BEIRUT — Protests in Syria swelled Friday to their largest numbers so far, as tens of thousands of demonstrators marched on the capital, Damascus, and in dozens of cities and towns across the country, witnesses said.
But unlike in earlier protests, state security forces appeared to withhold lethal force, firing into the air instead of on crowds — a possible sign that the government might be reassessing its approach to the uprisings that started here a month ago.
“It is an amazingly big day, both in the number of protesters and the number of towns and cities being bigger than ever before, and in that the regime response and the way they dealt with the protesters was exceptional,” said Wassim Tarif, director of Insan, a Syrian human rights organization. “This is the first Friday that we don’t have reports of people being killed in the country.”
Protests were reported in 46 towns and cities, including Daraa, Homs, Baniyas, Latakia, Aleppo and the Kurdish cities of Qumishli and Hasageh.
But although there were no reports of killings, the government arrested 172 people early Friday morning in and around Daraa, the city where the uprisings began and the focal point for many of the protests, Tarif said, adding that 43 people were arrested in the city of Sweida.
The Damascus march, which marked the first large-scale protests in the capital, began in Douma and picked up participants as it passed through the Damascus suburbs, witnesses said.
Shouting, “Freedom, freedom!” and “National unity, Muslims and Christians!” the crowd swelled as it moved toward al-Abbasiyeen Square in northern Damascus, where police blocked protesters from entering, witnesses said.
It was impossible to independently confirm the number of protesters beacuse foreign media have been restricted from reporting in Syria.
In Homs, protesters set fire to a statue of Hafiz al-Assad, the late father of the current president, said Tarif, who witnessed it. “They destroyed it. It was amazing,” he said, laughing.
Until Friday, the movement in Syria had been marked by government crackdowns, with security forces opening fire on crowds and arresting people en masse. In recent days, in apparent attempts to placate protesters, the government released many detainees, and on Thursday it announced a new cabinet.
Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, had been widely anticipated as an indicator of whether the opposition movement would subside or continue to gain steam.
The large turnout “means that people didn’t respond to the violence of the authorities,” said Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights activist and lawyer who was near the Damascus protests. “The authorities were trying to make people scared, but people responded in the opposite way, by going out in larger numbers.”
However, it is unclear if those numbers will be large enough to tip the balance in favor of protesters, said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
“There’s a serious issue for the regime in terms of people demonstrating throughout the country, but who’s doing it and what’s the extent of it is very hard to know,” he said. But, he added, “The longer it goes, the more difficult it is for the regime to calm things down.”
There has been a marked difference in the tenor of the protests. Whereas earlier ones called for greater freedoms and the lifting of a decades-long emergency law, more recent ones have increasingly called for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, 45.
“From alley to alley, from house to house, we want you out, Bashar,” Damascus protesters chanted Friday, playing on Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s vow to rid his country of rebels.
Assad’s government, considered one of the most repressive in the Middle East, has close ties with Iran, and on Thursday the Obama administration accused Iran of helping Syria stamp out the recent protests, a charge Syrian officials denied.
A Human Rights Watch report issued Friday said that Syrian security and intelligence services have arrested and tortured hundreds of protesters across the country since anti-government demonstrations began last month. Rights groups say 200 people have died in the the protests.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency reported that one soldier was killed and another wounded Friday morning in the port city of Baniyas, the site of earlier demonstrations this week.
The agency seemed confused on Friday, Tarif said, showing footage of protests but characterizing them as pro-regime, and hanging up on interviews with the Arabic news organizations al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.
“Their strategy wasn’t totally clear,” he said. “It was like they were waiting for instructions.”