BEIRUT — Scores of people staged rare rallies across Syria on Friday ahead of the fifth anniversary of their peaceful uprising that eventually descended into an apocalyptic civil war.
The unarmed protests in rebel-held areas took place under the cover of a partial cease-fire — backed by the United States and Russia — that has reduced violence and endured for nearly two weeks, despite violations and expectations of a swift collapse.
Anti-government activists released photos and video showing crowds gathered in the al-Waer neighborhood of Homs, areas of the northwestern province of Idlib and other parts of the country. Many were seen waving pro-opposition flags and belting out revolutionary chants — “Down with the regime!” — in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the 2011 revolt, before President Bashar al-Assad’s military used lethal force to suppress the nonviolent, Arab Spring-inspired rallies.
Observers consider March 15 of that year the formal beginning of the revolt, with protests erupting in the capital, Damascus. Since then, all-out fighting that drew in regional and world powers has killed 250,000 people, uprooted millions — sending waves of Syrian refugees as far away as Europe, Canada, Australia and South America — and empowered extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
Friday’s rallies, signaling enduring defiance of Assad, came as the main opposition group announced that it would participate in U.N.-sponsored peace talks that are scheduled to begin in Geneva on Monday.
In a statement, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee emphasized its desire to focus on a political transition during the proximity talks, which are to involve mediators shuttling between government and opposition representatives.
The Syrian government has not formally said whether it would participate in the talks, although almost all expectations are that it will.
“We have decided to go to Geneva to speak to the United Nations for the Syrian people, who have shown in recent days that the spirit of freedom remains as strong as ever,” HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said in a statement.
HNC officials this week have emphasized the opposition’s long-running demand that Assad leave power and maintain no role in the country’s future. They also demand the release of detainees held in government jails and the delivery of humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of people in besieged communities across the country.
“We will not accept Assad being imposed on Syria as Putin’s puppet,” Meslet said in the statement, a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of the Syrian leader whose military began launching airstrikes against opposition fighters in late September.
The Russian-supported attacks have turned the tables in favor of Assad’s forces, dealing heavy blows to opposition forces near the strategic northern city of Aleppo. The assaults, also involving Shiite pro-government militiamen from Lebanon and Iran, throttled a brief round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks last month.
Russia and the United States brokered a cease-fire agreement that went into effect Feb. 27. That agreement does not include designated terrorists such as the Islamic State, and government and opposition groups have cited multiple violations.
The lull in fighting has helped the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, coax the warring parties back to negotiations.