By late Friday, 81 people were confirmed dead, said Wissam Tarif, director of a Syrian human rights group. In at least 10 towns and cities, activists and witnesses said, government forces shot into crowds, beat protesters with batons and Kalashnikovs, and used tear gas against them.
It was the biggest single-day death toll in Syria’s six-week-old uprising, and it offered no sign that the Damascus government might give in to swelling demands for democratic change. Unlike the authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt that fell quickly in this year’s Arab revolutions, the Syrian authorities appear to retain tight control over the army and police.
On Saturday, thousands of mourners shouted slogans and demanded the overthrow of the Assad government at funerals across Syria for those killed during the protests.
In Washington, President Obama made his toughest statement to date on the situation in Syria, condemning the use of force “in the strongest possible terms” and calling on Assad to “change course now.”
For the first time, Obama directly blamed the Syrian president for the crackdown, saying Assad had placed his “personal interests” ahead of his people, and tied Syrian repression to Iran. But Obama stopped well short of calling on Assad to cede power. While his statement marked a sharp escalation in tone, it offered no indication that further U.S. action was being contemplated.
Late Friday, an administration official said that the White House was “looking at a range of possible responses to this unacceptable behavior” but declined to provide details. Among the options available are recalling the U.S. ambassador in Damascus — just months after the job was filled following a five-year vacancy — and removal of waivers granted on several trade items in recent years. Appeals could be made to the European Union, Syria’s largest trading partner, to adopt sanctions, and broader condemnation could be sought through the United Nations.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, reported only that “limited numbers” of demonstrators had taken to the streets and that security forces and police used “hoses and tear gas to settle scuffles’’ between protesters and citizens. It said eight people had been killed in a gunfight involving “masked individuals who opened fire” on military personnel.
Despite the bloodshed Friday, protesters showed no signs of stopping, and the demonstrations spread to cities including Homs and Qamishli, and to the suburbs of Damascus despite tanks and checkpoints stationed across the country to control them. Most foreign journalists have been expelled from the country, but accounts of the violence were provided by activists and other witnesses, along with images posted on YouTube that showed dead bodies and people in army uniforms shooting.