BEIRUT — Defying a stern warning from President Obama, Syrian forces opened fire on protesters after Friday prayers, killing at least 32 people as the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad showed no sign of easing its military crackdown.
The shootings came a day after Obama said that Assad that he should oversee a transition to democracy or “get out of the way,” marking the first time the U.S. leader has publicly called on the Syrian regime to change its behavior.
The continued assault illustrated how little leverage the United States holds over Syria, a country with which it has long had frosty relations, and whose leaders seem in no mood to back down from a brutal effort to suppress the protests by force.
With the protesters also showing renewed determination to brave bullets and tanks to take their challenge to the streets, the country appears locked in a bloody standoff that many fear will only escalate into further violence. Many Syrian activists now say that it may be too late for Assad to change course and offer reforms to a populace that has endured weeks of bloodshed and no longer trusts the regime to change.
“The regime has shown that it is betting on a strategy of violence to crush the opposition,” said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer who is in hiding in Damascus. “But everything that has happened shows that it is failing.”
Friday’s protests appeared to have been invigorated by the signs of intensified international pressure on a regime that until recently had heard little in the way of condemnation for its crackdown. Among the protests reported to have taken place in dozens of locations around the country Friday, some were in areas that have withstood heavy shows of government force, demonstrating the protesters’ resilience.
Obama’s comment, in a speech on Middle East policy addressing the upheaval sweeping the region, was the sharpest U.S. rebuke yet to the Assad regime, which has deployed tanks and used live ammunition and mass detentions in its efforts to crush the uprising.
Although Obama had previously issued a written statement condemning the violence, and other U.S. officials had stepped up their criticisms of Assad in recent days, it was the first time Obama had personally spoken out against the Syrian president.
Obama stopped short of calling for Assad’s departure, as most protesters now want. The rest of the international community has also been slow to condemn the Syrian regime, fueling a widespread perception that most world powers don’t want to risk the instability that could be triggered by the collapse of government in a country that lies at the intersection of most of the region’s conflicts.
Obama’s remarks therefore meant a lot to the Syrians who have been risking their lives for weeks in an effort to bring about change, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan.
“Syrian people felt abandoned, and when they heard Obama saying this to Assad, reform or leave, they didn’t feel alone any more,” he said. “People felt America was supporting him. Now that's off, so now he can leave.”
Because many Syrians believe Assad incapable of reform, they only heard the second part of the statement, he said. “The people already feel there is no point of return. This man is not a reformer,” he said. “The point of no return came before Obama’s speech, but what Obama did was announce it. Now people are saying, we can do it, he will have to leave.”
Friday’s violence may only hasten the point at which the Obama administration reaches the same conclusion, said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, who believes Obama’s comments marked only the start of an escalating pressure campaign against the Syrian leadership.
“It’s pretty clear that people in Washington are contemplating a post-Assad future,” he said. “Whether that’s sketched out in their minds or how it might happen isn’t clear.”
Friday marked the 10th consecutive week that protesters have taken to the streets and been shot at in what has become an escalating cycle of demonstrations, gunfire, arrests and more demonstrations. Syrian troops have also besieged and bombarded several of the top protest flash points, but even in some of those towns, protests have continued.
Among the dozens of towns where protests occurred was Baniyas, which was invaded by tanks two weeks ago and where every man aged 18 to 45 was detained in the town’s soccer stadium. Video posted on YouTube showed hundreds of protesters marching in Baniyas, chanting for the fall of the regime.
In addition to the 32 deaths, about 200 people were injured by gunfire aimed at protesters, and the toll could rise, said Tarif, the human rights activist.
There were reports of small-scale demonstrations in six neighborhoods of Damascus, a sign that the unrest may gradually be creeping into the capital, which has remained immune from the unrest elsewhere. Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, has also remained immune from the protests, although there have been several quickly quelled efforts over the past week by students to stage protests on the university campus there.
The absence of unrest in these two main cities illustrates the enormous obstacles the protesters still face in their campaign against the regime, suggesting that the bloodshed is likely only to continue.
One fear is that protesters, living in a heavily armed and volatile part of the Middle East, will become frustrated and acquire weapons, something that appears to have already occurred in at least one town near the border with Lebanon where there have been armed clashes between the opposition and the security forces.
But the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, and Zeitouneh, the human rights lawyer, said the opposition movement is determined not to take up arms.
“The people are insisting on a peaceful movement because this is their point of power,” she said. “They know they are powerful because they are peaceful.”