The scale of the protests suggest that the government’s repressive response has failed to dampen the protest movement, while reports of violent clashes between army units are raising questions about the regime’s much-vaunted cohesion.
Demonstrations erupted in Damascus, Homs, the coastal port of Banias and across eastern Syria. Significantly, the capital witnessed the largest anti-regime protest in its streets since protests began last month.
“There are thousands and thousands of people,” said Razan Zeitouneh, a Damascus-based human rights lawyer. “The whole country is on the streets.”
In Deir al-Zour, several thousand marchers chanted “not scared, not scared,” a reference to the violent crackdown in Deraa which the regime designed as a “shock and awe operation” to deter pro-democracy protesters.
Activists used the Facebook page of Syrian Revolution 2011 to call for mass protests following Friday prayers in solidarity with Deraa’s besieged citizens and to commemorate the killings of over 100 demonstrators last Friday.
The scale of the protests is reassuring activists concerned that the army’s invasion of Deraa might deter people from turning out.
Observers anticipated that today’s turnout would be an important indicator of the protest movement’s resilience and momentum, and whether the regime’s repressive strategy would succeed in intimidating would-be demonstrators.
“Friday will give us an indication of what is winning: Is it fear or is it the desire for change and freedom?” Wissam Tarif of the human rights monitor Insan had said. “There is an element of fear, but everyone is saying, ‘We want to go out because we don’t want to lose this.’”
Some activists anticipate that fissures may occur within the military and the regime’s ruling elite should the protests continue in defiance of the violent repression.
“There are some battalions that refused to open fire on the people,” said Ausama Monajed, a spokesman for the exiled Movement For Justice and Development. “Battalions of the 5th Division were protecting people, and returned fire when they were subjected to attacks by the 4th Division,” led by the president’s brother, Maher.
Some 200 mostly junior members of the ruling Baath Party resigned this week in a protest against the brutal crackdown, but divisions with the military are more significant. The armed forces’ will and capacity to suppress pro-democracy protests has been the single most significant factor separating the upsurges in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from less hopeful uprisings elsewhere in the region.
“It is the latest sign that cracks — however small — are developing in Assad’s base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago,” reports suggest.
If the reports of military mutiny this early in the uprising are true, “Assad’s military gambit seems to be backfiring,” says Abdulhamid, the Washington-based exile.
The experience of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya demonstrates that repression will not prevent regime collapse or stop people mobilizing, said the National Initiative for Change, a loose coalition of some 400 activists, incorporating domestic and exiled figures. The newly-formed opposition group called on President Bashar as-Assad to initiate a democratic transition or be overthrown.
The initiative is not “an authoritative umbrella group,” observers suggest, but the absence of central coordinated can be considered a strength of the movement.
“The reason it has been successful is because it has been leaderless. If there were prominent groups leading it they would be arrested on day one,” said Christopher Phillips, a Syria analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit:
A group of prominent U.S. senators called on the Obama administration to get behind Syria’s democracy movement and to call for Assad to step down. The European Union is likely to impose sanctions against the regime following a meeting today, although others argue that the region’s states should take the initiative.
The UK, France and Germany are pushing for travel bans and asset freezes against senior Syrian officials.
“Our credibility depends on rapid action,” states a background paper circulated prior to the meeting. But the briefing suggests that a hard-line clique may have assumed responsibility for implementing the crackdown.
“It is unclear to what extent President Assad is in charge and able to take key decisions,” it states.
A prominent exiled democracy advocate called on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent international commission of inquiry into the Syrian government’s actions.
The commission should “investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law and identify the alleged perpetrators,” said Dr.Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at George Washington University.
He was disappointed that Cairo’s new government is backing Damascus.
“Egypt has introduced amendments to a proposed UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution, according to which the council should not condemn the bloody governmental crackdown on peaceful protesters in Syria,” said Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The proposal is being debated at the 47-member UNHRC meeting in Geneva, but Russia and China are maintaining a block on any condemnation of the government’s violence.