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Syrian protests spread into the work week, but regime holds firm

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BEIRUT — The number of towns and cities where demonstrations against the Syrian government took place wasn’t unusual, nor was the casualty toll of eight reported deaths.

But this wasn’t a Friday, the day when street protests normally occur, and when the government typically responds with shootings and detentions. It was Thursday, an ordinary workday in a country where four months of unrest have still not significantly disrupted daily life for most Syrian citizens.

As the Syrian uprising enters its fifth month, activists and human rights groups say they are detecting a new momentum in the protest movement, with demonstrations now taking place on a near-daily basis in towns around the country. Among them are places where the uprising had seemingly been suppressed, such as the southern town of Daraa, the earliest focus of the government’s crackdown, where hundreds of people staged a demonstration on Thursday in a central commercial district.

There were also demonstrations in several suburbs of Damascus, Homs, Hasakah in the far northeast of the country, Qamishli in the north, Bokamal on the Iraqi border and Deir al-Zour, where four protesters were shot dead by security forces, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which both coordinates and disseminates news about protests.

“The protests are definitely escalating. This is unusual during weekdays,” said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan, who is currently in Beirut. “For the past week, we’ve seen protests every night in many locations.”

At the same time, the casualty toll has also been creeping up. Though the worst violence of the earliest days of the uprising appears to have passed, it was unusual for eight people to be killed on a weekday. And dozens have been detained in recent days, human rights groups say, including around 30 actors, journalists and writers who staged what amounted to a celebrity demonstration in the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan on Wednesday night.

Among those arrested were soap opera doyenne Mai Skaf, movie star Nidal Hasan and brothers Mohammed and Ahmed Malas, renowned theater actors.

“The fact that a lot of famous people took part in a protest gained a lot of momentum for the anti-government demonstrations," said a Damascus-based activist, contacted over the Internet, who asked not to be named because he fears for his safety.

Some activists see the arrests as a sign that the government is also intensifying its crackdown. Until now, the authorities have trod softly in Damascus, fearful that harsh tactics there would unleash wider unrest in the capital, one of the few places that has remained relatively calm.

Indications that the international community is toughening its stance against the government headed by President Bashar al-Assad are also fueling fears that the crackdown will escalate. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Assad had “lost legitimacy,” and there are signs that European leaders are leaning toward withdrawing their support from the regime.

“The protests are intensifying, but also after Clinton’s statement, I think everyone is expecting the government’s reaction now to be much harder, especially in Damascus,” said another Damascus-based activist who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Adnan. “The regime sees that it has lost international support, and now it has nothing to lose if it attacks more harshly to shut down the protests.”

The protest movement has nonetheless been encouraged by the tougher statements emanating from Washington, which may also persuade the many ordinary people who have not yet taken a stand to turn against the regime, said Amr al-Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is an active member of the opposition.

“It won’t so much encourage people to join the opposition, but it may allay the fears of those who have been holding back because they fear the West will ultimately cut a deal with the Assads,” he said.

However, with tanks reported to be converging on several major protest centers ahead of the weekly demonstrations expected Friday, there was little sign that the authorities’ resolve to crush the protests was weakening.

The government also claims the momentum is swinging its way, following a national dialogue conference earlier this week at which proposals for reform were drawn up by a mostly loyalist list of participants.

“I feel much better than I did two months ago,” said Assad’s adviser Buthaina Shaaban in an interview earlier this week in Damascus, citing evidence that some Syrians are withdrawing their support from the protest movement amid fears that the standoff risks drifting into sectarian violence.

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