But there were signs that the country’s still largely leaderless protest movement has been revitalized by the signals of international support, as thousands of people turned out in dozens of locations across the country, their spirits buoyed by the calls from the United States and the European Union for Assad to step down, activists said.
In the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan, one of the capital’s few protest flash points, security forces opened fire with live ammunition almost immediately against hundreds of people who swarmed out of a local mosque after Friday prayers, in what has become a ritual over 23 weeks of protests.
Though the response was quicker and fiercer than usual, many of the protesters did not scatter but stood their ground and hurled stones as the bullets flew, according to an eyewitness and a scene from the encounter posted on YouTube.
“People today were really determined to stand up to them. When we heard the gunfire, a lot of people remained standing,” said the witness, an activist who was speaking via Skype from Damascus. “It was as if someone told us, ‘We have your back.’ We felt safer than before; we don’t feel isolated, because we know the international community doesn’t want this regime.”
The concern now, he and other activists said, is that the increasingly isolated government will feel it has no choice but to crack down more harshly, to crush the protest movement and head off any further attempts to replace Assad. In many locations around the country, the activist said, “we’ve entered a new phase now because what the U.S. has done is tell [Assad] there’s no way out now except to fight.”
Reem Haddad, a government spokesman, said Assad was expected to deliver an address to the Syrian people in the coming days to update them on his reform program, which, she said, Obama appeared intent on sabotaging with his call for the president to step down. “It is strange that instead of offering help to the reform program, Obama is seeking to bring more violence into Syria,” Haddad said.
Though the shootings on Friday appeared to contravene Assad’s assertion in a telephone call Wednesday night to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the military offensive had ended, Haddad said there was no contradiction.
Those opening fire were not army soldiers but regular security forces, and those being fired on were not protesters but “armed gangs causing havoc and terror,” she said.
Though Assad has repeatedly promised reforms, none has yet been implemented five months into the revolt, and U.S. officials have dismissed those offered as insufficient to address the scale of the discontent that has swept the country. An uprising that began with modest demands for reform has escalated into an outright rebellion in which the chief demand chanted by some protesters Friday was for “the execution of the president.”