Syria Hit by Wave of Protests

Thousands of people protested against the government in cities around Syria after prayers on Friday, activists and residents said in telephone interviews, despite the announcement a day before of new measures seemingly aimed at addressing the protesters’ demands.

The protests, organized via social networking sites and using Friday prayers as a meeting point, appeared to pose a critical test of the strength of the movement, which in a little more than two weeks has posed an unprecedented challenge to the four-decade iron rule of President Bashar al-Assad and his family.

The government announced on Thursday that it was creating committees to address the protesters’ concerns but failed to promise immediate action and the move appeared unlikely to quell the rising tide of unrest. In a speech on Wednesday President Assad pointedly refused to make concessions.

In the capital, Damascus, witnesses said thousands had gathered for the second week in a row at Al Rifai mosque and were met there by security forces and plain-clothed government supporters who barricaded them inside.

West of Damascus more than 1,000 protesters clashed with security forces in the town of Douma; witnesses said protesters had stood their ground as security forces beat them and fired into the air in an attempt to disperse them.

A large number of protesters gathered in the southern city of Dara’a, where the unrest began two weeks ago, residents said, and there were protests in at least five cities in the Kurdish north. Fouad Aleiku, a leading member of the Kurdish Yakipi Party, said in a telephone interview that more than 2,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets in the town of Qamashli.

In Dara’a, Ahmed Al Sayasna, the imam who led Friday prayers at the city’s central mosque, said he had delivered a sermon that “stood with the demands of the people.”

“I told the people that they should be happy because Dara’a is the home of martyrs,” Mr. Sayasna said. “We have a history of demanding freedom and of martyrdom.”

Tension mounted in Dara’a on Friday as security forces deployed in large numbers, and military units manned checkpoints ringing the city, Mr. Sayasna said.

Last week security forces killed five or six protesters outside of Al Omari mosque when they tried to disperse a crowd using live ammunition and tear gas. Activists from Syrian Human Rights Information Link say 73 people have been killed by security forces in the city since the protests began.

Activists said protesters had also gathered in the mostly Kurdish northern towns of Amouda, Hasaki, Ras Aleen and Tal Namer. Many chanted: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, O Dara’a.”

Mr. Aleiku said security forces were also present in the northern cities on Friday but at midday appeared not to be engaging with demonstrators, who mainly consisted of young men demanding political reforms. He said demonstrators had chanted “Freedom is not a foreign conspiracy or call to sectarian division,” in response to the Wednesday speech in which President Assad accused protesters of advancing “an Israeli agenda” against Syria and said they had been “duped” or were conspiring to destroy the nation.

Analysts said the committees formed by Mr. Assad’s government amounted to little more than window dressing. According to the state news agency, one was appointed to investigate deaths in Dara’a and Latakia, another city where the government has cracked down on protesters. Syrian Human Rights Information Link has documented the names of 103 people killed across the country since the protests began March 15, including 10 in Latakia. It was not clear if the number for Latakia included protesters killed on Wednesday night.

The government also announced the creation of a committee to study lifting the emergency law imposed in 1963 and replacing it with legislation “that secures the preservation of the country’s security, the dignity of citizens and combating terrorism,” according to the news agency. Lifting the emergency law has been a major demand of the protesters. Among its provisions, it suppresses dissent and allows security forces to detain people without charge.

“It is clear from Bashar’s speech that he is threatening Syrians who go to the street,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington. “He ended the speech by saying, ‘This is a battle and we are ready to fight it.’ But against who?”

The Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011, which has more than 100,000 fans, urged Syrians to take to the streets on Friday. “What we have understood from the speech is that we have no choice but to remove the regime,” the group said in a statement posted Thursday.

Activists expressed little faith that the government would expand political freedoms in any meaningful way. Mr. Ziadeh said he feared that replacing the emergency law with antiterrorism laws would be only a cosmetic change. “They will put the same restrictions on basic rights into the terrorism law that they put into the emergency law,” he said. “The emergency law might be lifted but the state of emergency that governs every aspect of our lives will be the same.” NYT