BEIRUT — Syrian security forces killed at least 17 protesters Friday as hundreds of thousands flooded the streets nationwide in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the uprising began more than four months ago, witnesses and activists said.
In a significant show of the uprising's strength, thousands of protesters turned out in the capital, Damascus — the seat of the regime's power — which has been relatively quiet so far.
The crowds also took to the streets in areas where the government crackdown has been most intense, a sign that President Bashar Assad's forces cannot smother the increasingly defiant uprising.
The 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.
"All hell broke loose, the firing was intense," an activist in Daraa told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be published for fear of government reprisals.
The uprising is the boldest challenge to the Assad family's 40-year dynasty in Syria, one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East.
Assad, now 45, inherited power in 2000, but there were hopes that 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, 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that Assad "has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people" because of the brutal crackdown.
"I think we all share the same opinion that what we are seeing from the Assad regime is a barrage of words, false promises and accusations is not being translated into any path forward for the Syrian people," she told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey.
But, she said, it is up to the Syrian people to decide their own destiny.
David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the large numbers protesting in Damascus suggests more people are giving up on the regime because the momentum is with the uprising.
"Damascus is not Hama... it is not Daraa, it's not on the perimeter. This is the heart of the regime, and so I think if these protests continue and gain strength there, then it will be beginning of the end of the regime," he said.
The fallout would be difficult to predict because Syria is a highly unpredictable country, in part because of the regime's web of allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran. But serious and prolonged unrest would hurt the regime's proxy in Lebanon — Hezbollah — and weaken Iran's influence in the Arab world.
Friday's casualties included nine people in Damascus, two in the Damascus suburb of Douma, three in the northwestern city of Idlib, one in the central city of Homs and two in Daraa in the south, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, which have a network of sources on the ground.
Activists say the government crackdown on dissent has killed some 1,600 people, most of them unarmed protesters. The government disputes the toll and blames the bloodshed on gangs and a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife in Syria.
State-run Syrian TV said gunmen 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.
Syria has banned most foreign media and placed tight restrictions on reporters, making it difficult to independently confirm accounts out of Syria.
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.
"The number of protesters in Damascus shows that the uprising is gaining momentum week after week, day after day," said Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based human rights activist.
One of the largest protests took place in Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city and an opposition stronghold. An activist in the city said many people from nearby villages joined the protests.
He added that Hama, which has been out of government control since early June, is suffering from lack of medicine and food due to a siege by troops. He said diseases are spreading because garbage has not been collected over the past two weeks.
The Syrian opposition dedicated Friday's protests to the tens of thousands of people detained since the uprising began in mid-March. Activist say about 15,000 are still being held.
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