BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Syrians defied a violent government crackdown Friday, insisting they will not be terrified into submission through bullets, mass arrests and more than four months of attacks by security forces. At least five people were killed, activists said.
Friday marked a clear attempt by the opposition to present a united front against the Assad family dynasty, the only regime Syrians have known for more than 40 years.
«One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!» protesters shouted in the capital, Damascus, in what has become a weekly ritual, with hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets across the country demanding President Bashar Assad leave power.
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures. By some estimates, more than a million people were protesting Friday.
The Syrian conflict has become a test of wills between protesters emboldened by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and an entrenched family dynasty that refuses to relinquish power.
Although the protests are growing, a strong alternative to Assad has yet to emerge — in part because dissidents have long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled by the regime in Damascus.
But the uprising refuses to die, and some say the country is nearing a tipping point.
«The Assad regime faces a stark choice: change or be changed,» Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an analysis of the situation this week. «Either way, Syria will be a very different place by the end of this year.»
He added: «There seem to be two paths open to Syria. Either the regime will accept a new deal based on serious political reform and inclusion, or the country will drift toward civil war.»
Two special advisers to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned that there was a «serious possibility» that Syria has committed crimes against humanity.
In a statement, Francis Deng, the adviser on preventing genocide, and Edward Luck, the adviser of the responsibility to protect civilians in conflict, pointed to «persistent reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian security forces responding to anti-government protests across the country.»
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.
The uprising has brought long-simmering sectarian tensions to the surface.
In the central city of Homs, sectarian divisions already are erupting with deadly results. Over the past week, a wave of sectarian bloodshed has killed dozens, activists say.
Activists and protesters say the regime is stirring up sectarian fighting to discredit the protest movement. The government blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers, and has taken pains to portray itself as the only guardian against civil war.
During Friday’s demonstrations, protesters insisted they were driven by the desire for liberty, and their slogans and banners emphasized national unity.
«No to sectarianism, yes to freedom,» read a banner in the small northern coastal town of Jableh, where hundreds of young people covered their heads with the Syrian flag.
«They are trying to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and we insist that it is not,» another protester told The Associated Press by telephone from Hama.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was «appalled» by the continued violence in Syria, particularly in Homs.