in a meeting with the provincial governor last week, said, “If the president engages in true reforms, I think that is most important.”
Speaking at a news conference in Berlin, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called upon the Syrian government to stop repressing its citizens. “The arbitrary arrests, the detentions, the reports of torture of prisoners must end now,” she said.
Mr. Azm, the historian, said that he had been stunned at how quickly the protests had created momentum for change in Syria. “The regime has failed to impress people with both its basket of reforms and its campaign of intimidation and violence,” he said. “It’s to the point where, if they’re going to stay in power, they’ll have to either really massacre people or they’ll have to get very serious about reform.”