BEIRUT: Hundreds of thousands of Syrians defied a violent government crackdown Friday, facing live fire and mass arrests in a repeat of ritual weekly protests that have now entered their fifth month.
At least four people were killed, activists said.The victims included one protester in Damascus, one in the northern city of Idlib, one in Homs and one in the northeastern city of Aleppo.
Friday marked a clear attempt by the opposition to present a united front against the Assad dynasty in a week marred by the emergence of sectarian violence, particularly in Homs, where up to 30 people were killed in clashes between Alawite, Christian and Sunni communities last weekend.
Demonstrations flared once again in pockets of the capital Damascus, where protesters chanted “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!”
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures. By some accounts, more than a million people were protesting Friday, but estimates of crowds and casualties varied widely.
Despite the wildly divergent figures, eyewitness accounts and video footage purporting to be from the eastern region of Deir al-Zour, Hama and Homs seemed to show significantly larger numbers on the streets.
Washington-based opposition figure and author Radwan Ziadeh said while anger over the continued use of force had motivated many to enter the streets, it also served to keep many would-be protesters at home.
“The only strategy in the mind of the regime to crack down the demonstrations is using force and killing more people, otherwise he will have 5 million or more on the street,” he told The Daily Star.
Although the protests are growing, a strong alternative to Assad has yet to emerge – in part because dissidents have long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled by the regime in Damascus.
But the uprising refuses to die, and some say the country is nearing a tipping point. “The Assad regime faces a stark choice: change or be changed,” Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an analysis of the situation this week. “Either way, Syria will be a very different place by the end of this year.”
He added: “There seem to be two paths open to Syria. Either the regime will accept a new deal based on serious political reform and inclusion, or the country will drift toward civil war.”
In Beirut, exiled Syrian activist Rami Nakhle said he believed the lower number of casualties Friday compared to previous weeks indicated a possible change of tactic by the Syrian state in the lead-up to Ramadan.
“In many places yesterday the Syrian forces did not intervene in protests – they allowed them to continue then made mass arrests later,” he said.TURN TO PAGE 10 FROM PAGE 1“Ramadan is around the corner and presents a big challenge to the regime,” he told The Daily Star.
“If the security forces continue killing people at the same rate they can expect a change in the reaction from other Arab States. Other Muslim countries will not tolerate killing of this scale during the month of supposed solidarity.”
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios presented.
The Syrian government is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.
The uprising has brought long-simmering sectarian tensions to the surface. In the central city of Homs, sectarian divisions are already erupting with deadly results.
Activists and protesters say the state is stirring up sectarian fighting to discredit the protest movement. The government blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers, and has taken pains to portray itself as the only guardian against civil war.
During Friday’s demonstrations, protesters insisted they were driven by the desire for liberty, and their slogans and banners emphasized national unity.
“No to sectarianism, yes to freedom,” read a banner in the small northern coastal town of Jableh, where hundreds of young people covered their heads with the Syrian flag.
“They are trying to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and we insist that it is not,” another protester told The Associated Press by telephone from Hama.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled” by the ongoing violence in Syria, particularly in Homs, where one person was reported killed.
“The regime has killed over 1,500 civilians and has blood on its hands,” Hague said in a statement Friday. “President Assad claims that he is holding Syria’s different factions together but his regime’s brutal violence in Homs and other cities risks inflaming these tensions.”
Police used batons, bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters in several places, including the northern Idlib Province, eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zour region and the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli, where several were reported wounded.