Syrian security forces have killed at least two people as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flooded the streets on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, a time that many activists hoped would become a turning point in the uprising.
But more than five months into the revolt against President Bashar Assad, the conflict has descended into a bloody stalemate with both sides showing no sign of giving in.
Activists chose “patience and determination” as the theme of Friday’s protests across the country of 22 million.
“We are here to tell the regime that nothing is finished, nothing will finish and we will not stay at home like you want us to,” a protester said by telephone from the central city of Homs, where he said thousands poured into the streets.
He asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.
The regime got a boost on Friday from its ally in neighboring Lebanon, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. The group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, echoed the regime’s claims that the unrest in Syria was being driven by a foreign conspiracy seeking to destabilize the regime because of its support for anti-Israel resistance groups.
“Those who are pushing toward sectarian strife in Syria want to destroy the country,” Nasrallah said in a nationally televised speech to mark the last Friday of Ramadan.
Assad’s backers portray him as the only man who can guarantee peace in a country with a potentially volatile mix of religious groups. The opposition, however, says the protest movement is free of sectarian overtones and is simply demanding freedom and democracy.
Human rights groups say Assad’s forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Friday has become the main day for protests, despite the near-certainty that tanks and snipers will respond with deadly force.
The government crackdown escalated dramatically at the start of Ramadan, a time of introspection and piety characterized by a dawn-to-dusk fast. Muslims typically gather in mosques during the month for special nightly prayers after breaking the fast, and the Assad government used deadly force to prevent such large gatherings from turning into more anti-government protests.
The protesters still took to the streets, although generally in smaller numbers.
The regime has banned most foreign journalists and placed tight restrictions on local coverage.
Najib al-Ghadban, a US-based Syrian activist and political science professor at University of Arkansas, said the sweeping arrest campaign, military crackdown and heavy security presence across Syrian cities managed to keep a large number of protesters off the streets.
“This affected the protest movement but did not stop it,’’ he said. “This proves that for protesters, there is no going back.”
The swiftly crumbling regime in Libya also has buoyed the Syrian protesters, who have taunted Assad with chants of, “You’re next, Bashar!”
Many protesters also expressed solidarity with Ali Ferzat, 60, a renowned political cartoonist who was grabbed after he left his studio early on Thursday and beaten by masked gunmen who broke his hands and dumped him on a road outside Damascus. He was recovering on Friday.
In Hama, Ferzat’s hometown, a banner read: “Ali Ferzat, we are with you ’til death.”