An estimated 1 million Syrians took to the streets Friday to press for the ouster of President Bashar Assad, whose use of force and offers of dialogue have failed to stop a four-month revolt. At least 32 protesters were killed around the country, including more than 20 in the capital of Damascus.
In a significant show of the uprising's strength, thousands of demonstrators turned out in Damascus, which had seen only scattered
protests. Until now, much of the dissent against Assad has been in impoverished, remote areas.
"This is the heart of the regime," David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Associated Press. "So I think if these protests (in Damascus) continue and gain strength, it will be the beginning of the end of the regime."
Thousands of protesters in the city of Hama chanted, “The people want to bring the regime down,” according to footage aired by Al-Jazeera television.
The number of demonstrators nationwide easily totaled in the hundreds of thousands on Friday, according to the AP, which called the protests the largest since the uprisings began. Other reports have put the number at 1 million.
“The momentum is rising,” said Bahiya Mardini, head of the Arab Committee for Free Speech, a Syrian rights group based in Cairo. Mardini spoke to Bloomberg News in a telephone interview from Istanbul, where she was attending a meeting of Syrian opposition groups. “In the beginning we were worried about the future of the revolt. Not anymore.”
That sentiment was echoed by Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert.
“From what we are seeing the momentum is still building, in terms of the number of people who are coming out to these protests, the amount of cities which are involved in the protests, and also the fact that protests and now very much spreading beyond the usual Friday protests and also taking place on other days," he told the Voice of America.
Friday's protests have posed the biggest threat to Assad since he inherited power from his father 11 years ago. The uprising in Syria is part of a wave of unrest that has swept parts of the Arab world this year, toppling the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, before spreading to other countries including Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. Syrian security forces have killed more than 1,700 people since March, according to human rights groups.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the Syrian leader is not “indispensable,” a pointed reference to the increasing possibility that Assad could be toppled from power.
“What we are seeing from the Assad regime in its barrage of words, false promises and accusations isn’t being translated into any path forward,” Clinton said in Istanbul. “We have said that Syria can’t go back to the way it was before, that Assad has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people because of the brutality of that crackdown.”
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford predicted that Assad and his government were on the verge of being “washed away.”
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protesters," Ford said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, according to Agence France-Press.
"If it doesn't start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
Friday's protests stretched from Damascus and its suburbs to Hasakeh and Idlib provinces in the north, Daraa in the south and Latakia on the coast. Thousands converged on the flashpoint cities of Homs and Hama in central Syria, among other areas across the nation of 22 million.
Crowds chanted "We don't love you Bashar!" and "Leave Bashar!" before security forces and pro-regime gunmen opened fire with bullets and tear gas. Young men threw stones at security forces and shouted for the regime's downfall as they ran for cover.
"All hell broke loose, the firing was intense," an activist in Daraa, where the uprising began in March, told the AP. He asked that his name not be used, fearing reprisals.
Activists say the crackdown has killed some 1,700 people, most of them unarmed protesters. The government disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists — not true reform-seekers — are behind it.
Assad has acknowledged the need for reforms, but the opposition has been unwilling to negotiate while security forces fire on protesters.
Assad, 45, inherited power in 2000, and many believed the lanky, soft-spoken young leader might transform his late father's stagnant and brutal dictatorship into a modern state.
Over the past 11 years, however, hopes dimmed that Assad was a reformist at heart. As his regime escalates a brutal crackdown, it seems unlikely that he will regain political legitimacy.
One of the largest protests Friday took place in Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city and an opposition stronghold that has a history of dissent.
Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez, crushed a Sunni uprising in 1982 by shelling the town in a massacre that has been seared into the minds of Syrians, contributing to the pervasive sense of fear that silenced nearly every rumbling of dissent for decades.
Amnesty International has claimed that Hafez Assad's siege on Hama killed 10,000 to 25,000 people, although conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has made no official estimate.
An activist in Hama said many people from nearby villages joined the protests there Friday.
Although Assad's regime is shaken, he still draws from a significant well of support among the business community, the middle classes and religious minorities.
But the opposition is determined to build on the uprising's strength.
Some opposition figures were expected to meet Saturday in neighboring Turkey to discuss alternatives to Assad, and another 45 dissidents planned a conference in Damascus on Saturday to form a "shadow government" to prepare for Assad's ouster.
Syria without Assad would be difficult to predict, in part because of the regime's web of allegiances to powerful forces including Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Serious and prolonged unrest would hurt Hezbollah, the regime's proxy in Lebanon, and weaken Iran's influence in the Arab world. According to Haaretz.com, Hezbollah recently moved hundreds of missiles that it had been storing in Syria, transferring them to Lebanon over fears that Assad's regime would be overthrown.
Amid the upheaval from protesters, Syria's mosaic of religions and sects has made the potentially explosive situation even more dangerous.
The Assad regime 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 the president now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed Assad relatives, to crush the resistance.
State-run Syrian TV blamed gunmen for Friday's unrest, saying they opened fire at demonstrators and security forces, killing a civilian in Idlib, another in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun and a police officers in Homs. The TV added that eight policemen were wounded in Homs as well.
In the past, the regime pointed to the quiet streets of Damascus to argue that the protest movement is marginal and cannot threaten Assad's power. But Friday's protests will make it more difficult to dismiss the uprising.
"Of course the regime will view this as very dangerous," Schenker said. "They will react in the most ferocious manner."